Wilhan Marhano, 46, was arrested in June of 2020 for reportedly running international sex trafficking sites.
He was found to have made $21 million in less than two years, profits from the adult websites he managed, including one he bought with the domain name “New Backpage”—a reference to the controversial site found to reportedly traffic children, shut down mid-April of 2018 by the U.S. government. Though Marhano’s sites were allegedly for adult prostitution “services,” he also published child trafficking ads, including one of a 13-year-old girl later rescued in Texas.
Sex trafficking is not an isolated national issue
Marhano’s case brings to mind a term representing the reality of the underground sexual exploitation business: interconnectedness.
Just as the Age of Information has enlightened internet users everywhere on the good and the bad in the world, so has the technology underlying it been mobilized for great and toxic purposes. Marhano’s case lies in the latter: with the adult websites he set up, he was able to connect with and traffic victims in 14 cities within the U.S.—but also abroad in five continents.
The sex trafficking business of today outsteps a national sphere. Both the victims and the organization of the crime are often from outside the country’s borders. In the U.S., the numbers of sex trafficking specifically are unknown—but among illicit massage businesses, the second most prevalent type of trafficking in the U.S., the main reported victims are Chinese followed by South Koreans.
Sex trafficking forms part of the estimated $99 billion and growing forced sexual labor industry, and it doesn’t limit itself to a single country’s borders, nor does it occur in silos within each country. As in Marhano’s case, the internet has created a wider international web for this crime to occur, increasing its complexity and scale.
Not all participants play an equal part
Not every country plays the same role in this larger connected illicit trade. The U.S., though one of the most active countries in its efforts to investigate and fight the issue, is simultaneously the largest reported consumer of sex globally.
What’s consumption got to do with any of this?
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2019 annual report on the current state of human trafficking around the globe (called the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which you can check out here), an important factor in the sex market’s existence is the level of sex consumption backing it. What this fact points at is the dynamics of demand.
We’ll break it down for you, but at its core, it can be understood with some basic Econ principles.
The economics of supply and demand
Remember those graphs modeling supply and demand? Well, a key part to understanding any market, from cell phones to trafficking, is that if the demand increases for a good or service, it’s going to drive up the quantity that’s supplied.
In context, this means that greater demand for sex services (shown through higher levels of sex consumption) is going to drive up the supply of commercial sex. Unfortunately, while Economics can tell us that there’s an increase in suppliers of sex, it doesn’t guarantee that that growth in supply will be achieved through legal means.
Sex traffickers meet this growing demand for sex with a supply of cheap services—achieved through the exploitation of victims into forced sexual labor. You may think this plays an insignificant role, but it’s no small part of the sex supply: we’re talking about four million sex trafficking victims globally per year.
Where porn and sex trafficking overlap
While understanding the components of the demand for sex trafficking is complex, experts that have studied sex trafficking have confirmed a factor that fuels it: pornography.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has found that the rise in trafficking of children in East Asia and the Pacific is, “linked to the alarming increase in online child pornography, including live streaming of sexual abuse of children,” a business they estimate can generate up to $20 billion a year.
Polaris, one of the leading organizations fighting human trafficking in the U.S., created a typology of the 25 types of human trafficking, based on the largest human trafficking data set ever compiled and analyzed in the U.S. One of the 25 types of human trafficking is pornography.
While it may seem surprising to find out that something that has become so normalized in our society, like porn, can in fact have sinister implications, organizations and experts dealing with sex trafficking, like Polaris, are clear that it plays a critical role in this underground crime.
Let’s go back to that point on interconnectedness: Pornography fuels the demand for sex trafficking, full stop. Pornography is the model traffickers look to have their trafficked victims replicate. Pornography is often made of trafficked victims, and then sold online without their consent, or used to extort more sexual content or behavior from them.
Porn can also be used to groom sex trafficking victims for what they are expected to perform, or even made of them to be later used as online advertising. We aren’t just talking about shady porn sites, either. The Polaris report found that traffickers had been reported even among formal porn production companies.
What we can all do to stop the demand
The connections are clear: talking about porn implies a conversation about sex trafficking and vice versa. Sometimes, we are even talking about the same exact thing.
The good news? Just as a growing demand drives supply up, a smaller demand pushes that supply down. And that smaller demand can start with each person reading this article refusing to click.