07 Jul COVID, The Commercial Sex Industry, and Sex Trafficking
By Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco
At this point, the coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of American life, from how we work and educate to how we socialize and shop. As such, it is no surprise that it has also affected our commercial sex industry, from supply and demand to the number of victims at risk of sex trafficking.
On April 11, 2018, President Donald J. Trump signed into law the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). This legislative package was aimed at stemming the tide of sex trafficking by criminalizing websites that hosted commercial sex advertisements online. While some American-based websites were shut down or shuttered, such as Backpage.com, most commercial sex advertisement and review forums continued to flourish and operate overseas. These sites provide mediums for the sale of commercial sex services, as well as the exchange of information between commercial sex consumers.
Given the clandestine nature of the commercial sex industry and sex trafficking, these websites are also used as a critical tool by researchers, as well as law enforcement, service providers, and anti-trafficking practitioners to gather information on trends, processes, and prevalence.
According to these commercial sex advertisement and review forums, COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way that commercial sex services are bought and sold in the United States. Many commercial sex providers have paused the provision of services or changed the ways in which services are exchanged; for example, only allowing certain sexual positions that increase facial distance, only taking established clients, or new requirements on the use of hand sanitizer before, during, and after sexual service provision.
While some established commercial sex providers have instituted a moratorium on service provision or become more cautious in the way that services are exchanged, consumers report an uptick in the number of new women offering services. Marginalized populations with limited economic opportunity have been known to engage in “survival sex” as a method for making ends meet during financial crisis. Sex traffickers also take advantage of these situations to facilitate recruitment and control of new victims, who may be having a difficult time meeting their basic needs.
Commercial sex consumers, on the other hand, have largely been abstaining from procuring services, which they colloquially refer to as “hobbying” or “mongering.” Many of these men are older and are at high risk of developing the deadly COVID-19 breathing complications, which is enough to deter them from their inherently risky “hobby.” According to one senior member of a commercial sex consumer forum, “I have stopped contact with everybody except my wife, and her the same with me. That includes all other family members. Mongering at this time seems unthinkably reckless to those I care about.”
Although this may be viewed as a “win” by anti-trafficking advocates, since there is a lull in commercial sex consumerism, these men are just biding their time until they can further sexually exploit women. According to one commercial sex consumer, “At some point the girls will have fewer and fewer options for income and it can only benefit guys. This is Econ 101 stuff.” Essentially, the increase in supply and decrease in demand will result in price suppression that will force these women to service more men, perform services that they may not necessarily consent to under normal circumstances, or rely on pimps or sex traffickers to make ends meet.
Many of the commercial sex services currently being exchanged during the quarantine are with victims of sex trafficking and not consenting adult sex workers. More men posting on commercial sex review forums are detailing exchanges with financially “desperate” individuals or those who are in predatory situations, such as involving pimps or suspected minors.
Ultimately, when the coronavirus quarantine is fully lifted and life returns to normal, our country may be faced with the largest commercial sex industry in U.S. history, but more importantly a surge in the number of women and children being sex trafficked. Not only are legislators and law enforcement completely oblivious and ill-prepared to address this impending collateral consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to combat sex trafficking prior to this crisis have been misguided. “Anti-trafficking legislation,” such as the FOSTA-SESTA package, has made no measurable impact on the prevalence of sex trafficking, much less the number of victims rescued and offenders prosecuted.
After the quarantines are lifted, we will find an unprecedented number of women and children trafficked into the commercial sex industry. It is imperative for us to prepare accordingly and implement evidence-based interventions to stem the tide of sexual exploitation in America, first and foremost by providing aid to those who may otherwise turn to survival sex to make ends meet during this difficult time and by empowering law enforcement with the resources needed to better prosecute sex traffickers who exploit these vulnerable populations.