The Rise of the E-Brothel

`1Technology is changing industries all over the world faster than they can link their Facebook profiles to their Twitter accounts, and the commercial sex industry is no exception. Yes, prostitution is migrating online just like everything else. Say goodbye to the era of street corner pimps smoking outside Cadillacs while they keep watch on the women they sell. And greet the era of slick escort websites, carefully coded Craigslist ads, and online marketing of commercial sex. The brothel as a building, a bricks-and-mortar place to buy women and girls for sex, is crumbling. And from its ruins will rise the brothel of the coming decade: the e-brothel.

The migration to an online platform has affected each industry differently, from the boom it has brought for consumer electronics to the slow death of the newspaper industry. But what will it mean for the commercial sex industry, where the products are not iPhones or Sunday editions, but human beings? For one, there will be an up-swell in demand for commercial sex. The Internet radically changed the porn industry because it gave consumers instant and anonymous access to what previously had to be bought at a store or through the mail. I predict that the rise of the e-brothel will do the same for prostitution. People who wouldn’t be comfortable driving to a brothel can now order women online to be delivered to their home, car, or hotel room, just like a pizza. And if this uptick in demand for commercial sex doesn’t coincide with an increase in women willing to provide these services, you can bet traffickers will fill the gaps with children and women they force into prostitution.

The rise of the e-brothel will also make trafficking victims harder to find in the commercial sex industry. It’s much easier to stake-out, investigate, and bust a physical location for human trafficking than to track down both the victims and criminals associated with a website or online ad. Plus, while police departments are gaining experience and specialists in e-investigations, many still have more experience with the former. I predict that the online migration of prostitution will pose a significant challenge for law enforcement. Another related issue is trafficking victims’ ability to leave. Most women who are in prostitution against their will are kept there by non-physical restraints — economic abuse, threats of deportation, Stockholm syndrome, etc. — as opposed to locks and chains. But women who live and are exploited in the same brick-and-mortar brothel might have zero opportunities to escape, while women sent to private homes through an escort service might have a few chances. While its possible the e-brothel would allow some trafficked women a chance to escape, the rise in demand and reduction in law enforcement busts it will cause will likely outweigh this opportunity overall.

The key in the prostitution industry, as in all industries, is to keep up with changing technology. But it’s even more important in this case, where keeping up with technology means staying a step ahead of traffickers and saving lives. The rise of the e-brothel will force those of us working to prevent the exploitation of women and children to be creative, techno-saavy, and think on our feet. Because we have no other choice than to ride the tide of technology in to a harbor, where hopefully more vulnerable people will be safe and free.


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