MANILA – With the frequent use of social media platforms and other websites, it has become increasingly easy for some Filipino youth to enter the online sex industry, according to a study released by the humanitarian group Plan International.
The study, “Children and the Sex Trade in the Digital Age,” provides a glimpse into how technology has allowed the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) to evolve from picking up children in bars or brothels to customers simply lurking in shady Facebook groups or websites in search for children providing sexual services.
“The facilitation of CSEC has become easier and its containment or control more complex as transactions are facilitated through the internet with the use of smartphones and computers,” the study stated.
“Internet-mediated transactions occurred in pornography websites and social media sites, blurring the formerly defined geographic boundaries of the industry,” it added.
Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) refers to the use of the child in sexual activities (prostitution, pornography, or trafficking for sexual purposes) for money or other forms of compensation.
Dr. Elizabeth De-Castro, Executive Director of Psychosocial Support and Children’s Rights Resource Center, said this kind of phenomenon has made every child accessing the internet a potential victim of sexual exploitation for money.
“The potential victim of this kind of phenomenon, because it is internet-mediated, is your children, my children, other people’s children,” she said.
“Because the base is no longer in brothels, the base is no longer in freelancing in the streets. The base is the home, the school, internet cafes, wherever young people congregated,” she added.
The study interviewed 32 children who entered the online sex industry between the ages of 13 and 18 years old.
Poverty was cited as one of their main reasons for opting to sell their sexual services. Some needed the money to put food on the table or to pay for educational expenses or hospital bills of a relative.
Some said their lack of education hindered them from searching for decent jobs.
Some children said they voluntarily entered the sex industry, but still others had a grim disclosure: their parents forced them to sell their bodies online.
One 17-year-old girl in the study recalled how her own mother would beat her up, then lock her up if she refused to entertain customers.
Inside the online sex trade industry
The study said the internet has provided various options to customers seeking sexual services to children: whether to transact face-to-face or online, whether to go freelance or through a pimp, whether to remain a sex provider or have other roles such as an “attacker” (a person who refers customers to friends) and pimps.
Technology has also introduced another form of commercial sexual exploitation called the live online sexual abuse, wherein a child performs a sexual act live over the internet to be watched by other people in different locations.
Some of the children in the study, at one point, became “freelancers” or those involved in the online sex trade without a pimp. But others seek pimps so they could be protected from abuse and fraud.
Freelancers usually post in their Facebook accounts their characteristics and the type of customer they prefer. They also include terms of payment, the specific sexual act to be performed including do’s and don’ts, length of the sexual service, as well as the date, time, and location of the service.
Other conditions were also added, such as provision of transportation service or use of condom.
Meanwhile, an online pimp opens a group in social media or a website and maintains it by providing profiles and photos of sex providers.
The study’s key informant who was also an online pimp said a Facebook group account usually would include five to 15 girls active in a particular area.
Facebook groups involved in the online sex trade have names such as PSP Crib 2, Favorite Walk, PSP for Rent, Take a Walk, Chubby Bunnies, PSP On the Go, Metro Walkers, Favorite Coffee, Need pizza, candy, coffee, etc., and Private Pinay.
These accounts have either closed or secret group features on Facebook.
Websites used for sex trade are manila.craigslist.com, manila.backpage.com, planetromeo.com, wechat.com, and grindr.com
Even mobile apps, such as WeChat and Grindr, have been used as means to reach out to customers.
An agreed-upon sexual service with terms of payment is set before the pimp and the customer meet. The pimp also sets meet-ups to check the appearance of the customer and evaluate if there are safety issues with the customer.
If the customer has previously availed of sexual services or has built a reputation with the pimp, meet-ups are no longer needed. The pimp then simply sends the room number of the hotel or motel to the customer.
The children interviewed in the study said their customers’ age ranged between 20 to 50 years old. They also noticed that younger customers tend to be sadistic, demanding, and abusive.
Foreigners are their usual customers, they added. But professionals and government workers are also among their clientele.
Engagements with the customer last from an hour to three hours. Some children have also noted the number of “pops” or times of ejaculation specified instead of the length of time with the customer.
Payments are made either through cash or, in the case of cyber pornography, money transfers.
Other payments include the provision of clothes, mobile phones, gadgets, food, or just a place to stay.
One respondent even described a highly organized sexual service operation site wherein a payroll system is observed like a regular job.
She only needs to comply with a certain number of hours before receiving compensation issued every 15th and 30th of the month.
Most respondents were paid between P1,000 and P3,000 per transaction if the deal was made online.
Those who dealt with customers personally were paid P500 or less.
Several factors also affect the pricing of the sexual services rendered to customers, such as the nationality and age of the customer as well as the type and degree of the sexual act.
On the part of the service provider, his or her characteristics or “freshness” are also factored in.
Tougher nut to crack
The study also noted that despite the various laws and structures aimed at combating commercial sexual exploitation of children online, the ineffective implementation of these policies remained the major issue.
Lack of awareness of the laws, constrained budget to carry out the policies, and the lack of political will were also factors that prevented the government from fully addressing the issue.
It has been harder to monitor and control the commercial sex exploitation of children because of the availability of internet, computers, and smartphones.
But the best solution, the study stated, was still prevention by working on the following:
1. Regulation of information and communication technology must be enforced.
2. Mechanisms should be created for regulating access to certain websites and social media.
3. Wider information campaign that will increase the responsible use of technology.