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Online Abuse – Child Sexual Exploitation In The Internet Age

Written by: Denise Stowe, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

As a psychotherapist, I have worked with survivors of sexual abuse in many forms I have become increasingly aware of the changing direction of sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young people. It’s only within the last 20 years that the UK has recognised Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE); this was previously referred to as child prostitution which implies that the victim is consenting to the acts.

A sad kid in dark room with her laptop.

Both the UK legal system and statutory agencies are still playing catch up. We are beginning to see more of the organised CSE gangs being brought to justice. However, some of the abuse dates back as far as the 1970s. Whilst seeing the physical gangs being brought to justice is vital for the protection of children and the recovery of victims, it feels as if we are still looking backward and missing the evolving methods of exploitation that are occurring.


The NSPCC recently shared that the police recorded over 10,391 online child sex crimes which include grooming, sexual assault and rape in the year 2019/2021. Whilst this number fell slightly to 9,742 in 2020/21, potentially due to COVID, it still suggests a huge impact of online abuse.


Many online platforms are normalising sexual content for financial gains, often portraying content creators as “influencers” who make six-figure salaries. This often normalises the idea of swapping cash for images and content. Only Fans, the infamous platform where images and videos are uploaded and the creators are then paid by subscribers. Creators keep 80% of the profit they make. This has become a hugely attractive way for perpetrators to make money from the abuse they exact. Subscribers can send requests and offer larger amounts of cash for specific scenarios to be filmed or photographed. The scenarios can become more extreme than previously considered and the cash incentives and praise groom the creators to continuously push their boundaries.


In order to join OnlyFans, there is an age verification process to prove your identity. In May 2021, Alex Williamson for a BBC report, found that “under 18’s were using fake IDs to set up accounts, one 14 year old used her grandmother’s passport to set up an account.” This is just one account of many on public record proving that the age verification process for the website isn’t stringent enough.


Within the same BBC report, Childline had shared it was speaking to huge numbers of children under the age of 16, some as young as 12 who had been subject to grooming and exploitation on the website. They were often being forced to perform sexual acts by the perpetrators.


Michael Gryboski reported in August 2021, One of the most alarming reports from The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) In 2019 indicated it was aware of at least 10 cases involving missing children associated with content sold on OnlyFans. In 2021 this number grew to 80. These are figures based on children within the USA the actual worldwide figure is thought to be significantly higher.


Stephany Powell from the NCMEC “There is a strong indication of underage Sexual Exploitation. Traffickers are recruiting off of this as well and they too will use the opportunity to meet the creator in order to make more money from the victim”.


The children that are currently being exploited and abused on the platform were often victims of previous sexual abuse, mentally ill, experiencing neuro divergence, suicidal and highly vulnerable.


However, OnlyFans isn’t the only platform that has recently come under scrutiny for images and videos of child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation. Pornhub which is owned by Mind Geek, a Canadian-based company was brought recently into the public’s awareness due to investigations that found videos of real-life rape, child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation. Dawn Hawkins reported in June 2021.


The National Centre of Sexual Exploitation hosted a briefing for over 70 members of congress to look further into these images, and the running of Pornhub. This was in addition to hundreds of survivors whose abuse videos had been shared on the platform calling for further investigations. This led to major credit card companies pulling out from processing payments for the platforms. Pornhub was forced to remove 11,000 unverified videos. Despite this, it remains fully operational with huge amounts of unverified content on the platform today, and at its peak, had over 13+ million followers on Instagram.


In a recent Netflix documentary, “the most hated man on the internet” documented the journey to the incarceration of Hunter Moore the founder of isanybodyup.com who received 2 years and 6 months in prison for hacking the email accounts and photo storage apps of his victims to share pornographic, or graphic images of others. Isanybodyup.com was a self-proclaimed revenge porn website where profit was made from sexually explicit were posted without consent.


The impact of online child sexual exploitation is huge and will change the landscape of a young person’s life forever.


The UK has committed to a new online safety bill which will hold companies to account to do more to protect children and young people against abuse and exploitation, The bill has been delayed several times due to the pandemic and the recent change of prime minister.


The NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wainless said, “with every second the clock ticks by on the online safety bill an ever-growing number of children and families face the unimaginable trauma of preventable child abuse. The need for legislation to protect children is clear, and commands overwhelming support from MPs and the public. This builds on the UK’s global leadership position in tackling harm online. Robust regulation can be delivered while protecting freedom of speech and privacy. There can be nothing more important for the government than to keep children safe from abuse.”


There is a clear need to do more to protect children from online exploitation and sexual abuse. It’s vital that we see harsh legislation to ensure that online platforms face damning consequences and custodial sentences for the distribution of child abuse images. However, it’s not just legislation against these platforms we need, it’s a comprehensive support package in place for victims of such abuse to heal and rebuild themselves after such experiences. As a nation, both our National Health Service and specialised charity sectors are overstretched and underfunded.


I work with survivors on a daily basis and those who have suffered online exploitation talk openly about their fears surrounding the images of their abuse always being available on the internet. They also talk about how trapped they felt by their abuse and how every time they see a loved one looking at their phone or computer, they still fear they would uncover their images.


Some survivors tried many times to take their own life, unable to see another way out of the situation. One survivor I supported turned to substances to block out and numb what had happened to her. There is a huge cost to every life that has been marked by abuse. Sexual abuse and exploitation destroy lives, and the real cost to both the children who have experienced this and to the wider society is impossible to quantify. Each child deserves to be safe and have the opportunity to have a future free from fear, abuse and harm.


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Denise Stowe, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Experiencing complex trauma throughout her childhood, Denise has dedicated her life to make a difference. She completed her own healing journey and trained to be a therapist. She found her calling during her placement at a local Rape Crisis Centre working with Dissociative Identity Disorder, PTSD/CPTSD and complex trauma. This enabled her to use a variety of methods and interventions to offer her clients a bespoke therapeutic approach. She endeavours to empower and give hope to as many trauma survivors as possible. Denise is aware that she can’t take away the trauma that has been experienced, but she strives to support her clients to navigate a way forward and to overcome its lasting impacts.

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