"Without the Internet, I never would have sold sex": Young women selling sex onlineLinda S. Jonssonv1, Carl Göran Svedin2, Margareta Hydén3
Two main themes were identified: (I) Internet use—Part of daily life, for good and bad, and Depending on mood. The young women described using the Internet on a daily basis. During periods of poorer psychological health they were more active on sites focusing on self-destructiveness and sex. During these periods, they also sold sex more frequently. (II) Patterns of contacts—Innocent/curious, Dating, and Advertising. The narratives about communication prior to a sexual encounter detailed differences ranging from being lured to direct negotiations. The results indicate that there is a group of young women who sell sex online that is not in the open prostitution. Police and other authorities working with young women selling sex need to better understand the coded sexual communication behind some of these sexual encounters and how different communication strategies might affect the young women.
Keywords: young women; prostitution; selling sex; online; Internet
Most European youth have access to the Internet (Livingstone & Haddon, 2009). In Sweden as many as 93 % of the youth between 16-20 years old use the Internet on a daily basis. Only 3% never uses the Internet (The Swedish Post and Telecom Agency, 2013). For most youth, technology is an intimate part of their lives (e.g., Boies, Knudson, & Young, 2004; Daneback & Månsson, 2009; Freeman-longo, 2000; Löfberg, 2008; The Swedish National Board for Youth Affairs, 2009). Cooper (1998) described how easy access, affordability, and anonymity can explain the power of the Internet for sexual purposes. In a review of the Internet’s impact on sexuality, Döring (2009) classified six discrete areas of sexuality, related to the Internet: pornography, sex shops, sexual education, sexual contact, sexual subcultures, and sex work. These areas had all been established outside the Internet, but according to the author, the Internet offers new configurations and possibilities.
The Internet has undoubtedly changed conditions in the sex-selling arena. New ways of making contact between buyer and seller have developed, alongside the creation of forums where sexual acts can be negotiated. Studies indicating that sex selling online have increased in contrast to the decrease in the street-focused market (e.g., Cunningham & Kendall, 2011). This was also confirmed by a Swedish study of 18- year olds in which the Internet became the most common means of contact between seller and buyer during a five- year period (2004-2009) (Svedin & Priebe, 2007, 2009). Exactly how the online contacts are made and what the characteristics of the communication are have not yet been explored in the literature. This constitutes the focus of this article on selling sex online among young women in Sweden.
Research on selling sex online mainly focuses on adults advertising sex acts openly (see, e.g., Cunningham & Kendall, 2010, 2011). Several Swedish studies on selling sex online indicate that young people under the age of 18 seldom advertise explicitly about sex acts (Abelsson & Hulusjö, 2008; Johansson & Turesson, 2006; Jonsson & Svedin, 2012; Olsson, 2007). Instead, it seems that young people use other ways to make contact that are not yet described in the literature. Quayle, Jonsson, and Lööf (2012) described how contacts between adults and young people on Internet sites for youth could lead to sexual encounters online or offline. In some of these cases, monetary compensation was offered, while in others, there were other forms of reimbursement including an exchange of attention and affirmation. Cunningham and Kendall (2010) described the age factor, showing that most women who solicit online are relatively young, with 82% in their teens or twenties. Wells, Kimberly, and Jai (2012) investigated juvenile prostitution (age up to 17) that included an online component and was known to law enforcement. They found that the Internet cases involved younger juveniles than the offline cases and that almost 90% involved some type of a third-party offender. These results are in line with other studies about young people and prostitution (in general, not only online), where the young people are described as often having pimps, a pimp boyfriend, or someone else in authority (Finkelhor & Ormrod, 2004; Schaffer & DeBlassie, 1984) and therefore they might not, in all cases, be active themselves in finding sex buyers.
Although there are few studies focusing on the special circumstances related to young people selling sex online, there are studies that focus on similarities and differences among adult behavior online. Cunningham and Kendall (2011) argue that the development of online prostitution has changed the face of sex work, and not only for the worse. They found, for example, that sex-selling adults on the streets took more risks than online sex sellers and that online sex sellers also were behaviorally and demographically different from street-based sex workers, and the authors concluded that the results indicated that the new online condition may attract new groups of sex sellers (Cunningham & Kendall, 2011).
Swedish studies have not shown an increase in youth who have had experience selling sex (Svedin & Priebe, 2007, 2009) but nevertheless, most existing research suggests that young people selling sex are vulnerable as a group and can be in urgent need of support. This group of youth has more often experienced more traumatic experiences, such as sexual abuse (Svedin & Priebe, 2007; Svensson, Fredlund, Svedin, Priebe, & Wadsby, 2013) and self-harming behavior (Svensson et al., 2013). They also have poorer psychosocial health, are at greater risk of substance abuse (Svedin & Priebe, 2007; Svensson et al., 2013), and may also have an increased risk of suicide attempt (Kidd & Kral, 2002).
Aims and Scope
This article traces its origin in an interview study of 15 young women. The aim was to examine the role the Internet plays in young women selling sex, focusing on the methods of contact and the characteristics of the communication online between the buyer and the young women.
Definitions, Legal Aspects and Ethics
In this study, the phrases selling sex or sex selling were used, referring to the experience of receiving compensation (e.g., money, alcohol, drugs and model contracts) for sex acts. Young people or youth were defined as people between 15-18 years old. In Sweden, buying sexual services is criminalized, while selling sex is not. A person who pays for a temporary sexual relationship can be sentenced to a fine or to prison for a maximum of one year (The Swedish Penal Code, Chapter 6, Section 11). Such a payment for sex acts may be monetary, or it may take some other form, such as drugs or alcohol. If the person selling the sexual service is under the age of 18, a different penal clause is applied: “purchase of sexual service/act from children.” The buyer can then be sentenced to a fine or to prison for a maximum of two years (The Swedish Penal Code, Chapter 6, Section 9). If the child is under the age of 15, the purchase is considered rape.
Ethical considerations were undertaken before and during the project. All informants signed a consent form before the interview and received written and oral information afterwards about where to turn for therapeutic support, if needed.
All names, places, and details that could reveal the identity of the informants have been removed or were anonymized in this paper.
The Regional Ethical Review Board in Linköping, Sweden, 2010/158-31, approved the study.
Those meeting the inclusion criteria for participating in the study were people between 15 and 25 years old who had had experience selling sex online before the age of 18. The age at the time of the interview varied between 15-25 years of age (M = 18.9 years old).
Purposive sampling was used and the informants were recruited through different channels. Contacts with two Swedish journalists who write regularly in Swedish media about young people selling sex resulted in interviews with five women. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) working with young people were contacted, resulting in three interviews. An advertisement on a Swedish homepage with information about young people selling sex resulted in another three interviews. Through contacts with a network of professionals at Swedish psychiatric units and residential treatment clinics, two additional informants were recruited. Two final informants contacted the project themselves and were willing to be interviewed. The study aimed to include men as well as women, but none of the contacts with men resulted in face-to-face interviews.
The 15 women in the study lived in different parts of Sweden and came from major cities as well as rural areas. Some still attended school, while others were working or were on maternity or sick leave. All reported having poor psychological health, previously and/or currently. Ten of the 15 women were on different medications—e.g., for depression or insomnia and all had suicidal thoughts. All 15 women described traumatic experiences as a child, usually of a sexual nature. The mean age on the first occasion of selling sex was 14.1 years and all informants, except for one, had sold sex more than once.
The 15 young women were all interviewed once. Eight of them had more to tell than could be captured in one interview, so follow-up interviews were conducted with these young women. The informants all received information about the research project through the different recruiting channels described above. They each received an information letter about the project and contacted the researcher about more details and how to be part of the study. The time and place of the interviews were decided together with the informants. At the time of the interview, each informant was informed orally about the project and signed a consent form.
The interview method was inspired by the Teller-Focused Interview (TFI) model (Hydén, 2000, 2014), an interview model specifically developed for studies of sensitive topics, like interpersonal violence, and/or studies of vulnerable interviewees, like victims of violence. By using the TFI model, special considerations could be made in order to support the young women. The TFI model implies open-ended questioning and is oriented towards storytelling. The participants are encouraged to report their experiences as fully as possible; at the same time, the interviewer has the responsibility to stop them if the disclosures seem to be causing distress.
The interviews were conducted in Swedish. Both the informants and the interviewer were native Swedish speakers. The analysis was done in the original language and thereafter translated and reviewed by a professional translator to English.
The interviews were semi-structured. The opening question was, “Please tell me about your experiences of selling sex online.” For some informants, the opening question was a good start, while others who found it harder to talk about their experiences needed a few more questions that had been prepared beforehand (e.g., tell me about the first time / a typical time / the last time you sold sex online). The follow-up questions were all aimed to support the young women to tell about their experiences of selling sex online and the role the Internet played.
All interviews were audio taped and transcribed verbatim. To find patterns, thematic analysis was used, organized according to the principles suggested by Braun and Clarke (2006).
Two major themes were found in the data (data corpus): The women told about their overall life situations and the reasons they had for selling sex. Secondly they described how technology was a part of selling sex. The first theme is the focus of a forthcoming article and the second is the scope of this article.
The analysis was made in steps based on the phases described by Braun and Clarke (2006). First, the transcripts were read through carefully several times. Initial ideas were written down. Next, initial codes were generated. The codes were thereafter sorted into broader themes. Finally the themes were reviewed and named. The analysis resulted in two major themes with five sub-themes:
(I) Internet use—Part of daily life, for good and bad and Depending on mood
(II) Patterns of contact—Innocent/Curious, Dating, and Advertising.
I. Internet use—Part of Daily Life, for Good and Bad and Depending on Mood
Part of daily life, for good and bad. The Internet and mobile phones were natural parts of everyday life for all informants. The activities described ranged from reading newspapers and doing schoolwork to sex-chatting with strangers. Getting access to a smartphone was often described as a transformational experience. Bibbi, the youngest of the informants, described the difference in her life after getting an iPhone and, ever since then, being constantly online.
Since I got my iPhone, I am always online. I am on “Facy” [Facebook] all the time, but also other things. I play games, send texts and MMSes, check my email…Yes, you understand… I do everything with it and always. I can hardly understand that I had a life before my iPhone. Mom was mad, but now both she and Dad have one so she doesn’t complain.
Being online was mostly described as positive and fun but was for some also problematic. The time spent online was hard to limit; the constant access became something of an addiction and, for most informants, the Internet was strongly associated with sex selling. Selma described how she tried to keep away from the computer to limit her destructive behavior.
I think that the Internet is shit. I hate that I can’t quit going on the sites that are bad for me. I know that I will end up with loads of commitments to people about sending stuff…and maybe selling sex. And even worse is that I lose four hours of schoolwork that I need to do in the night instead. Mom always comes in at eight with tea and a sandwich. Then I know I have to quit.
Depending on mood. The narratives clearly revealed different Internet use depending on the informant’s mood. All described their psychological health as occasionally bad, e.g., having anxiety, depression, or suicidal feelings. During these periods of poorer psychological health, the informants spent more hours online, accessing more destructive sites focusing on self-harm and eating disorders, as well as different sex and dating sites. During these periods, they also sold sex to a greater extent.
The Internet could also be used as an arena to channel thoughts and feelings and many described it as important to meet with others in the same situation. A majority of informants had blogs, either with their real identity or with nicknames. In the anonymous blogs, they could address sensitive topics, even if no one revealed they were selling sex. Many of the informants reported that their parents had discovered their blogs and forced them shut them down.
I searched for everything about self-harm, anorexia, and stuff. I was very active at ProAna1blogs and shared recipes with the others. I have also had a lot of blogs, but usually my parents find them and close them…I think they told my relatives to spy.
II. Patterns of Contact—Innocent/Curious, Dating, and Advertising
All informants described meeting buyers via the Internet. Contacts had also been made through mobile phone and most of the young women also had experience of making contact in offline environments such as at clubs, supermarkets, or school. None of the informants had any experience with street-based sex selling.
The young women’s narratives suggested that the Internet is perceived as the obvious way to make contact with a buyer. Natalie said, “Without the Internet, I never would have sold sex.” when describing her methods of getting in contact with a sex buyer. She described it as impossible to find the kind of customers she looked for without the Internet, since she lived in a small Swedish town and looked for men with the same sexual preferences as herself.
Natalie told that her laptop and smartphone were convenient tools to access the Internet with since she could bring them with her, which meant easy access and a high probability of reaching the person with whom she wanted to make contact. She explained that she felt safe online and had learned from years of communication with different buyers about how to protect herself from customers who were not serious.
It made everything easier…It was easier to search for contacts. It didn’t feel real. I don’t think I would have sold sex on the street. I just had to enter a site and there were so many to choose from. And being able to Google the person and analyze for myself what kind of words he used…gave me a good idea of the person I was talking to.
Differences were revealed in the narratives regarding the first time selling sex and subsequent times. Some described how they, the first time, were surfing a lot on sex sites out of curiosity and that they quickly learned a vocabulary that led to sexual suggestions from adults. Others described more passivity and how they received sexual suggestions on youth sites with hardly any activity on their part. A number of different sites were mentioned, including forums where people communicate, online games, and sex sites. Anna told about that the first time she sold sex was together with a friend. After that first time, the friend stopped but Anna kept meeting new men, without telling anyone.
Anna: Me and a friend were out chatting on the Internet, on a dating site, and got in contact with a guy in A-town, that we went to meet. How much do you want to know?
Interviewer: A lot.
Anna: [silence]…Ok...to start with, it was not serious. But when we talked about finding someone to meet...it was more of a joke, but that went too far. None of us could really pull out...no one wanted…it was the peer pressure in a way. At that point, we were straightforward and asked if anyone knew how to make quick money.
Anna: And we received different suggestions from people who were online. And we answered…and he said if we met him we would get 1000 kr to split. We found it fairly good and easy and 1000 kr to share was a lot then. So then he got her mobile phone number and then we decided the time and day to meet.
Anna’s story about her first time selling sex is one example. Among all the women’s narratives, three different sub-themes were found with respect to how they got in contact with buyers (both for the first time and subsequently). Most of the interviewed young women had experienced all three ways/processes and could switch between them. All three contacting ways indicated different processes in communication. The sexual encounters lacked prior agreements on what sexual activities that would take place and to what cost. In some cases there were more detailed agreements, but which most often were violated at the meeting.
Innocent/curious. Most of the informants experienced meeting with buyers at youth sites. Often they were contacted on these sites before the age of 18, which might seem obvious as these sites are directed at younger people. The sites were not specialized in dating or sex, but rather focused on general youth-related matters. On these sites, the chat functions were the dominant way of seeking contact. The people approaching them would, for example, comment on the identity or on posted images. Linda was only 13 years old when she was approached the first time regarding sex acts. Usually she would block the person, but sometimes she decided to chat.
Linda: Most of the time, I am on Facebook. I talk to boys or something. At Picture diary…I don’t normally post images there…but there are a lot of old men and boys writing to you all the time.
Interviewer: What do they write?
Linda: But...eh...“Do you want to meet?” and things like that.
The contact could start with some kind words from the buyer that were not alluding to sex. The communication could be exciting, fun, and some described feelings of sexual arousal. Diana described how she posted semi-nude or posing images knowing that people would approach her with more or less sexually explicit offers. She appreciated the attention and affirmation and the feeling of being desired sexually.
I didn’t post any nude…no, but at the same time, I would say quite…yes, but…revealing…and that attracted a lot of boys. Everyone was older or just slightly older than me. I was maybe 14 and they were 30. And I became, like, addicted to hearing how pretty I was…that I was the best. So when one of the boys asked if we should meet, I thought, “why not!”.
As opposed to Diana’s story, other informants described disgust at the men who approached them. Some of those who had sold sex repeatedly described not wanting to chat or communicate, but just to make an appointment for the sexual encounter.
After establishing contact, the conversation could move from youth sites with open chat forums, to forums for more private conversations (e.g., email or telephone). The buyer typically posted positive comments and often asked for more and more revealing information or pictures. All of the young women described being surprised about how quickly they received replies. Bibbi and Mandy were contacted and asked to do model shoots, as the men claimed they would be perfect models. The contact that followed was important to the young women and they described feelings of trust and being someone special. For example, Mandy described being aware that the man wanted to have sexual images of her rather than fashion pictures. She decided that the relationship with him was more important and outweighed the risks she perceived of sending him the sexual content. She also received some money as compensation for the material. Some informants described mixed feelings about their contacts that in some ways felt like love affairs, while at the same time receiving compensation for sex acts. Even if they were well aware of the fact that some of the men had families and that the relationships wouldn’t last, they described felling abandoned and sad when the contacts ended.
Dating. One of the most prominent channels for contacts was via dating and/or sex sites. All informants had experienced meeting at these types of sites. The named sites were directed at adults and aimed at helping people find a partner, either for a long-term relationship or for temporary sexual purposes. The interviewed young women described how they got in contact with sex buyers, even at the sites looking for steady relationships, all depending on the person with whom they got in contact. Holly had been dating men online since she was 13 years old. At first, she found her sex contacts on dating sites. Sometimes she received compensation and sometimes not.
You might think I am crazy. But I have always looked for love. I wanted my own family with kids and all that. But since I was only 15, no one wanted to have a family with me. I knew I was good at sex and how to get approached by men if I wanted. I spent hours and hours on sex sites where I met men. Even if I hated it, I did know I was purely “goods” for the men…but I hoped to find love. Yes, I know it sounds silly.
On some of the dating sites, it was possible to have profiles, including those with sexual preferences. Here the communication from the start focused on sex.
You log in…but Club6 is more of a community site, you have to be a member. Then you look around and you meet someone. You talk sex, nothing else…just sex. It is like a dating site. There are also mail and guestbook. You have your own page. You post images and films also. I don’t post anymore, but I have posted pictures, but then there are men that have posted images and films of me.
Even if it was possible to make contacts for long-lasting relationships, it was implicit that the men who made contact were looking for more causal relationships and were willing to pay for sex. The compensation was mostly dealt with in private communication. All narratives touched on age. The young women described their age as being important since most sex buyers wanted young, often under-aged girls. The young women always wrote that they were older than 18 in their profiles, but in the communication they often said they were younger or implicitly indicated that; otherwise the men wouldn’t be that interested in meeting. It was also described how buyers particularly looked for girls under the age of 15. The narratives described explicit discussions about sex from the start, but the discussions regarding compensation and the fact that the young women were under-aged were not as clear or open. Selma described the communications on the dating sites as a special, almost coded language that was difficult to perceive for most people.
You have to learn the language. I can’t exactly explain it to you. But I know what the man is after when looking at nicknames, how he writes, and so on. It is hard to explain to you…I can show you if you like…it’s easy if you know the language but most normal people don’t. Also if you want money or a special kind of sex you write that more hidden…like, “I like nice cloths and like it rough”.
Advertising. Almost all of the informants had experiences of advertising sex acts on sex sites. This was, however, never the case for the first contact. Instead, advertisements were mainly used for the informants who had turned 18 and for the informants who sold sex on a more regular basis. Nikki sold sex to men and women online and to boys she met at school. She sometimes advertised on sex-selling sites, but said she was afraid of being discovered by friends or authorities.
Later, I discovered that I could easily get in contact with other men by posting ads. At first, I was rather…picky…and everything was jittery and exiting. I am ashamed that I got a kick out of it. You received innumerable answers directly, so it was more a matter of choosing the best person. I have only put up ads a few times, then I saved the telephone numbers in a document on my computer and have had contact with the same men.
Later, I discovered that I could easily get in contact with other men by posting ads. At first, I was rather…picky…and everything was jittery and exiting. I am ashamed that I got a kick out of it. You received innumerable answers directly, so it was more a matter of choosing the best person. I have only put up ads a few times, then I saved the telephone numbers in a document on my computer and have had contact with the same men.
In the advertisements, it was described in more or less detail what services were offered and for what price.
I posted an ad in which I described what you could do with me and…how much I wanted.
The communication after getting in contact via advertisements was direct and more or less a negotiation regarding what services the encounter would include, where and when to meet, and the type of compensation. Even if there was a discussion and an agreement online this was seldom fully followed by the buyer at the meeting, something the young women described they were aware of on beforehand.
Advertising was not as common as answering other people’s advertisements. Stella reported that sometimes she was not up for chatting and spending a lot of time dating online. Instead, she looked for men who explicitly wanted younger girls for sex and also in the advertisement stated where they lived.
Sometimes you get fed up with discussion and playing innocent and all that on sex sites. I sometimes answer ads from men who write that they want to meet with young, blond girls who are willing to do oral- vaginal- and anal sex. A lot is clear from the start. The money part is easy, I just ask how much they are willing to pay and I take the bait or not.
The 15 young women presented narratives regarding their Internet use and the process of establishing contacts online for sex selling. There were many overlapping experiences but also differences related to both the contact channels and the communication processes. We would like to highlight four main results.
First, for all the interviewed young women, the Internet was described as the most natural means to get in contact with the buyers. The access to smartphones extended the possibility to constantly be online, something that was described with mixed feelings. In several cases, sex acts were also sold online, ranging from semi-nude pictures to live webcam sex. Notable in the narratives was the opinion that they would not have sold sex if the Internet did not exist. Cunningham and Kendall (2011) found, when comparing street and online prostitution, that online prostitution attracts new groups of sex sellers. Swedish studies have also shown that the Internet is rapidly becoming the main arena for contact between young sex sellers and buyers but at the same time theses studies did not show an increase in the number of youth selling sex (Svedin & Priebe, 2007, 2009). This indicates that the Internet, at least among Swedish youth, has not attracted more youth selling sex but just changes the contact arena between buyer and seller. Whether the interviewed young women would have sold sex if the Internet did not exist is impossible to answer. However, the Internet seems to have facilitated both their introduction to and their staying in the sex-selling market since the young women described easy access and quick responses as being attractive, though it also made it more difficult to set boundaries. Parallels can be drawn to the triple “A” model described by Cooper (1998), which suggests that accessibility, anonymity, and affordability are the reasons why the Internet is so popular for sexual purposes. Hartlein and Stevenson (2010) elaborated on Cooper’s model and added an additional four “As”, highlighting the Internet as possibly contributing to Internet-related intimacy problems: approximation, acceptability, ambiguity, and accommodation. Both models seem applicable to the interviewed young women where the informants underlined both the possibilities and challenges of the Internet.
Even though the young women’s psychological health was not explored in this study, their narratives revealed different patterns of Internet use during periods of anxiety and depressive feelings. During these periods, the young women adopted more risk-taking behaviors online, including visiting self-harm sites and sex sites, but also searching for sexual contacts and selling sex more frequently than otherwise. Young people with self-harm behaviors have been shown to be engaged in more sexual risk-taking online (Mitchell & Ybarra, 2007). Online sexual risk-taking also seems to be correlated to being less satisfied with life and coming from less stable families (Baumgartner, Sumter, Peter, & Valkenburg, 2012). The interviewed young women, during their emotional downturns, changed their Internet behavior, which could indicate a search for solutions online to feel better and to fill a gap of, e.g., loneliness.
Second, the narratives suggest a significant self-activity, ranging from posting semi-nude material to responding to advertisements regarding sexual encounters. None of the interviewed young women mentioned a boyfriend, pimp, or anyone else making a financial profit from connecting them with buyers. The results from this study indicate that there is a group of young women selling sex who act independently and are not even in contact with other sex sellers (compare, e.g., Cusick, 2002; Schaffer & DeBlassie, 1984; Wells et al., 2012).
Third, three different themes were found based on the communication and interaction with prospective buyers for the actual encounter. The ways contacts were made differed depending on where in the process of selling sex the young women were, their age, and finally how explicit the notion of selling sex was at the first point of contact.
For some of the young women, the first sex-selling occasion occurred after being approached on a youth site, while others were approached after posting semi-nude images looking for compliments. The communication that followed on the youth sites might in some cases be compared to an online grooming process, with the sexual communication initially more implicit. Typically, the perpetrator systematically desensitizes the child to the point where there is an increased likelihood of engagement in sexual activity (Whittle, Hamilton- Giachritsis, Beech, & Collings, 2013), meaning that some of the interviewed girls were more or less lured into selling sex.
When the sex selling was more established, the communication seemed to be direct, that is, more explicit, about the sexual purpose. This took place primarily on dating or sex sites. Sevcikova and Daneback (2011) interviewed sex seekers online who described how they developed strategies to recognize partners who would be willing to meet offline, instead of the contact staying online. The interviewed young women in our study described similar strategies where they chose between the contacts to find the serious offers. Even if the communication focused on sex, the informants also described a special language, a coded language related to such things as monetary compensation and age. For someone uninitiated, this means that it can be difficult to understand when communication about sex selling/buying is taking place or not. More explicit discussions about sex selling either took place in more private forums or when answering or posting advertisements. Advertising themselves was however the least common way to make contact among the young women.
In summary, the narratives revealed that the young women participated in a more discreet form of online prostitution, not easily detected by casual observation. This could partly be explained by a wish to keep these activities hidden from friends and family as well as the authorities as it concerns under-aged women. Similarly, Olsson (2007) argues that young people under the age of 18 are not visible in open prostitution online since they are afraid of repressive action by Swedish authorities. The fact that young women are approached online with sexual suggestions without them having advertised suggests that advertising is not necessary to generate contacts.
Fourth, the young women in the study knew they were going to a sexual encounter, though they most of the time did not agree in advance on what particular sex acts would be involved and what the costs of those acts would be. The lack of prior detailed agreement and a violation to what was agreed might indicate a power imbalance where the young woman, who is a child, is actually negotiating with an adult. Frones (1995) described the communication between an adult and a child like a vertical relationship, as opposed to the horizontal relationships among children or among adults. Children need both these relationships in their social development. In the vertical relationships, the adults are often the teachers or trainers. In the case of adults negotiating with children about selling sex, one can argue that the adults are abusing their higher vertical position. Löfberg (2008) suggests that the vertical or horizontal nature of the relationship is somehow less clear or completely erased online, which can be confusing for the child. This may result in online communication in which children are made to feel more insecure and pressured into consenting to things they would never do in an offline environment.
Most jurisdictions limit sexual relationships between children and adults. However, in Sweden, it is legal for a person over 15 years old to be in a relationship with an adult. Prior research has shown that low relationship power occurs with partner age difference (DiClemente et al., 2002; Teitelman, Tennille, Bohinski, Jemmott, & Jemmott, 2011). Relationship power means the degree to which one can act independently of a partner’s control, influence a partner’s actions, and dominate decision-making in a relationship (Pulerwitz, Gortmaker, & DeJong, 2000). These theories are grounded in situations that are different from the young women’s in our study, who were not in long-term relationships with the sex sellers. Even so, these theories could be used to spread light on how age difference can play part in any sexual relationship.
Young people who sell sex have more often been exposed to previous traumatic life events, particularly sexual abuse (Svedin & Priebe, 2009; Svensson et al., 2013), that can lead to self-loathing of one’s body, commonly seeing it as “used” or “damaged goods” (see e.g. Rathsman, 2011; Stroebel et al., 2013). Also, children who have been victims of early sexual abuse have been found to be sexualized earlier, which can make them agree to sexual suggestions they would otherwise have rejected (Finkelhor & Browne, 1985). The interviewed young women had all been exposed to previous traumatic life events, which might put them in a vulnerable life situation where it may be particularly difficult to communicate and negotiate on an equal level.
Finally, we highlight the possibility that communication online can be harder to interpret than face-to-face interaction where e.g. body language provides a large portion of the context. This might lead to bad decision-making if the young woman calculates the risks wrongly.
There are several limitations in this study that need to be mentioned. It is possible that more interviews would have added more to the results, even if theoretical saturation was achieved. Some of the interviewed women described experiences that happened many years ago, which means that there is a risk of memory bias (as is always the case in retrospective studies). It is possible that methods other than face-to-face interviews would have yielded additional knowledge. Talking about the experience of selling sex can be sensitive and some of the informants may have felt more confident if the interviews had been conducted online. Another approach could have to analyze chat logs (see, e.g., Leander, Christianson, & Granhag, 2008).
This study showed that the Internet plays an important, if not crucial, role for some young women selling sex online. Communication online prior to an encounter seems to range from being lured into a sexual meeting to a straightforward communication about sex selling. Further studies with different methodological approaches, both qualitative and quantitative, are needed in order to confirm this study’s results. Looking at different Internet behaviors as a mood regulator also needs to be studied more in depth since this could be the impetus behind risky behavior on the Internet. Professionals working with children need to be more aware of what young women do online and have a better understanding of online risk-taking behaviors. The results of this study indicate that there is a group of young women who are selling sex online, who cannot easily be detected by casual observations. Police and other authorities working to protect young women from being in the sex-selling market need to better understand the coded sexual communication that lies behind some of the sexual encounters and how the different communication strategies might affect the young women and our understanding. A young woman who has been groomed online and lured into sex selling might have different needs of support, than a young women who have advertised about sexual services. This needs however to be studied further in the future.
1. ProAna refers to networks or online communities where eating disorder behaviors and attitudes are encouraged.
This study was made possible by grants from the Swedish National Board for Health and Welfare and the Crime Victim Fund in Sweden.
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