2021 Blog

How COVID-19 has affected the sex trafficking industry

In a meeting with one of our beneficiaries, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, they presented us with a staggering statistic on the increase in reports of online child exploitation since the COVID-19 pandemic. I hadn’t even considered the ways in which COVID-19 has contributed to the increase in sex trafficking, but after the meeting I did some more snooping on the NCMEC website. NCMEC reported:

  • A 98.66% increase in online enticement reports between January - September 2020 versus the same time period in 2019.
  • A 63.31% increase in CyberTipline reports between January - September 2020 versus the same time period in 2019.
  • An increase from 2 million to 4.2 million reports of online exploitation from March to April 2020. (this doubled in a month)
  • More than 21.7 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation in 2020

So let's break this down. Because I’m a sociology major, I immediately wanted to know the structural issues causing these upticks and searched for coronavirus and sex trafficking. I found an article called “COVID-19 and Human Trafficking—the Amplified Impact on Vulnerable Populations,” and throughout this blog I’ll be breaking down the article to help us understand the connections between COVID-19 and sex trafficking.

Although none of the statistics I presented are direct measures of sex trafficking, all of these issues are heavily intertwined and there is a general consensus among the research that sex trafficking has increased during the pandemic. This is happening for many reasons. For starters, already-vulnerable populations are experiencing heightened health issues, economic problems, and housing insecurity, exacerbating their vulnerability and resulting in a greater risk of being trafficked. Additionally, homelessness has increased which has put many more children at a greater risk of being trafficked.

Something that the article mentioned that I hadn’t even considered is that hospital reports of child abuse injuries have increased, suggesting that incidents of child maltreatment have risen during COVID-19. The trauma of child maltreatment is a significant risk factor in child sex trafficking. This also highlights the importance of thinking holistically when discussing sex trafficking; even though child maltreatment and sex trafficking are different issues, an incident of child maltreatment that happens now could be responsible for the trafficking of that same child later on.

With regards to the upticks in online reports, I’m sure we’ve all experienced the increased use of technology during coronavirus (countless Zoom meetings, the TikTok craze, hours of endless scrolling. . .). These online interactions increase the risks that could lead to trafficking situations.

One thing the article brought up that I hadn’t thought through was how COVID-19 impacted those who are already in trafficking situations. Individuals in trafficking were/are being advised not to go to hospitals so as not to take resources from COVID-19 patients. Additionally, when trafficked individuals are able to go to hospitals, their already existing reluctance to trust new adults is only worsened due to the masks and other protective equipment/procedures. Additionally, for those recently out of a trafficking situation, COVID-19 has made access to rehabilitation facilities much more difficult. Finally, the isolation of the pandemic can worsen mental health and impact the survivors’ ability to heal and recover.

So what can we do? Below, I have just a small list of ideas, many of which are covered in the article:

  • Address the pandemic-induced housing and food insecurity as well as unemployment
  • In hospitals, healthcare professionals need to be trained on how to establish trust despite the COVID-19 measures
  • Internet safety for children and caretakers
  • Incorporating internet safety education into public school education

I challenge you, whoever you might be, to engage in conversations about what we can do about housing insecurity, about unemployment, and about internet safety. Think about what we can do to alleviate just one of the confounding factors contributing to the increase in sex trafficking. Engage in conversations about how you-- yes, you-- might be contributing to the worsening COVID-19 conditions for marginalized groups. Really think about this stuff. This is why we ride.


Sources: https://www.missingkids.org/blog/2020/covid-19-and-missing-and-exploited-children


May 13, 2022
Sydnee Mwakutuya

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