Digital platforms put college students at risk of sex trafficking

Taylor Burnfield 

tburnfie@uccs.edu  

     Digital platforms such as OnlyFans and Instagram have been used by sex traffickers to find their victims, according to The Avery Center, a nonprofit organization based in Greeley that provides resources for current and former sex trafficking victims.  

     McKenna Miller, the outreach and engagement coordinator for The Avery Center, is a UCCS alumnus and former Scribe employee who graduated in 2017 with a degree in psychology. 

     Miller explained that sex trafficking can happen to anyone, but certain groups are more at risk than others. “The majority of individuals that we see being trafficked are individuals from marginalized identities. People that are low-income, that have lower education, women are more likely [to be trafficked]. 

     “Trans women [are] a huge population of individuals that are affected by trafficking. Individuals that are dependent on their race and ethnicity, immigrant status, age. We see a lot of individuals enter trafficking in their youth and adolescence,” Miller said. 

     Miller also explained that college students are at risk for trafficking due to their lack of financial stability. Students could be lured into sex trafficking through websites like Seeking Arrangement that promise financial rewards in exchange for dating a wealthy individual. This is known as “sugaring.” 

     However, these dating websites are not all that they seem. Miller said, “Sugaring is a huge gateway into trafficking because you’re reaping the rewards of what the sex industry can provide you. But ultimately, it is grooming you and preparing you for somebody else to come along and exploit you in another area of the sex industry. We see a lot of college students getting started in [sugaring].” 

     She continued, “We’ve been starting to do some research on Seeking Arrangements and we have reason to believe that pimps could potentially be posing as a sugar daddy on those sites as well. It is not uncommon for a pimp to say, ‘I will offer you a better life’ and then now you’re exploited in a trafficking situation.” 

     OnlyFans, an online subscription service that allows users to share their own sexual content, gained popularity during the pandemic because its content creators had the opportunity to make money on the platform.  

     OnlyFans users are at risk for sex trafficking, according to Miller. “We do 100% in fact know that there are individuals on OnlyFans that are being exploited and trafficked. We have seen a significant rise in OnlyFans and that’s an area where we see a tremendous amount of college-aged students entering the sex industry,” she said. 

     Other forms of social media, such as Instagram, have been used by traffickers to find victims. “We have known pimps to reach out [on Instagram] and say, ‘Hey, I’m recording a music video. I would love for you to come and be in my music video. You’re really beautiful,’” Miller said. 

     “With digital communication, it’s so much more discreet and harder for people to identify. They’re posing as a normal person, you can maybe see their account, and nothing seems threatening,” she said.  

     One of the biggest clues that someone online is a trafficker is that they make promises that are larger than life, according to Miller. She said that if an opportunity sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. 

     Miller explained that there are numerous kinds of “pimps,” and they use several manipulation tactics to lure in victims. One of the most common types of pimps is known as a boyfriend pimp or Romeo pimp. “The boyfriend or Romeo pimp is somebody who comes along and is Mr. Perfect, he wants to offer you everything,” she said. 

     A boyfriend pimp will pretend to be a romantic partner. Once their victim trusts them, they isolate their victims from their social circle and control their whereabouts and finances. This leaves the victim completely dependent on their pimp, according to Miller.  

     Miller shared a personal story about when she was a struggling college student and believed that she could have become a sex trafficking victim. “When I first started college, I was trying to be a model and I thought that was really cool. You make a quick 100 bucks for a session,” Miller said. 

     “But ultimately, I was getting pushed further into more sexually exploitative content and these photographers are very coercive and very smart about the way that they do this. They are essentially grooming you to more sexually explicit content, and if it weren’t for certain circumstances in my life, I absolutely could have been trafficked,” she said. 

     “So, putting a critical lens on the situation and recognizing that these people might not have my best interest at heart. Holding your own boundaries [and] maybe bringing friends with you if you’re involved in [modeling],” she said. 

     Miller wants others to know that the blame should always be placed on the traffickers, never the trafficked. “Ultimately, it is not your fault if you find yourself in an exploitative situation. Recognizing what other people can benefit from your participation in it because these individuals are not looking out for your best interest. They are looking out for themselves and their business, and you can become the product,” she said. 

     The Avery Center can provide assistance such as connecting victims with housing and medical services. The Avery Center also provides job training and a care package program, among other resources.  

     “Whether you are currently being exploited or if you have exited, we can help you,” Miller said. 

    To learn more about The Avery Center, visit their official website. 

Certain digital platforms have been used by sex traffickers to find their victims, according to The Avery Center. Images courtesy of OnlyFans, Instagram and Seeking Arrangement.