Donna M. Hughes

The Internet has become the latest place for promoting the global trafficking and sexual exploitation of women. This global communication network is being used to promote and engage in the buying and selling of women and children. Agents offer catalogues of mail order brides, with girls as young as 13. Commercial sex tours are advertised. Men exchange information on where to find prostitutes and describe how they can e used. After their trips men write reports on how much they paid for women and children and write pornographic descriptions of what they did to those they bought. Videoconferencing is bringing live strip shows to the Internet.

The European Commission recognizes that trafficking in women for the purpose of sexual exploitation is a type of organized crime that is on the increase. The profits are high and there are few effective barriers at the moment. Because there is little regulation of the Internet, the traffickers and promoters of sexual exploitation have rapidly utilized the Internet for their purposes. This month (February 1997) in PC Computing marketers are urged to visit pornography Web sites. "It will show you the future of on-line commerce. Web pornographers are the most innovative entrepreneurs on the Internet." The pornographers and other promoters of sexual exploitation are the Internet leaders in the developing privacy services and secure payment schemes (p 65).

But I don't want us to get lost in cyberspace or confuse digital information for real women and children. Sexual exploitation starts with real people and the harm is to real people. Sexual exploitation violates human dignity and bodily integrity and is a violation of human rights. The basic premise of international human rights is that people have a right to lives with dignity. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "All men are born free and equal in dignity and rights" (Article 1), "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude" (Article 4), "Non one shall be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment" (Article 5). All of these principles of basic human rights are violated by sexual exploitation.

Although sexual exploitation has been around for a long time, in the last couple of decades there has been tremendous increase in the global sex industry and trafficking in women. Sexual exploitation of women has become so pervasive, that it is accepted and often normalized.

Forms of sexual exploitation depend on a demand market, in which men choose to buy and sell women and children's bodies and sexuality for sexual gratification, profit or advancement. It is a practice which reduces women of the world to a second class status. Sexual exploitation inflicts grave harm on women's minds and bodies, and aggravates the harm of existing inequalities. If a woman's life is constrained by lack of education and employment opportunities by racism, by illegal immigration or migration, by economic or political crisis, by childhood sexual, physical or emotional violence, or by poverty, then sexual exploitation will aggravate and intensify the inequalities, disadvantage and harm. Sexual exploitation going by the current euphemism of "sex work" is not a solution to poverty, violence, or lack of equal opportunities. Prostitution and trafficking are not victimless crimes, or just another form of work, as profiteers of these trades would have us believe. Even when women voluntarily enter into these situations, in hope of making money or finding a better life, the dynamics of the brutal, often illegal sex industry, quickly leave the women with few other options and powerless to leave.

Currently, the Internet is being used by men to promotes and engage in the sexual exploitation of women. The types of sexual exploitation I have documented on the Internet are: bride trafficking, sex tours, promotion and exchange of information on where to buy prostitutes and live videoconferencing.

Newsgroups and Web Sites for Men Who Buy Women and Children

The oldest forum on the Internet for promoting the sexual exploitation of women is the newsgroup (renamed Its "aim is to create market transparency for sex related services" (Atta and M., World Sex Guide, July 1996). Postings from this newsgroup are archived into a World Wide Web side called The World Sex Guide, which provides "comprehensive, sex-related information about every country in the world." The guide includes information and advice from men who have bought women and children on where and how to find and buy prostituted women and children in over eighty countries from seven world regions (Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe, North America, Central America and the Caribbean, and South America).

Details of the men's reports of their sex tours and buying experiences include: information on where to go to find prostitutes, hotel prices, telephone numbers, taxi fares, cost of alcohol, the sex acts that can e bought, the price for each act, and evaluations of the women's appearances and performances. One man includes a rating scale on the likelihood of getting mugged in that neighborhood. The men go on to describe, often in graphic detail, their experiences of using women. The graphic descriptions of what the men did to women and children they bought are also a form of pornography on the Internet. The scope and detail of this exchange is completely unprecedented.

The women are completely objectified and evaluated on everything from skin color to presence of scares and firmness of their flesh. Women's receptiveness and compliance to men buyers is also rated. The men buying women and posting the information see and perceive the events only from their self interested perspective. Their awareness of racism, colonization, global economic inequalities, and of course, sexism, is limited to how these forces benefit them. A country's economic or political crisis and the accompanying poverty are advantages, which produce cheap women for the men. Often men describe how desperate the women are and how little the men have to pay.

The postings also reveal that men are using the Internet as a source of information in selecting where to go and how to find women and children to buy in prostitution. Men describe taking a computer print out of hotels, bar addresses and phone numbers with them on their trips, or describe in detail how they used the Internet search engines to locate sex tours. Currently, there are details on finding and buying prostitutes available for 97 European cities. The country with the most posting is the UK, followed by the Netherlands and German.

Some of the men posting information on the newsgroup are quite straightforward about their misogyny and sadism. Other men, who I'm sure, would deny that they have ever abused a woman, reveal quite inadvertently their abuse of women. The reader can get a glimpse of the humiliation and physical pain most of the women endure at the hands of men who buy them by reading accounts of men's "bad experiences." To the men who buy women and children a "bad experience" means they didn't get their money's worth or that they woman didn't keep up he act of enjoying the session. It means she let her true feelings of pain, desperation, depression and hopelessness show.

Numerous accounts of human rights groups have revealed that many of the girls and women in Bangkok's sex industry are virtual slaves. The men who buy them know that. Slavery is accepted and exploited by these men. Their comments prove that. One man on the Internet newsgroup said, "Yes there is slavery in Bangkok. Some girls work against their will." He then goes on to describe where the "kept" women are most likely to be found. He says, "if this is a problem for you, simply stay away from [these hotels]. Another way of handling this is, of course, to be gentle and gentlemanry [sic] and give the girl a good time whether she is a slave or not" (Anonymous, Bangkok, Date unknown).

Although the average age of prostitutes in Bangkok is so young that most of it is by definition child sex abuse, men publish information on where to find very young girls. One man described which street corners are the best for finding pimps who can supply pre-teen girls. Another man said"

"The hotel girls are usually younger than most other 'available' girls in Bangkok, 14-15 years old being rather common. They are in effect 'owned' by the hotel, which means that you can treat them more or less any way you want - and many men do. Hotels like this should be like paradise for those of us who are into S&M; [sadomasochism]" (Anonymous, Bangkok, Date unknown).

The men often accompany this information with horrific descriptions of their sexual abuse of the girls, describing in detail the girl's pain.

A few countries in Europe have now made it possible to press charges against men for their sexual abuse of children while in other countries. Every country should have such a law, and enforce it. In addition, it should be illegal to use the Internet to post information on the finding and sexually exploiting women and children.

Bride Trafficking

Mail order bride agents have moved to the Internet as their preferred marketing location. The Internet reaches a prime group of potential buyers - men from Western countries with higher than average incomes. The mail order bride agents exploit the women's poverty and dreams of a better life in exchange for money from men in search of non-threatening women. The agents offer men assistance in finding a "loving and devoted" woman whose "views of relationships have not been ruined by unreasonable expectations." The agencies describe themselves as "introduction services," but a quick read of many of the Web sites reveals their commercial interests in bride trafficking, sex tours and prostitution.

The catalogues offer women, mostly from Asia and Eastern Europe. Pictures of the women are shown with heir names, height, weight, education and hobbies. Some catalogues include the women's bust, waist and hip measurements. I have seen girls as young as 13 and 14 who are still going to Catholic girl's schools to women in the 40's. One of the commonly promoted characteristics of women from Eastern Europe is that they "traditionally expect to marry gentlemen that are 10 to 20 years older" (Toms, 1995). There are some catalogues which list women with young children. One Web side includes pictures of naked children playing. I think children are being trafficked also in this way. The men are being shown ways of acquiring women and children - all in one package.

The new Internet technology enables Web pages to be quickly and easily updated; some services claim they are updating their selection of women bi-weekly. The Internet reaches a global audience faster and less expensively than any other media. One mail order bride agent explained why he preferred operation on the Internet.

"So when the World-Wide Web came along, I saw that it was a perfect venue for this kind of business. The paper catalogs were so expensive that they quality was usually very poor; but on the Web you can publish high-resolution full-color photos which can be browsed by everyone in the WORLD" (Toms, Santa Barbara International 1996)

In 1990 the Philippines' government banned the operation of sex tour and mail order bride agencies in the Philippines because of this. Now, he uses his own mail order bride to make contact and recruit women and adolescent girls in the Philippines. If the Philippines has banned the operation of sex tour and mail order bride agencies, then in international cooperation, the countries which send the men on tours and receive the mail order brides should also ban the operation of such agencies and prohibit the advertisement of these services from computers in their country.

Sex Tours

Sex tours are being advertised on the Internet. Sex tours enable men to travel to "exotic" places and step outside whatever community bounds may constrain them at home. In foreign cities they can abuse women and children in ways that are more risky or difficult for them in their hometowns. Powerful forces of racism, misogyny, "first world" domination and economic exploitation are merged in the selling of "exotic and erotic" sex vacations. Tourism was recommended to many "third world" countries by the United Nations and World Bank as a way to generate income and repay foreign debts. Nation-states set their own tourism policies and could, if they wanted, prevent or suppress the development of prostitution as a form of tourism. Instead communities and countries have come to rely on the sale of women and children's bodies as their cash crop. As the sex industry grows, more and more girls and women in a city or country are turned into sexual commodities to e sold to tourists. Centers for sex tourism also become the sources of women trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation to other countries. For centers of sex tourism in European countries women from poor countries are imported legally and illegally to staff the brothels. Advertisements for sex tours to these sights appear on the Internet.

Sexual Exploitation and Organized Crime

Sex tourism, bride trafficking and prostitution are different forms of sexual exploitation. A quick examination of advertisements on the Internet reveal the links among these types of sexual exploitation and enable us to see that the agents using women in any way that is profitable.

Most of the mail order bride agents on he Internet also offer tours. Men pay for the addresses of the women in the catalogues, later the tour/bride agent set up a group tour for men to go to meet the woman or women with whom they have been corresponding. "The Moscow trip is a logical conclusion to your correspondence efforts. The purpose of the tour is to meet as many lovely ladies as possible as soon as possible." Men going to either Russia or the Philippines are assured of getting a wife to bring home, if that is their desire, or they are assured of the availability of many women. Men don't want to believe they are taking home a prostitute as a wife, so the men are assured that they will be introduced to marriageable women, as well as other "available and willing" women. A man is usually offered the option of paying for an "escort" for each day. "Each and every day you will be escorted by your choice of lovely, elegant ladies." Men are assured that if they have not established a correspondence with a woman, they can still go on the tour to try out the women.

Even from the advertising it is apparent that these men are operating prostitution rings. I'm sure that police investigations will show that these agents are most likely involved in trafficking of women from country to country as well.

The evidence from women activists in the Philippines supports this also. Many women with few economic options accept that they will have to be prostitutes for a length of time until they are chosen by a man as his "bride." Women being sexually exploited in these types of trades are at tremendous risk of abuse and have almost no legal protections. An investigation conducted by the Australian Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs into the bride trafficking from the Philippines uncovered what they term "serial sponsorship," in which a man brings a woman back to Australia, when the relationship fails, often due to his violence, he abandons her and returns to the Philippines to acquire another woman. They have identified men who have sponsored up to seven women (Carla Gorton, 25 October 1995).

There are now numerous cases of successful police investigations of child pornography on the Internet. We need the same kind of investigations of advertisements on the Internet for sex tours, mail order brides and prostitution.

Live videoconferencing

The most advanced technology on the Internet is live videoconferencing, in which live audio and video communication is transmitted over the Internet from video recorder to computer. For over a year this advanced technology has been used to sell live strip shows over the Internet. Real time communication is possible, so the man can personally direct the live sex show as he is viewing on his computer. The only limitation on this type of global sex show is the need for high-speed transmission and processing and multimedia capabilities. The software required is available free at the live videoconferencing Web sites. As more men have access to high-speed multimedia computer and transmission equipment, this type of private sex show will grow. There are no legal restrictions on this type of live sex shows that can be transmitted over the Internet. Of course, as with all Internet transmissions, there are no border restrictions. With Internet technology a man maybe on one continent directing and watching a live sex show on another.


As we all know the new technologies of the Internet have leapt over national borders and lawmakers are scrambling to catch-up. Internet users have adopted and defend an unbridled libertarianism. Any kind of regulation or restriction is met with hysterics and predictions of a totalitarian society. Even the most conservative restrictions on the transmission of child pornography are greeted with cries of censorship. In the December (1996) issues of Wired new state legislation in U.S. criminalizing the transmission of indecent materials to minors is call censorship. The Internet libertarianism couple with U.S. free speech absolutism is setting the standard for Internet communication.

Expressions of concern or condemnation of forms of sexual exploitation of women and children on the Internet are minimized by claims that pornographers have always been the first to take advantage of new technology - first photography, then movies, then VCRs, now, the Internet. Those concerned about the use of the Internet for sexual exploitation are chastened with history lectures on new technology and pornography. While the history lessons are correct, there is one major difference now - the global feminist movement, which is demanding attention to harm done to women and reminding the world that women's rights are human rights. One of the main focuses of the international women's rights movement is violence against women, including multiple forms of sexual exploitation. In November in Brighton at an international meeting on Violence, Abuse and Women's Citizenship the conference organizers took an uncompromising stand against sexual exploitation by naming all forms of sexual exploitation, including prostitution, as violence against women.

We are living in a time that not only brings us unprecedented access and speed to global communication, but it comes at a time in which women are demanding a redefinition of men's use of women. The women's movement has made the crimes of battering and rape visible. Now, women are making the crimes of sexual exploitation visible. They are insisting on a redefinition of human interactions. No longer is prostitution labeled as immoral behavior, or pornography called indecent pictures. Women human rights activists are naming the harm to women as sexual exploitation, which violates women's human dignity, human rights and chance for equal opportunities in society. I want to briefly mention that a global coalition of women's human right's activists have drafted a new United Nations instrument called the Convention Against Sexual Exploitation which defines forms of sexual exploitation to be human rights violations and outlines procedural measures for state parties and support services needed by victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

The promotion of trafficking and sexual exploitation of women on the Internet expands men's treatment and access to women as sexual commodities. The Internet is the fastest growing and most unregulated communication network in the world. It is a rapid publishing medium that can reach its readership anywhere in the world within minutes. These factors make it a thriving site for the global trafficking of women, leading to an escalation of the global sex trade.

We are at a critical point for women's human rights. We can go with history and see the Internet as just a new technology being used to transmit the same old stuff. We can also choose to accept the sex industry's redefinition of pornography and prostitution as forms of sex work. Or we can begin to make real change to advance women's dignity and equality, by defining forms of sexual exploitation as human rights violations and crimes against women, which we will not allow in our communities or on the Internet.

The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women's web site is located at

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This article is ©1997, Donna M. Hughes and may not be copied, reprinted, or otherwise used in any form without the express written permission of the author.

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