Social Media, Sexual Assault, and Sex Trafficking
May 23, 2018
There is a substantial issue with sex trafficking across the United States, and it is one that is typically looked over or ignored. Sex trafficking is considered a continuously booming industry; according to Shared Hope, sex trafficking is defined as, “an act or acts that occur when someone uses force, fraud, or coercion to cause a commercial sex act with an adult or causes a minor to commit a commercial sex act. A commercial sex act includes prostitution, pornography and sexual performance done in exchange for any item of value, such as money, drugs, shelter, food, or clothes.” Traffickers are able to find their victims through a multitude of different sources such as social networks, local neighborhoods, the internet, and sometimes even a workplace or a school. Although the trafficker will initially introduce themselves and offer the victim amenities such as protection, love, or an opportunity, the victims are soon met with tactics of violence, fear, threats, and sometimes severe intimidation.
Shandra Woworuntu’s story is a unique one, but it starts off the same as the rest; she carried hopes and dreams for the future but unfortunately, they eventually took a turn for the worst. She came to the United States in June 2001 with aspirations to further her career in the hotel industry. She was excited because she had just arrived in a new country and was ready for all the new experiences she was going to encounter. She lost her job the previous year in Indonesia when the country was hit with a financial crisis, so she decided it would be best for her to find work overseas in order to support her three-year-old daughter. For that reason, it seemed like a small miracle when she found an online advertisement that publicized a job in the hospitality industry for well-known hotels in the United States.
The warning signs started almost immediately. When she landed at the airport and walked to the arrival hall, she was met by a man holding a sign with her picture on it. He was supposed to drive her to the hotel she would be working at in Chicago, but she arrived at JFK airport in New York. She was with four other women when the man, named Johnny, approached her. He took all of her legal documents and split up her and the women up into two different groups. They were escorted to a car where a driver transported them to an area not far from where they had just landed. The women were told to get out of the vehicle and separate into three different cars.
This occurred twice more where Shandra was asked to get out and be placed into another car until she was in a vehicle where the driver was a bit more threatening considering he was in possession of a weapon. According to Shandra when talking to BBC, she recalls the encounter by saying, “The fourth driver had a gun. He forced us to get in his car and took us to a house in Brooklyn, then tapped on the door, calling ‘Mama-san! New girl!’ By this time I was freaking out, because I knew ‘Mama-san’ meant the madam of a brothel. But by this time, because of the gun, there was no escape.” That was when she understood what was really happening. She had been hoaxed into believing that the job offer was real when in reality she had landed in the hands of dangerous men.
The traffickers told her she owed them $30,000 and the only way she could pay off her debt was through a $100 deposit for every man she “served.” She was taken to numerous brothels and apartments where she was sold as a sex slave to different men every day. She recalls never feeling much emotion, which left her to feel numb and broken; she was afraid of receiving a beating if she expressed her sadness or fear in any way so she decided it would be best for her to remain emotionless.
Despite her emotionless exterior, her mentality had also been destroyed because of the way she was constantly treated. She remembers, “Because I was compliant, I was not beaten by my traffickers – I was threatened, but not hurt by them—but the customers were very violent. I was their property for 45 minutes and I had to do what they said or they hurt me. What I endured was difficult and painful. Physically, I was weak. The constant threat of violence, and the need to stay on high alert was also very exhausting.” Although her pimp never physically attacked her, she still suffered beatings from the men she was sold to. Above all however, she was hurt mentally because of the lack of concern for her well-being.
Fortunately, Shandra Woworuntu became one of the few women who was able to escape but her mental health will forever remain damaged. Despite the pain she will most likely have to endure for the rest of her life, she has made it her mission to help others with their experiences in sex trafficking while also trying to bring awareness to the ways women can be coerced into the illegal trade and exploitation of humans.
Why is this so important to mention despite the fact that Shandra was sold for sex more times than she could count? It is because of the way she was tricked and coerced into the sex trafficking ring. She responded to an ad online that she believed was legitimate and meant to further her professional career. What she got instead was a trap that lead her into a life of exploitation and pain. The power that people have given electronic forms of communication is shown through the experience that Shandra had to live through. No one thinks it can happen to them; women believe they are immune to this “trap” or coercion because they stay away from fishy ads or weird direct messages. However, the reality is that it can happen to anyone because of the mischievous ways pimps connect with women.
Shandra replied to a literal job advertisement; she wasn’t looking for a relationship, she wasn’t posting explicit photos; she was looking for an occupation that could support her and her three-year-old child.
Let’s backtrack a bit to discuss what exactly sex trafficking is. Human Trafficking is defined as a modernized version of slavery where people are constantly being illegally traded and sold with the intention to force labor or sexual exploitation. According to Judith Farbey in Human Trafficking, Modern Day Slavery, the term itself is defined as, “a form of modern day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud or coercion. However, minors under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex are considered to be victims of human trafficking, regardless of the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” Even though that definition is extremely wordy and contains a multitude of different meanings, it does a great job at covering virtually every reason why and every method used to sell people for the purpose of exploitation. In recent times, the biggest contributor to coercing women into sex trafficking is through social media and other forms of electronic communication. According to social media outlets such as Instagram and Twitter, more times than not, their users have been warned or alerted that their images can be used to lure others into the ring of sex trafficking.
This may sound a bit confusing at first, but if you were to really think about it, it makes sense. Traffickers will use accounts or images of other accounts to lure younger women and children in. This is because, if a social media user is being approached by a person that is closer to their age and is the same sex, the victim might be more willing to accept the friend request or respond to the direct message.
Typically, when people hear the term “sex trafficking” they may not associate it with something that happens in the United States. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth, and it is too easily overlooked. Essentially, since the dawn of time humans have been sold and bought legally or illegally. Over time, it has been decided that humans are more than just property, meaning that any exchange of humans for money or other forms of payment is illegal. Despite the illegality of human trafficking, it still occurs daily predominantly amongst women and children across the country.
In fact, it is estimated that between 14,500 to 17,500 people are sex trafficked solely into the United States every single year. Compare that to the global number of 57,000 a year, and that makes almost 30% of people who are trafficked arrive to or leave from the United States. People who are trafficked in America are usually taken to brothels, transported through escort services, massage parlors, strip clubs, or hotels (End Slavery Now). More specifically, however, young children and women are trafficked at astounding rates and more women on average are trafficked yearly than men.
The way in which these women are coerced into sex trafficking can occur in many different ways where pimps use a multitude of techniques to attract women. Pimps will use the Internet to offer false employment opportunities to women, such as modeling gigs, nanny services, or waitressing jobs to make them believe they will be paid a decent amount of cash for their work. Unfortunately, when these women fall for the trap, they are taken by men or other individuals and are immediately threatened and placed in the sex industry.
The worst part for some of these women is that they aren’t even able to escape. When talking about sex trafficking, the Los Angeles Times said, “Often, traffickers keep victims under their control by saying that they’ll be free after they pay their debt. The ‘debt’ is supposedly incurred from the victims’ recruitment, transportation, upkeep, or even their crude ‘sale,’” (13-year-old Girl Rescued, Los Angeles Times). Unfortunately, these women feel trapped and are unable to escape their pimp. When they are put out on the street to prostitute or perform explicit actions and are caught by authorities, they are the ones that are detained and prosecuted for their actions. They are charged with criminal intent or criminal activity depending on when they get caught. This affects the victims physically and mentally because they obtain a criminal record, and they are unable to leave because their pimps threaten them with different forms of violence.
Even though social media plays an important role in sex trafficking today, obviously that wasn’t always the case. Human trafficking has actually been around for several centuries, practically since the creation of controlled civilizations. Europe started a slave trade campaign in the early 1500s between Africa and Portugal and by the end of the 1600s, seven more countries joined this campaign, one being North America (Schinasi 82). Women have always been seen as inferior to men; therefore they have been the primary targets for trafficking. In the past, human trading, or slave trading, was seen as normal and in some cultures even traditional because of the role that women play in society. Women were viewed as property, which meant they had no control over where they would end up.
This proved true in many societies where women were sold and traded without question; they never had a choice, therefore they never felt like they were stripped of having choice. They were simply just told what to do so there was no need for methods of coercion to be used. The difference between then and now is that as time has progressed, women have been given more freedom to do what they want and make their own choices. Unfortunately however, the reason women are generally more targeted than men is because of accessibility. According to Because of this, society has collectively agreed that sex trafficking and human trade is illegal which has forced pimps and other men to use discrete forms of coercion to force women to perform explicit actions for the benefit of the pimp. Unfortunately, the reason women are generally more targeted than men is because of how easy it is. According to The Advocates, a blog that fights for women’s rights said, “ Traffickers primarily target women because they are disproportionately affected by poverty and discrimination, factors that impede their access to employment, educational opportunities, and other resources,” (Stop Violence Against Women). Because women have been easily targeted for so long, society has allowed for this to continue happening.
Around Claremont/ Application
It can be difficult to pinpoint where sex trafficking begins and what a small city like Claremont can do to stop it from happening here. Chief Vander Veen of the Claremont Police Department directed me to weekly newsletters where the police department uses their own form of “social media” to inform the public of anything happening in Claremont.
Upon talking with Chief Veen, she explained that regardless of how small or large the topic is, the department feels as though it is necessary to share with the public as much as they can. Eventually, I discovered a newsletter published in 2017 that showcased a report of a sex trafficking incident.
According to the City Manager’s Weekly Update for Claremont, on February 21, the Police Department received a 9-1-1 call from a 17 year-old female from the lobby of Motel 6. She reported that an adult male had been “pimping her out” and had physically assaulted her. Officers located the male attempting to leave the area and detained him. The investigation revealed that the male adult had been involved in the human trafficking of the 17 year-old, as well as a 15 year-old female who was found at the location. A female adult was also found at the location and it was determined that she was also involved in the human trafficking. The male suspect was on Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS) as a result of AB109. Both juvenile victims were reported as runaways. Claremont Police arrested Mario Stevens of Long Beach and Tracey Sims of Moreno Valley.
Throughout the rest of the research conducted, it was difficult to find topics that covered sex trafficking, because most other incidents were surrounded around sexual assault.
Sex trafficking is simply an extended version of rape where the victim feels as if she has lost all control. Susan Brownmiller highlights how men use sex trafficking as a deliberate form of power because they can. Although arrest and time in prison is a threat to the pimps, they are able to get away with trafficking young women and children because of the fear the pimps implement from the beginning. Pimps know that when a girl is arrested for prostitution or getting paid for sex, they will get arrested immediately and will most likely choose to not rat out their pimps. Essentially, pimps are protected at all costs because of the initial fear that they place on the women and children they traffic. Brownmiller discusses this for the purpose of acknowledging society’s flaws in order for people to make a necessary change that allows people to understand how morally corrupt and painful sex trafficking and/or rape can be.
Although sex trafficking isn’t a dominant or ultimately relevant topic in Claremont, tactics are still used widely around the world. No specific statistics or data appeared when I was conducting research on the topic specific to Claremont, but tactics and results always remain the same. A factor to consider as to why not much came up during my research goes back to the idea that sex trafficking victims are often misunderstood and therefore choose to be unidentified. Especially because Claremont is a relatively small place, victims may be inclined to remain silent to spare their own lives as well as anyone else who could be affected if they were to speak out. Clearly sex trafficking is no easy topic to cover completely, which is why this is a stepping stone to the discussion and conversation that can be started even around the Webb community.