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Violence Against Women on the Internet

Campus Sexual Assault Policies
(opens: 4.16.02)
(opens: 4.23.02)
Sex Trafficking
(opens: 4.30.02)
The Internet as a Site of Resistance
(opens: 5.7.02)
(opens: 5.14.02)
NOTE: Modules will launch by 5 p.m. U.S. Eastern time on the date listed.

The Internet and the Sex Industry

A. The Explosion of the Internet Sex Industry and Its Victims

Throughout the past decade, men have used the Internet to accelerate and normalize the sexual exploitation of women and children. New communication and information technologies allow customers and pimps-who are increasingly hard to tell apart-to send and consume text, images, and audio and video files from the comfort of their own homes, all at a relatively low cost. The Internet has pioneered not only new ways of reaching customers, but also new ways of commodifying women and sexualizing violence. Customers use chat rooms, newsgroups, and email to share information about where to buy prostituted women and children, post pornographic pictures and videos, and broadcast sexual abuse in real time. Pimps and criminal syndicates use the Web to advertise and display various forms of sexual violence, including sex tours, live strip/sex shows, pornographic images and movies, and escort/marriage services, and to recruit unsuspecting women for these purposes.

Moreover, the anonymity that the Web affords allows pimps to violate laws prohibiting sexual exploitation and violence with impunity, particularly in countries with strong non-regulation policies. By locating their servers in host countries with less restrictive laws, they can avoid regulation while still accessing global markets. The new technologies have thus enabled the creation of online communities free from community interference or standards where any and every type of sexual violence goes and where misogyny is the norm. With little fear detection, apprehension, or punishment, men can now buy, sell, auction, degrade, humiliate, torture, stalk, view, consume, and dispose of women. [11]

According to Donna Hughes, this "mainstreaming of pornography does not mean that the exploitation or abuse of women used in making the pornography has decreased." [12] Instead, as a result of competition among sites, the percentage of violent, misogynistic images has been steadily increasing. Sites are attempting to lure customers with increasingly graphic images of rape, torture, and bestiality, to name a few. Consider, for instance,, licensed in Denmark, which advertises "the world's largest collection of real life amateur slaves." (NOTE: Students are NOT required to view this site, and are warned that they may find its content disturbing. It contains extremely graphic images of violence against women, and is offered as an example of the worst of the Web; please think carefully before clicking on the link). It contains free images of women being tortured, raped, and degraded, has a live chat room where customers can "command the bitches," and hosts both "amateur slave" contests and slave auctions.

Violence in the sex industry is not new. [13] "What is new is the volume of pornography that is being made and that the average person with a computer, modem, and search engine can find more violent, degrading images within minutes than they could in a lifetime 15 years ago." [14] Before the rise of the Web, customers generally had to leave their communities to obtain such extreme material, and even then they had to know where to go to find it. Now they can access it nearly instantaneously, free of charge, at any time of day with the mere click of a button.

Noticeably absent from discussions about the relationship between the sex industry and the Internet are women's firsthand accounts of violence. Research indicates that most women and girls working in the sex industry left their homes in search economic opportunity or safety from physical and sexual abuse only to find more violence. The methods of control used by pimps and traffickers are similar to those used by batterers: women are denied freedom of movement, isolated, deprived of their earnings, threatened, and made dependent on drugs or alcohol. Physical and sexual violence are central to their maintenance of control. A 2001 report by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women found:

Eighty-six percent of U.S. women, and 53 percent of the international women reported being physically abused by pimps and traffickers. One-half of the U.S. women and 1/3 of the international women described frequent, sometimes daily assaults. Eighty-eight percent of U.S. women and 47 percent of international women reported psychological abuse. Ninety percent of the U.S. women and 40 percent of international women reported being sexually assaulted in prostitution at the hands of pimps and traffickers. As evidenced from the context of interviews with women, the research team believes that these findings represent underreporting of the actual violence perpetrated, especially against international women by pimps and buyers. There may be reasons for this underreporting including normalization or non-naming of the violence in their lives. [15]

Moreover, women-and especially children-working in the sex industry are at increased risk of acquiring AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In that same study nearly half of the U.S. and international women reported that men expected sex without condoms, and a significant portion reported that men often became abusive when they insisted. For more information about the health effects of prostitution, click here.

As with all other types of violence against women, the amount and degree of violence that women are subjected to in the online sex industry are minimized, denied, and ignored. It is often said that the movement to redefine prostitution as "sex work" is an example of this phenomenon. In recent years, several groups-some of whom allegedly are supported by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), who are themselves supported by the sex industry-have been promoting the view that at heart, prostitution is no different than any other type of work. Molly Reilly of Women, Law and Development International reports that these groups:

subscribe to the view that prostitution is a type of work often characterized by conditions of extreme exploitation. Social stigma and the illegality of prostitution can create or worsen the exploitation, according to this view. The focus here is on the conditions of work rather than its nature. According to this view, exploitative conditions in prostitution are best understood as labor issues, rather than as violence against women. Those who hold this view point to the existence of similarly abusive conditions and practices in other sectors, particularly domestic work, as evidence that there is no special quality of prostitution that creates the exploitation. According to this view, trafficking relates to abusive labor recruitment practices or exploitative labor conditions, irrespective of the type of work. Forced prostitution, according to this view, is forced labor in the sex industry. The Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women (GAATW) is the well-known international network that promotes this position. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has recently issued a report on the se industry in Southeast Asia that adopts this view, recommending that the industry be recognized as a legitimate economic sector. Groups associated with this view support the decriminalization of all aspects of the business of selling sex. [16]
Most organizations convincingly argue instead that prostitution both reflects and undermines women's position in society. The distinction between forced prostitution and prostitution by choice, they claim, is meaningless; women enter the sex industry because no other viable economic opportunities are open to them. Reilly goes on to explain that these groups subscribe to the view that:

prostitution is incompatible with human dignity and/or is a form of gender-based violence. According to this view, the exploitation experienced by most prostitutes shows that prostitution is by its nature a form of sexual exploitation. All prostitutes are trafficked, because all are forced into prostitution, according to this view. A woman cannot consent to prostitution any more than she can consent to wife-beating, under this theory. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) is the well-known international network that promotes this view and the policy solutions that flow from it, which focus on the elimination or abolition of prostitution. Groups associated with this position generally do not support criminal penalties for prostitution itself, but support criminalization of third parties for prostitution-related offenses, such as living off the income of prostitution. These groups also support penalties for customers.

For more information on this debate, visit

[11]OPTIONAL READING: Donna Hughes, "Pimps and Predators on the Internet: Globalizing the Sexual Exploitation of Women and Children," (1999), available online at

[12]OPTIONAL READING: Donna Hughes, 'The Use of New Communication and Information Technologies for Sexual Exploitation of Women and Children," Hastings Women's Law Journal (forthcoming 2002), available online at

[13]OPTIONAL READING: For more information about violence in the porn industry, see Module II.

[14]OPTIONAL READING: Donna Hughes, 'The Use of New Communication and Information Technologies for Sexual Exploitation of Women and Children," Hastings Women's Law Journal (forthcoming 2002), available online at

[15]OPTIONAL READING: Janice Raymond, Donna Hughes, and Carol Gomez, "Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States: International and Domestic Trends (2001). The full report is available online at For more information about violence against strippers, visit

[16]Molly Reilly, unpublished manuscript on sex trafficking, on file with author.

Go on to Part B - The Growth of the Internet

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