sex trafficking and social media

#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