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Stop the Traffic


by Patrick A. Trueman

The combined crises of online sex trafficking and pornography call for local and national action

Stop the Traffic

CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review

Remote dungeons. Back alleys of distant cities. This is what comes to most people’s mind when they hear about sex trafficking. But in reality, sex trafficking is increasingly moving online, and you may have seen it from your own computer screen.

Sex trafficking is defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and signed by the president in 2000, as “a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”

Online sex trafficking occurs most commonly in the form of advertisements for sex trafficking victims posted on websites and in pornography. The two are inextricably linked.

Although most people would shudder at the thought of encouraging or engaging in sex trafficking, pornography today is as pervasive and as popular as ever. Young children are exposed to it at record rates, and the neurochemicals in their brains become conditioned to the sexual images on a screen. This is not only creating a public health crisis but also contributing to the proliferation of sex trafficking.


At the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, we’ve heard countless stories of individuals who have had pornography made of them while they were being either prostituted or trafficked.

Videos of sex trafficked persons can be uploaded to mainstream pornography websites, and even performers in mainstream pornography can be sexually abused on set.

While people assume everything they see in pornography is pure fantasy, anyone watching may be vicariously participating in, and even enjoying, another person’s living nightmare. Nobody who watches pornography can be certain that they have not watched trafficked persons’ abuse.

Further, pornography creates and drives the demand for trafficked women and children.

Research demonstrates that pornography changes the brain, which leads to addiction and a desire for harder, more deviant materials. It also creates “permission-giving beliefs,” such as the idea that it is normal to pay for sex or that women enjoy violent sex. These changes often lead users to act out what they have viewed.

Spouses and girlfriends usually do not want to participate in violent sexual behavior, so the user seeks it elsewhere — sometimes through prostituted or trafficked women and children.

In a study published in 2007, interviews were conducted with 854 prostituted women from nine countries. Nearly half reported being upset by customers trying to make the women perform acts seen in pornography.

A similar study dating back to 1984 found that nearly 25 percent of prostituted women reported being assaulted by a client “making reference to something he had seen as inspiration for his acting, or insisting that the woman enjoyed the assault.”

Recent research continues to show that pornography is linked to increased rates of sexual and physical aggression. While certainly not everyone who watches pornography will act in a sexually violent way, or will go on to purchase another individual for sex, pornography use increases the likelihood of both.


While some people unwittingly participate in online sex trafficking by watching pornography, others intentionally purchase other human beings through websites.

Online ads for sex appear across the Internet, including mainstream social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

But one website stands out as particularly culpable for the exploitation on its platform. Backpage is a website that emulates the Craigslist online classifieds model but serves as a virtual auction block where sex buyers can shop for human beings.

The National Center on Missing and Exploited Children has reported that 73 percent of all child sex trafficking cases it has handled involved the website.

With operations in nearly 100 countries and 950 locations worldwide, Backpage is likely the largest facilitator of sex trafficking in the world. Though the site is used to advertise a variety of nonsexual services and products, the California Attorney General’s office reported that from January 2013 to March 2015, 99 percent of Backpage’s worldwide income was directly attributable to its ads selling sex.

Under mounting political pressure, Backpage “blocked” its prostitution advertising in the United States beginning Jan. 9, 2017. Though this was hailed as a great victory, we soon learned that the sex trafficking and prostitution simply migrated to other sections on the website.

This change occurred the night before the CEO and founders of Backpage were scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in an investigation into sex trafficking occurring via their website.

During the hearing, at which Backpage executives refused to testify, Panel Chairman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said, “These are the practices of a corporation intent on profiting from human trafficking and human misery, and profit they have, at the expense of countless innocent victims.”


The first step in response is to ensure that we are not participating in the use of pornography, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies as a “sin gravely contrary to chastity” (2396, cf. 2354). The U.S. bishops remind us in their 2015 pastoral statement on pornography, Create in Me a Clean Heart, “You are beloved sons and daughters of the Father. Be not afraid to approach the altar of mercy and ask for forgiveness. Many good people struggle with this sin. You are not alone; there is always hope!”

We can encourage our friends and family members as well. If you or a loved one are struggling with pornography use, you can find online tools to help from the USCCB, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and elsewhere. You can also find information about the links between pornography and sex trafficking at StopTraffickingDemand.com.

Our nation is suffering a public health crisis caused by pornography, yet most churches have no materials available on the topic. Shouldn’t the Church be the first place to look? As Pope Francis reminds us, the Church is a “field hospital” for the wounded.

In cooperation with your pastor, you can help fellow parishioners be informed of the harms of pornography and the prevalence of trafficking. It can be as simple as assembling educational materials and resources for recovery.

There are also many examples of Knights of Columbus councils that have sponsored initiatives such as presentations and conferences to raise awareness and combat human trafficking.

Especially if you are a parent of school-aged children, consider encouraging your local school to present age-appropriate materials on the harms of pornography and the dangers of trafficking. Children are accessing pornography at younger and younger ages, so schools can be helpful in teaching the harms of sexual exploitation and respect for the dignity of all human beings.


On the national level, too, we can change laws so that websites are no longer given a pass to facilitate sex trafficking and prostitution.

In recent years, U.S. courts have misinterpreted a little-known part of the federal Communications Decency Act (Section 230) to grant a broad immunity to websites for any content posted by a third-party user — including sex traffickers posting advertisements for their victims. Congress never intended this result from a law that was meant to protect children and families from sexual exploitation. Currently, the U.S. Senate has a bill to amend this law called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which seeks to close the loophole to hold websites accountable if they knowingly facilitate sex trafficking.

Although the use of technology has spread sex trafficking into more diverse and accessible forms, we must remember that our actions can make a difference. Whether we are removing pornography from our lives, contacting elected officials or spreading messages of hope, we must transform our concerns into actions for a better world.

Let’s use the tools of the internet for good: to promote human dignity and foster human rights.

PATRICK A. TRUEMAN is president and CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (endsexualexploitation.org). A member of Santa Maria Council 4654 in Vienna, Va., he served as chief of the U.S. Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Criminal Division, under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.


THE GLOBAL PHENOMENON of human trafficking is complex and can take various forms. It falls into two main categories: forced labor and sexual exploitation. According to a 2016 United Nations global report on human trafficking, the majority of victims identified in the West are trafficked for sex.

A 2017 report published by World Without Exploitation, a NYC-based organization devoted to ending sex trafficking, explains that because trafficking is illegal and clandestine, it is difficult to measure the scope of this scourge with statistical accuracy. Nevertheless, the report notes that research in the United States has revealed:

• The victims of sex trafficking are usually women and children. The majority of traffickers are male, but a significant minority (15 to 32 percent) are female.
• Large percentages of victims enter the sex trade before the age of 18.
• There is a relationship between childhood sexual assault, homelessness and sex trade involvement.
• Between December 2007 and December 2016, nearly 32,000 potential human trafficking cases were reported by the public to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline: 888-373-7888. The vast majority involved trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Catholics are encouraged to observe the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, promoted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, on Feb. 8, the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita. To learn more about how to identify a potential victim and what you can do to help, visit usccb.org/stopslavery.