Grooming and Sex Trafficking

#NoFilter: Social Media, Sex, and the Untouchable

In the #NoFilter series, private sector engagement interns Ashley Solle and Nicole Phocas discuss youth, social media, and society in the context of the recent Jeffrey Epstein case.

The recent death of Jeffrey Epstein, who was indicted on child sex trafficking and child pornography* charges, has pushed conversations on the link between power and child sexual exploitation in the United States out of the shadows, at least for a minute. 

This is far from the first case in recent history of a wealthy, powerful man abusing his standing to manipulate and coerce children to participate in sexual acts; Robert Kraft, Terry Richardson, Larry Nassar, and R Kelly are just some of the other names that come to mind. These men abused their positions and targeted children -- usually teenage girls -- from vulnerable populations. They exploited the vulnerable child’s weakened emotional state and took advantage of problematic societal norms surrounding the over-sexualization of youth. Of course the blame lies with the abusers, but these cultural standards we’ve created have taken on a new life with social media, contributing to the ease with which traffickers can recruit victims. The problem involves youth of all genders, but since Jeffrey Epstein abused girls and since most of what we’re criticizing is based in sexist and patriarchal norms, we’ve chosen to take a female-centric approach. Besides, as women ourselves -- from the first generation to grow up with social media, no less -- we can’t help but call out how platforms like Instagram encourage certain unattainable ideals for young girls in particular. 

Like anything, social media can be a wonderful tool to access information but it also has unintended consequences. The popularity of platforms like Instagram and Snapchat has paved the way for body positive and sex positive social movements which promote a healthy snapshot of what a relationship should look like. However, posts on these platforms tend to only show the beautiful and glamorous side of life. This can be an especially damaging thing for a teenage girl in a vulnerable position, whether it’s an unstable family life, history of abuse, poverty, or lack of opportunities. When she sees the perceived happiness of their favorite Instagram influencer or celebrity, she is willing to take steps to get to this lifestyle of private jets, yachts, expensive dinners, and celebrity. When a wealthy, powerful, charismatic man like Jeffrey Epstein or R. Kelly pays attention to her, says he loves her, and offers her these things, how could she say no? Why would she want to? 

Sex-positive images posted on social media by teenagers are not an excuse to sexualize them without their consent. By ignoring the problem, we are telling these children that their bodies are not their own.

The impunity that society gives wealthy and powerful men for sexual exploitation goes way beyond the individual. Our culture has an enormous problem with the over-sexualization of teens. Just to be clear, there is a massive difference between sex positivity and sexualization. Sex positivity encourages and promotes the expression of sexuality as a healthy and natural occurance when placed in the context of consent and autonomy. Sexualization is related to assigning sexuality to someone or something else, regardless of the subject’s knowledge or consent. For example, if a teen girl chooses to embrace her sexuality and post a photo on Instagram in a bikini, she has every right to do that. Regardless of her intent, no one should be sexualizing the image without her explicit consent. By contacting the girl who posted the photo, under the assumption that because she posted the photo she automatically wants sex, the viewer is over-sexualizing that person. We’ve both had instances of men, both older and our own age, harassing us on social media for innocent photos we posted, even when we were underage. There has been an issue with sexualizing teenage girls for ages: “sexy schoolgirl culture,” the young age that lingerie models begin high profile careers, and countdowns for underage female actresses turning eighteen. Because of the anonymous nature of social media, this sort of behavior is becoming more normalized. Sex-positive images posted on social media by teenagers are not an excuse to sexualize them without their consent. By ignoring the problem, we are telling these children that their bodies are not their own. 

The oversexualization of teens is not just happening online, however. These norms and ideals perpetuated by social media are manifesting into real, physical transactions between teenagers and older adults. Our next blog will discuss this more, but one thing is certainly becoming a trend at this point: older men who use their power and wealth as an excuse to rape and traffic children face little consequence, and their friends are often involved. While we can’t entirely blame society for the actions of child predators, the twisted promotion of teenagers as an oversexualized ideal is certainly not helping change the narrative.

Wealthy, powerful men like Epstein coerce and exploit vulnerable youth by promising a lifestyle they see as unattainable. Cultural standards that validate exploitative behavior have existed for decades, but with progress comes new ways to trick, coerce, or force children into dangerous situations. Social media is a platform that normalizes these standards even further, but we can’t blame the platform for the culture. Change comes by recognizing that we live in a country where justice favors powerful men over vulnerable children and by reminding these men that they are not untouchable. 

*A note on language: While the legal term related to his charge is child pornography, ECPAT-USA urges society to move away from the term child pornography because it equates child sexual abuse to a legal industry and reduces the severity of the crime. Instead, we advocate for the use of the term child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Review our Terminology Guidelines here.

READ MORE:

#NoFilter: Media Coverage of the Epstein Case 

ECPAT-USA Statement on Jeffrey Epstein’s Death

Grooming: Is R Kelly Using the Same Tactics as Human Traffickers to Control His Victims? 

ECPAT-USA Report on Child Sexual Abuse Material

ECPAT Terminology Guidelines

As Child Sex Abuse Cases Fill the News, Don’t Be A Bystander

Coming Soon - #NoFilter: Seeking Innocence in an Online Dating Culture



Is Grooming Teenagers for Prostitution “On-brand” for Teen Vogue?

At ECPAT-USA we teach youth through our in-school programming about how to avoid being groomed by traffickers who are always seeking new individuals to feed into the sex trade. Traffickers and pimps tell enticing stories to young people - many of whom are vulnerable because of their life histories of abuse and neglect. These stories involve the love and care the trafficker says he will bestow, and the great riches and success in store for young people if they just follow his lead. It is, of course, all lies and all manipulation that takes advantage of the youth and naïveté of young people who aren’t able to recognize a “recruitment conversation” when they hear one.  And now we have Teen Vogue helping the pimps.

The child exploitation grooming process is pretty well documented by now, and increasingly, the systems that need to know how to protect children from sexual exploitation are all on board.  Social workers, foster parents, criminal justice agents, health care workers and others have learned how traffickers use exploitative processes to lure their victims and passing on that information to those who are the most vulnerable to such tactics.

Not the editors of Teen Vogue. In a recent op-ed, space was given in their magazine to help out the pimps and traffickers by amplifying the message that these exploiters use to recruit teenagers.  The piece included language such as “purchasing intimacy and paying for the services can be affirming for many people,” which will only help lay the groundwork for pimps and traffickers trolling the internet, shopping malls or the streets to find homeless, sexually abused, LGBTQ or foster care youth.

As many survivors have attested, they were not empowered and they were not strengthened by being in the sex trade. Many were recruited well before they were 18 years old and their bodies were controlled by pimps and buyers. They suffered physical and mental abuse that affects them for years afterward.    

The retrograde and irresponsible message in the piece - from a magazine aimed at a teen audience - is that selling your body as a commodity to the highest bidder is something to be glorified and supported.  This message has already been communicated by the fashion industry - so maybe it is completely on-brand for Teen Vogue.  


Grooming: Is R. Kelly Using The Same Tactics As Human Traffickers To Control His Victims?

Musician R. Kelly has been the subject of investigations, indictments, and lawsuits for decades. Most recently, the singer was indicted in Chicago in a lawsuit that accuses Kelly of sexually abusing four victims - three of whom were between the ages of 13 and 16 at the time - over a span of a dozen years. Through it all, the musician has maintained his innocence and has presented statements from other underage victims who reiterate that they remain in consenting relationships with Kelly.

This idea that girls would willingly subject themselves to a relationship in which their attire, food and even their bathroom use are all direct by someone else can be confusing to an outsider’s perspective. But the method used to teach an individual to accept an abusive relationship, known as “grooming,” is a process that has long been used by traffickers to continue their own cycle of trauma and abuse.

But the method used to teach an individual to accept an abusive relationship, known as ‘grooming,’ is a process that has long been used by traffickers to continue their own cycle of trauma and abuse.

“Grooming is the slow, methodical, and intentional process of manipulating a person to a point where they can be victimized,” Eric Marlowe Garrison, a sex counselor and author, said in an interview with Allure. “After [the perpetrators] find their targets, they then gain trust and move in from there.”

Grooming commonly starts with friendship. Specifically in Kelly’s case, grooming typically started with a promise to help a young singer with her music career. An abuser or trafficker approaches a victim with the promise of care and companionship, security and support, but then they will slowly convince their victim that they are the only one who cares about them. Teens who feel isolated and alone, or have run away from home, are especially vulnerable to traffickers. Kyra Wooden, Director of ECPAT-USA’s Y-ACT Youth Program, explains that “youths are more likely to fall victim to the trafficker’s ploys because of emotional wounds and voids that the trafficker promises to heal.”

Youths are more likely to fall victim to the trafficker’s ploys because of emotional wounds and voids that the trafficker promises to heal.

Like sex traffickers, Kelly systematically selected his victims, looking for individuals who felt as though they didn’t belong. His victims were girls who had big dreams and needed his help in order to make them come true. As the Lifetime documentary Surviving R Kelly points out, almost all of Kelly’s victims are girls of color - girls who have been taught by society that their lives are worth less than white children. This often leaves Black girls more vulnerable to all forms of exploitation.

After establishing a foundation of trust and care, abusers and traffickers will then start to make requests of the victim to judge how far his or her boundaries can be pushed. What might begin as a request to wear certain clothes or use certain names will slowly escalate to the point where an individual is no longer allowed to leave a room without gaining permission.

Throughout this process, the victim is isolated, which leads him or her to believe that there are no other options. To accelerate this, traffickers will confiscate a victim’s identification documents and money, which makes a victim even more reliant on his or her trafficker. The more an abuser is able to keep an individual from his or her support networks, the easier it is for the abuser to remain in control. As Dawn Michael, PhD, a sexuality counselor explained to Allure, the resulting behavior on the part of the victim can look to an outsider as though he or she has been “brainwashed.”

“The more they can cut off other people [who] are close [with the victim], the more power they have over that person, because they’re not going to have as much outside influence,” Michael said.

In Surviving R. Kelly, several interviewees described the two different sides of the singer: the one who was loving and confided in them about his own sexual abuse as a child and then the one who would withhold food from them for days when he was angry. This cycle of explosions and reconciliation manipulates victims psychologically, and as one psychologist puts in Surviving R. Kelly, creates “chains and handcuffs that are all mental.”

For many victims of abuse, the first step to breaking the cycle is the realization that their relationships aren’t healthy. The beginning of that realization can be as simple as receiving information for the first time about what a healthy relationship looks like. A core focus of ECPAT-USA’s Y-ACT Program is helping participants understand the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships and how traffickers manipulate those relationships - a process that had led some participants to self-identify as victims of trafficking or question the nature of their relationships.

“Child sexual exploitation, grooming, and avoiding toxic relationships are all very complex in nature,” Wooden, said. “Students need to learn preventative and protective behaviors because the tactics for luring and grooming are more intricate and conniving than young people are familiar with. Overall, teaching youth to understand their right to have relationships without hurt and pain can ultimately save a student’s life.”

If you or someone you know is a victim of trafficking, help is available at the National Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Cover image via Instagram