In response to increasing concern regarding domestic sex trafficking and the COVID-19 pandemic as it is occurring in the U.S., The Avery Center for Research & Services seeks to provide evidence-based information to professionals and community members to adequately inform the impact of the pandemic and the changing landscape of the sex trade as the industry adapts to restrictions. Data collected over the past month by The Avery Center and EPIK Project give insight into the driving forces and experiences of both traffickers and victims in this a rapidly changing industry.
The prevalence of demand
According to EPIK Project’s most recent data on sex buyer behavior, demand for commercial sex, which fuels demand for trafficking victims, has remained consistent during the pandemic. Justin Euteneier from the EPIK Project states, “EPIK directly interacts with thousands of sex buyers every month. When comparing the last thirty days to a period of time with a similar amount of outreach and no global pandemic, we found demand for commercial sex has remained constant. Sex buyers have collectively communicated that not even a global health pandemic is enough to stop their behavior.”
Attitudes of sex buyers
The Avery Center’s analysis of online sex buying review boards reveals sex buyers are not concerned about potentially spreading or contracting the COVID-19 virus through their interactions with prostituted persons. At an individual level, some sex buyers report reduced capacity to purchase sex due to the inability to leave home, or because their dispensable income has decreased. On the other hand, other sex buyers discussed an increase in availability to purchase sex now that they are working from home or temporarily furloughed. There has also been increased demand for webcam and pornography as buyers are more able to discreetly access virtual sex transactions. Overall, things seem business-as-usual with minimal disruption.
Attitudes of traffickers
The Avery’s Center’s sample of 315 suspected pimp- traffickers’ social media profiles provide other interesting insights: overall the status quo has not changed for traffickers. Many are either downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic, or diversifying income streams such as selling drugs or advertising other retail services and products outside of illicit means, and capitalizing on the pandemic by utilizing the hashtag #quarantine in combination with pimp-culture specific hashtags. At worst, the COVID-19 pandemic is being viewed as a temporary speed bump that requires slowing down and readjusting course similar to when backpage.com was seized by the federal government. At best, the pandemic is being viewed by traffickers as an opportunity to further isolate their victims and reinforce an us versus them mentality between those involved in the sex trade and those who are not.
Attitudes of sexually exploited persons
National data on actively and formerly prostituted persons’ online activity reveals that the content posted by these individuals has significantly changed, including more family-oriented posts, statements about decreasing their in-person contact and increasing their online contact with sex buyers. One adult- entertainment dancer who has been out of work for a month posted: “I’ve always heard that the sex industry is unaffected by an economic recession, but this is different.” Inequalities are also evident in the review of recent posts by those impacted by commercial sexual exploitation. Women of color and transgender folks tend to be conducting business-as-usual through street prostitution and online escort services at hotels and personal residences in disproportionately higher rates when compared with their cisgender and white counterparts.
Traffickers and sex buyers are not using their respective platforms to express concerns about potentially serious negative impacts of COVID-19. If any concerns are raised at all it is in regard to minor inconveniences. Those who are exploited by the sex trade, however, are using their platforms to express concerns about being economically impacted and fears about spreading or contracting the virus. Jamie Rosseland, Director of Marketing for The Avery Center states, “It is not surprising that those who are being most negatively impacted in the sex trade by COVID-19 are those who are being exploited. The people who are already marginalized by society are always the ones most impacted by any local, national, or global crisis.”
What is next?
Megan Lundstrom, co-founder of The Avery Center, believes that based on the stages of change model that in the coming months, anti-trafficking non-profits should be expecting to see an increase in sex trafficking victims attempting to exit the sex trade. She states, “We need to be prepared for a sharp increase in need. From the conversations I have had with people who are actively being exploited, there is a theme that things are still okay for now…clients are still calling. But they are now home with their children facilitating distance learning during the day and trying to make choices that keep themselves and their families safe. But there is always pressure to figure out how to pay the next round of bills. It could be a great opportunity for intervention if we keep engaging in online outreach efforts during this incredibly unstable time.”
What we are doing about it?
The Avery Center will continue to engage in collecting and analyzing data on the sex trade and the COVID-19 pandemic while at the same time actively developing strategies for digital outreach. The Avery Center has been engaged in digital outreach since 2014. As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, we have worked tirelessly to continue to develop effective interventions that are applicable for this unprecedented time. For training on digital outreach, please reach out to us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information on the organizations involved — The Avery Center, formerly known as Free Our Girls, exists to source, study, and provide survivor-centered data to shape policy, advocacy, services, and culture to empower women and marginalized people across the U.S. and beyond. The Avery Center also provides a variety of training, awareness, outreach, and prevention programs to individuals, businesses and community groups, designed to give them an active role in responding to and preventing the social epidemic that is sex trafficking. The EPIK Project believes that men have a critical role to play in ending the demand that drives sexual exploitation. Our efforts train men nationwide to effectively talk to online sex buyers at the point of sale. In the last seven years, we’ve engaged with over 180,000 online attempts to purchase sex. For additional information, visit www.theaverycenter.org.
To participate in additional research on domestic sex trafficking during the COVID-19 Pandemic — please complete our online survey at https://bit.ly/2zsUZvs.