COVID 19 and Sex Trafficking (Part 4)
Summary-In the middle of March as the entire world was scrambling to find ways to limit the spread of the coronavirus, we took a snapshot of the underground commercial sex economy (UCSE) to see how this illicit market was being affected. At that time, both supply and demand did not significantly change, and the buyers were being more exploitive and demeaning in their sexual interactions. Since then, major markets that have been heavily locked down, predominantly New York City, have seen a drop in demand but the supply remains steady. In other markets across the U.S., the industry continued largely as normal. This is reinforced every day by quotes like this from a buyer- “Personally, I am NOT planning on giving up sex while this ‘crisis’ plays out.”
We should not be shocked when sick, selfish, and abusive people continue to be sick, selfish, and abusive.
In this final assessment of COVID 19 and its impact on UCSE, we will look at the current situation and what we think will happen into the summer and fall of 2020. Be prepared. Sex trafficking, as a lucrative business, is at an all-time low, but the vulnerability for minors to be exploited is at an all-time high. The underground commercial sex economy is a service industry that relies on discretionary income. Disruptions like pandemics and severe economic downturns negatively affect the demand while increasing the supply. Fear, isolation, poverty, and hardship have long been associated with a spike in supply. Women and girls, who would otherwise be more immune from getting trapped in sex trafficking, are taking risks, flirting around the edges of it, and even rationalization some more risky behavior to support themselves and oftentimes their families. Predators will exploit this vulnerability and buyers will take advantage of this inequity.2 Demand / Buyers- COVID 19 has impacted demand in several ways. Demand is inhibited by the inability to move freely and take advantage of the anonymity and privacy that travel provides. Men stuck at home with their families have less opportunity to leave and go purchase sex. We are even seeing this reflected in the drop in Pornhub viewing. Men do not have the privacy to view porn, let alone act on impulses to meet for sex. Data is showing that the demand is down in the cities and areas most affected and “locked down” by COVID 19. This is supported by collection and analysis of posts and exchanges found on Hobby Boards and Forums where sex buyers discuss their “hobby” of buying sex. The drop in demand is directly correlated to the stay at home orders that came at different times across the country. 3 Buyers often purchase women from work and set the “date” up for a lunch time encounter or during travel to and from work. A quick stop to have sex with a prostitute is more common than most people think, and we have the data to show it. Stings throughout the years consistently show that employees “brazenly sent emails to brothels and pimps from their company accounts,” and brothels are even known to advertise how close they are to offices. 4 Emails are sent from work accounts because they can provide some anonymity for the buyer, some secrecy from a spouse, and often to satisfy requests from pimps to prove the buyer is not law enforcement.5 According to authorities, these services do not come cheap – some of the men spent $30,000 to $50,000 a year on illicit sex.6 One of the
LE text exchanges with a buyer was quoted as “If I can get the kids down to nap for a while, maybe I can get out to meet you.”7
A drop in discretionary funds, the inability to hide illicit actions, and the simple fear of contracting COVID have impacted demand but it will likely rebound quickly. As restrictions are lifting, we are already beginning to see things return to normal.
Outside of the heaviest hit areas, in most places across the U.S. we have seen little to no drop in demand. Law Enforcement partners in diverse areas such as Washington DC, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Texas, and the Pacific Northwest are reporting that demand has not waned at all. LE agencies frequently test the demand signal by posting a fake ad and gauging the amount of interest that is out there by the sheer number of contacts that the ad receives soliciting their services. In many places across the U.S. the responses by buyers to a fake ad are identical to what they were prior to COVID.8910
The online commercial sex industry has been impacted much less than brothels, illicit massage parlors and street prostitution. Those venues will be slower to recover and may even cease to exist in some areas. But do not be mistaken, that is not necessarily good news. The shift to online commercial sex has been going on for years and this pandemic is just hastening the switch for some. Online commercial sex trafficking offers an anonymity coupled with a reach and potential to scale that far exceeds brothels and street prostitution. It is much harder to see and often difficult to prosecute cases that rely on technological evidence.
Reporting data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline shows that online escort services dwarf the other types of sex trafficking. 11 We expect online escort services to continue to outpace other venues for selling sex with COVID 19 only expediting this market shift.
Victims- Many vulnerable children are quite literally locked in a room with their predators right now. Others are venting their fears and frustrations online where the traffickers are actively recruiting girls to “take them away from all of this madness”. With a drop in demand and a drop in prices, the traffickers are making up for this revenue loss by putting more girls out there for sale. Families and communities that are hurting are turning to alternate ways to make ends meet. Some landlords are taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak, soliciting sexual favors in lieu of rent payments from economically vulnerable tenants.
“Landlord coercion has always been a reality, but we’ve never seen anything like this. The coronavirus creates the perfect conditions for landlords who want to do this because not only are people being instructed to stay home, but the virus has added to the economic stress with people losing their jobs”.12
The level of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse that is happening behind closed doors right now is hard to measure. Hurt people hurt people. We can observe and measure many aspects of the online commercial sex trade but sex trafficking that occurs in closed communities or in family units is hard to see. We suspect that familial facilitated child sex trafficking is up significantly. When pandemics and disasters occur, victims suffer even more. Stress on top of stress rarely ends well. Nearly 65% of the traffickers in family facilitated child sex trafficking are the mothers.13 Read that again please.
Even in commercial sex trafficking, the most likely relationship of victim to trafficker is a family member.14 Shelters for vulnerable children have been at maximum capacity throughout this pandemic and the uncertainty, fear, and feelings of isolation for the residents is off the charts. As the “shelter in place” orders are lifting, shelters are seeing a direct spike with children going on the run again in large numbers.15
Where or to whom are they running?
Law Enforcement- In larger cities, nearly 1/3rd of law enforcement officers were out sick with the virus and in nearly every place in America, proactive counter sex trafficking operations ground to a halt by the end of March. Guardian Group continued working with LE Agencies by building cases, connecting identities to victims, looking for minors, but mostly preparing for the return to operations that are just getting started again.
Second only to Friends and Family, Law Enforcement or the Criminal Justice System are the most likely place for victims of sex trafficking to find help. With the huge decline in Law Enforcement interaction with victims, many of their main access points to help have been blocked. With many services remaining under restrictions, it will become even more important that LE is out there, in contact with victims, providing help.16
What does Guardian Group do? It is business as usual for us. We help Law Enforcement mount an offensive designed to limit the freedom of movement that traffickers feel they have acquired and catch them while they are still feeling invincible. Coordinated operations around the country will have a devastating impact against sex traffickers and the illicit industry. The underground commercial sex economy is still lucrative, but the disarray caused by COVID 19 must be capitalized upon and leveraged to have longer lasting effects. If we all sit idly by, the traffickers will rebuild and the thousands of vulnerable children already in the exploitation pipeline will become lost forever.
What should you do? Priorities will be continually adjusted. Help keep protecting the vulnerable a priority. Cities, counties, even states are being forced to relook their budgets. They will choose what is most important to them and continue funding those programs. Many other programs will get shuttered due to budget constraints. We always hate to put a dollar amount to the victims of sex trafficking but for every $1 put towards prevention and intervention, a community is saving $34 dollars in aftercare and services. Even as a simple math problem, funding prevention and intervention makes sense.17
Keep the vulnerable children in this discussion, fight to keep their safety and security as a budget line that does not get scratched out. Unfortunately, in some places, this will be inevitable. But the government and public dollars have never been the solution for this crime. It is you. It is me. It is us.
Word of Encouragement- It appears as if we are coming out of the worst that COVID 19 intended to deliver us. In the months to come, the abuses that have been hiding in the shadows will begin to show themselves in violent, exploitive, and oppressive ways. COVID 19 is passing; it will become part of our collective history and memory; its lasting effects will not be fully understood for a while yet, if ever.
During these difficult times, did you step up to defend the needy and the poor?
Are you going to fight for them now as they run the risk of being overlooked and left behind to fend for themselves? Join us in our Fight. It is only beginning.
Never forget that we are all in this together and Guardian Group will not stop fighting Until All are Free.
1 https://blog.brinkercapital.com/the-effect-of-covid-19-on-the-markets/ 2 ChildSafe AI Interview, Data, Collaboration- https://childsafe.ai/ and Guardian Group observation / assessment 3 ChildSafe AI Interview, Data, Collaboration- https://childsafe.ai/ 4 https://www.engadget.com/2017-12-25-amazon-microsoft-employees-sex-trafficking-sting.html 5 https://www.kiro7.com/news/local/report-amazon-microsoft-workers-caught-hiring-sex-workers-using-companyemail/669779121/ 6 https://www.rt.com/usa/414266-amazon-microsoft-staff-sex-trafficking/ 7 Office of Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) National Listening Session – State Perspectives on the Impact of COVID-19 on Child Trafficking and Safe Harbor 8 National Criminal Justice Training Center (NCJTC) Webinar: Sex Trafficking: Current Trends in Technology 9 Office of Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) National Listening Session – Data Trends in Child Trafficking 10 Office of Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) National Listening Session – State Perspectives on the Impact of COVID-19 on Child Trafficking and Safe Harbor 11 Office of Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) National Listening Session – Data Trends in Child Trafficking 12 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/landlords-are-targeting-vulnerable-tenants-solicit-sex-exchange-rentadvocates-n1186416 13 National Criminal Justice Training Center (NCJTC) Webinar: An Exploration of Family Facilitated Child Sex Trafficking 14 Office of Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) National Listening Session – Data Trends in Child Trafficking 15 Office of Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) National Listening Session – State Perspectives on the Impact of COVID-19 on Child Trafficking and Safe Harbor 16 Office of Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) National Listening Session – Data Trends in Child Trafficking