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Sexual Exploitation: What Is It And What To Look Out For

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

By Mehr Lokhandwala

Trigger Warning: This article addresses sexual exploitation, sexual assault, and human trafficking please take appropriate precautions, including through the resources detailed at the end of this article.

Sexual exploitation is a crime and is never the child’s fault. It entails someone under the age of 18 exchanging a sexual act for something in return. This ‘thing’ that they exchange sexual acts for can be money, food, shelter, drugs, popularity, and love among other things. It happens everywhere in the world, regardless of gender.

In North America alone, there are 100,000-300,000 victims of sexual exploitation a year. In an infographic by Sexual Exploitation Education, they state that ‘those with low self-esteem, those who are LBGTQ+, those who are Indigenous, and those with lower self-esteem’ are vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

The modern-day predator can also be called an exploiter. There are three types of exploiters: pimps, sexual predators, and close relations. An article published by Cornell University and written by Mark Grough and Toby Goldbach defines a pimp as, ‘one who controls the actions and lives off the proceeds of one or more prostitutes’. A sexual predator can be defined as someone who seeks out or looks for sexual contact with another person. This is usually conducted in manners that can be described as predatory or abusive. Lastly, we have close relations, which can be a friend, family member, or partner. Acts of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse include sexual assault, demanding sex, forcing one to have sex with another, forcing someone to be in pornography and/or prostitution, unwanted touching in a sexual nature, and refusing to practice safe sex.

It is important to know that exploiters are not always pimps and sexual predators as that is how they are depicted in movies and television. As previously mentioned, exploiters can be someone you have a close relation with, such as a friend, family member, or a partner. In an article written by Nicholas Kristof and published by The New York Times, called The Children Of Pornhub, he interviews Cali: “ ‘Pornhub became my trafficker,’ a woman named Cali told me. She says she was adopted in the United States from China and then trafficked by her adoptive family and forced to appear in pornographic videos beginning when she was 9. Some videos of her being abused ended up on Pornhub and regularly reappear there, she said. ‘I’m still getting sold, even though I’m five years out of that life,’ Cali said. Now 23, she is studying in a university and hoping to become a lawyer — but those old videos hang over her. ‘I may never be able to get away from this,’ she said. ‘I may be 40 with eight kids, and people are still masturbating to my photos.’ ”

Image via Sexual Exploitation Education

More than 90% of sexual exploitation is facilitated online. From 2014-2019 there were 1.7 million reports of exploitation online. According to Sexual Exploitation Education, ‘falsely identifying as a peer, compliments and support, offering easy cash schemes, offering gifts, inviting to parties, normalizing sexual conversation, and asking for a nude photo’, all qualify as an online grooming tactic. On gaming platforms such as Roblox, exploiters will pose as friends and while the child continues to play the game, the exploiters will get to know and build a friendship/relationship with them. Eventually, they will ask to move the conversation to another platform such as Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook. What can happen after that is that the exploiter will either ask the child to send a nude or semi-nude picture or to meet them in person. Along with this stage, we also see a lot of gifting (eg. on Roblox, the exploiter will give the child Robux).

There are five main grooming tactics that exploiters use: gifting, isolating, control, unhealthy changes, and an age difference. Sexual Exploitation Education states, ‘exploiters and pimps will pose as boyfriends or friends in order to groom youth. Grooming is a process and warning signs gradually appear’.

One of the tactics that are not often talked about is sextortion. This is when someone uses a sexual photo/video of you to blackmail or coerce you into doing what they want. For example, they may threaten to share a nude or semi-nude photo of you with your school or post it. For a better understanding of sextortion, Sexual Exploitation Education has a super helpful and educational video about it.

Another tactic is boyfriending/girlfriending. The exploiter will manipulate one into thinking they are in a relationship to gain your trust. Exploiters will also groom one using specific strategies such as gifts, money, lot’s of kindness and attention, and excessive compliments.

Sexual exploitation can lead to human trafficking. In the chart above we can see that there are three essential things that have to happen in order for human trafficking to happen. First, we have the act: this means that the exploiter must recruit, transport, transfer, harbour, or receive people. The next things that have to happen are that the exploiter has to have means, using one of the following methods: threat or force, coercion, fraud, deception, abduction, giving payment or benefits, or abuse of a position of vulnerability The last thing is the purpose, which is exploitation/trafficking.

Whilst sexual exploitation is one form of human trafficking, there are more forms. Let’s start with forced labour which is forced employment, usually in extremely poor working conditions. There is also debt bondage, this means that a person is forced to work to pay off debt (this can be their exploiter’s debt).

Image via World Health Organization

Next, we have domestic servitude, this is one of the most difficult forms of trafficking to detect because the work is performed in private residences. Once the person is hired they cannot leave by their own free will, thus becoming a case of enslavement. Additionally, we have organ removal, this is when one's organs are forcibly removed and these organs are then sold (usually on the black market). Forced begging; is when one is forced to beg for monetary donations. Child soldiers are children who are forced to become soldiers in conflicts around the world; some of these children are as young as eight years old. Lastly, we have, forced marriage one or both parties involved are being forced to get married without their consent. Unfortunately, girls under the age of 18 are forced to marry older men, even seniors sometimes. In Canada, more than 3,600 marriage certificates were issued to children, usually girls, under the age of 18 between 2000 and 2018. For a better understanding of human trafficking here is a video by Sexual Exploitation Education.

Through human trafficking, in reference to sexual exploitation, videos that are taken of victims being assaulted end up on Pornhub. Nicholas Kristof writes, ‘there’s another side of the company: Its site is infested with rape videos [...] many depict child abuse and nonconsensual violence.’ Pornhub takes no responsibility for the videos of sexual assault and child sexual assault on their site. He goes on to write, ‘a search for “girls under18” (no space) or “14yo” leads in each case to more than 100,000 videos’.

He adds on by writing, ‘depictions of child abuse also appear on mainstream sites like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook. And Google supports the business models of companies that thrive on child molestation [...] I asked the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to compile the number of images, videos and other content related to child sexual exploitation reported to it each year. In 2015, it received reports of 6.5 million videos or other files; in 2017, 20.6 million; and in 2019, 69.2 million’.

‘After a 15-year-old girl went missing in Florida, her mother found her on Pornhub — in 58 sex videos. Sexual assaults on a 14-year-old California girl were posted on Pornhub and were reported to the authorities not by the company but by a classmate who saw the videos. In each case, offenders were arrested for the assaults, but Pornhub escaped responsibility for sharing the videos and profiting from them’.

A question that often comes up is why is it so hard to leave or report the exploitation. Before I get into this, I want to make sure that we go over the question which is ‘why is it so hard to leave?’ And not ‘why don’t people just leave’. When we say ‘why didn’t they leave?’ We are actually stigmatizing this issue further and questions like this are calling victim blaming which is completely unacceptable. It is important to note that sometimes children and youth do not know they are being exploited. Additionally, According to Tiana Sharifi who is the founder of Sexual Exploitation Education, many victims are scared to come forward and have their case in court. Due to this ‘a lot of human trafficking cases get charged with other charges like kidnapping charges, harassment charges, or assault charges’. Sometimes a trauma bond has been established. This is a cycle of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse that creates a strong attachment between the abused person and the abuser. This is reinforced by periods of love and affection and then periods of abuse or devaluation. There could be drugs and substance abuse since some children are forced or pressured into taking drugs or alcohol by their exploiters and this develops into addiction. Oftentimes, exploiters will provide drugs or alcohol and the fear becomes if you leave them, where would you get your drugs or alcohol from?. Exploiters will take things like cell phones, passports, and any extra cash away so that it becomes harder to leave. There is also isolation; exploiters will isolate you from your friends and family by saying phrases such as, ‘your family does not understand you like I do’. We want to keep in mind that isolation can be physical or emotional. Exploiters will try to limit the time that a child spends with their friends and may even lure them out of their home.

Since COVID-19 started a lot of activities that children once participated in are now online. However, there has been a surge in sexual exploitation and child porn. While we cannot confront exploiters we can protect our children. Children should know and feel safe to come to a parent if something happens online. As adults, it is our job to not judge them and to create a space without any shame. This may also mean having a conversation with your children and telling them that they need to be sharing what they do online with you. As adults, we should also be aware of the platforms children are on, whether that be Instagram or even gaming platforms such as Roblox. There should be clear guidelines in place for children when online. They should know the rules about not interacting with a stranger online, not accepting gifts from strangers online, not sending pictures, and knowing when to involve an adult. The internet can be a tool however it can be just as dangerous.


Written by writer Mehr Lokhandwala

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