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Social Media and Sex Trafficking : An Interview With a Survivor

Content Warning : this article contains mentions of sex trafficking and other mature themes. If these topics may be triggering for you, please proceed with caution. We recommend this article for those 16 and older.

Julianne Freytag, a member of the LOG OFF Writers Group, interviews a survivor of sex trafficking and asks important questions about how we can be safer online, and how we can support survivors.

As technology grows and develops, it’s important to understand the dangerous implications of putting our lives online, specifically trafficking and exploitation. Human trafficking involves the use of power, deceit, or manipulation to force someone into different types of labor or the commercial sex market. The platforms trafficking takes place on also differ, but a growing number of traffickers are choosing social media to pick up their targets.

Social media provides an almost ideal situation for traffickers to prey on specific, vulnerable populations. These populations mainly being people with lower income, no access to education, youth, girls, and those with overtly poor mental health. The anonymity and global reach creates a situation where it is incredibly easy to be lied to and deceived. In addition to this, before social media, a trafficker might need to slowly acquire information about their target. The victim’s vulnerabilities, interests, and personal details may take a while to figure out, whereas now, this information is readily available. Contact with hundreds of people is only a few clicks away. Social media is a powerful tool and the convenience it provides can be attractive to those with ill intentions.

We also need to consider that social media provides many significant and powerful tools we can use to fight against this epidemic: education, information, conversation, and support. It’s entirely possible to use internet in a healthy, productive, safe way. Systemic change is needed but it starts with keeping ourselves, loved ones, and the most vulnerable among us safe.

I had the privilege of speaking with trafficking survivor, author, mentor, and survivor advocate, Eleana Lukes. I feel that having a (consenting) expert and survivor’s perspective is vital when looking to understanding the gravity of this problem, learning what we can do to move forward and stay safe, and getting specific information about how trafficking has been molded over the decades after the mainstreaming of social media and modern technology. All information in this interview is shared with consent.

What is your experience with trafficking?

"I was trafficked by one of the biggest prostitution rings in US history, the Evans family, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was twelve when I met my trafficker and he trafficked me across the United States. When I was fifteen, I got arrested in Missouri when they found out I was a runaway from Minnesota. The other girl I was with told the police we were being trafficked by a pimp. That’s what prompted the investigation into the family. I decided to testify in front of a grand jury. That testimony brought back a forty-four count indictment on fifteen individuals that were all named as ring leaders.

"They all were from the same family and were targeting minors for two decades. My trafficker got eighty-five years in federal prison. After all that, they took me back to Minneapolis and basically dumped me off on a street corner. I had no place to live, no money, no job skills, nothing! I did the same thing I always did, and returned to exploitation. I stayed in the life until I was twenty-six, bouncing around getting into trouble. I have five felony convictions.

"But the last time I got out of prison, I put myself through drug treatment. After I got sober, I applied to St. Cloud State University and started going to school. I was actually in prison when I got my GED! In 2013, I graduated with my bachelor’s degree with a double major in Women’s Studies and Psychology. In 2016, I graduated with my Masters in Family Crisis Intervention. In 2019, I graduated from another master’s program as a district specialist. I am a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, survivor advocate, case manager, and employment education coordinator at Terebinth Refuge, a shelter for trafficked women."

How do you think social media has influenced trafficking?

"Social media has fast tracked exploitation to an entirely different level. When I had first got into the industry, I was working through platforms that were more like newspapers and yellow pages, but once social media and the internet mainstreamed, now you’re able to upload personal pictures of pornography to different kinds of websites and connect with so many different buyers across the nation! That’s way more than you could just do in a single city. From the aspect of supply and demand, it is pushing the need for sexual excitement to an extreme. All of this is because we have the platforms of the internet and it connects so many people, from so far away, so quickly. For instance, if someone is buyer or a trafficker, they can pose as whoever they want to be on the other side of the screen and they can manipulate, they can trick, and they can coerce someone else to send pictures or videos. Or even to get someone to come out of their house and come and meet them. The trafficker can develop these superficial relationships and their target begins to feel this false sense of security and trust with someone they don’t even know. In those moments, a lot of people can be deceived about the information that they’re getting and the person at the other end of the screen. Often times, the internet is a platform for being deceived. A lot of traffickers are specifically targeting minors online now. It can get really scary."

How does the shelter handle social media usage?

"A lot of women who come to our shelter have been in the life for a very long time. Many of them have posted ads on social media platforms to solicit clients for money. A lot of these traffickers and buyers also will speak to them through these kinds of platforms. Because of that, when the clients come to our shelter, they’re not allowed to have their cellphones or access to social media because it’s easy for the buyers to contact them and it’s also easy for them to get back in contact with their traffickers. The reason that we take those phones is so they have a chance to heal and to get some distance from the buyers, the traffickers, and the life altogether.

"If you live your life in chaos all the time, your brain starts to create different types of chemicals and those chemicals fire off when you seek that chaos. It’s like you become addicted to it. When you come to the shelter, there’s not a lot of chaos! It’s quiet and you’re able to get time to think and rest.

"Your body is craving those firings of those neurons in your brain. The women will tend to create chaos in the house or with each other, try to get on social media, or try to do different things that they have done in their past life because that’s what they’re used to. The body is withdrawing from those things because they were so used to having it all the time.

"It’s an addiction. Addiction to that fast money. Addiction to that fast life. When they come, they cannot be on social media. They cannot have access to those websites and those phones. Because they need the ability to rest and get that distance so they can start to make better decisions about what they want. We tell them before they come in that for the first 90 days that they won’t be able to have their cellphones or access to social media. We also make sure that they can’t be tracked. A lot of the time traffickers will have trackers on these phones. Slowly, when they start taking some of the support groups and they begin building some of those coping and self-value skills, they can earn that phone back. Because now they have a little bit of education on how to spot those red flags, identify that manipulation, and how to say no. They also probably will have had a nice little chunk of time of sobriety which helps.

"And then once they earn those telephones back, they then have the ability to say “You know I don’t like that” or “That didn’t make me feel comfortable.” Then they can start setting up some boundaries that they’ve probably never had before. Blocking out that social media is such a crucial piece because if they don’t have the ability to distance themselves from everything that has had their attention they don’t have any chance to decide that’s right for them. It’s a comeback to life. We have computers they can use so they still have limited access to the internet. However, we block all the social media sites. We monitor everything and talk to them about it."

How can we, as individuals, prevent trafficking and stay safe online?

"When it comes to young people being aware, education is the key! Learning how to spot red flags about what traffickers look like, what do uncomfortable boundaries look like, red flags about lies, and the power of control is important. A lot of traffickers want to control things so if a woman gets into a relationship or just a friendship and the other person becomes very possessive and gives off skewed boundaries those are the things that give you red flags or people having information about you that you’ve never shared with them. Or say someone sends you a friend request and this person isn’t a friend with anyone you’ve ever met, you don’t know them, and you don’t share any mutual contacts.

"You need to be very cautious. Make sure that you’re not adding those people onto your platforms because a lot of the time your opening up a gateway for people to violate your privacy."

Social media can also be a tool for learning. What resources are there to get educat