How Sex Traffickers Use Social Media and Modeling

The Dark Secret Instagram Doesn't Want You to Know About

The recent controversy over children posting sexualized pictures of themselves on Instagram strikes at the heart of an issue that may at first seem unrelated: trafficking and sex labor.

By allowing juvenile erotica, social media platforms like Instagram have become complicit in the underground sex industry – an industry that presses thousands of American girls into slavery every year.

How Human Trafficking Works

Most people don’t understand how human traffickers use modeling to round up women, because they don’t understand how trafficking works. The stereotype is that pimps go around grabbing women, muffling their mouths so they can’t scream, and taking them off to a locked basement where they are forced, on pain of death, to have sex with strangers. This type of kidnapping does happen, but it is not the norm.

In the real world, forced servitude is preceded by a kind of seduction – a complex series of stages by which a pimp comes to dominate a girl, and to make her feel that she is beholden to him. He will typically use blackmail, lies, and manipulation to trick the girl into believing that freedom will be more dangerous than slavery. (To read some case studies about instances where this has happened, see my article, “Human Trafficking in the Pacific Northwest.”)

Often the initial stages of the pre-trafficking process can only get started if the girl has already engaged in activities that have lowered her God-given barriers. That is why traffickers work closely with modeling agencies. As girls are photographed in various stages of undress, ostensibly in the context of modeling jobs, their natural barriers become eroded, thus making them susceptible to the later stages in the manipulation process. As every ounce of a girl’s dignity is violated, she eventually learns a total helplessness that is the final stage before being put in the white van and treated like an animal.

How Social Media Feeds Human Trafficking

How does the voluntary, self-promotional modeling that is now routine on platforms like Instagram relate to human trafficking? This was a question I asked Aaron Tilbury when doing research on trafficking in the Pacific Northwest in 2019. Tilbury is founder of the Spokane-based non-profit, The Jonah Project, that has been helping trafficking victims since 2014. When I met with Tilbury, he explained that the “soft porn” on platforms like Instagram lead to a “societal grooming,” whereby a girl’s barriers are gradually lowered. From my earlier Salvo article where I reported on my conversation with Tilbury:

"Aaron explained that when all of a girl's friends are dressing immodestly and posting sexualized pictures of themselves on Instagram, she can feel an incredible pressure to conform. We all have a need for acceptance, and no girl wants to be the one that stands out. However, as girls exhibit their sexuality, their natural barriers are lowered. That is how they become easy targets for unscrupulous men. ‘These men will often lure vulnerable girls—girls whose barriers have already been lowered through the pressure to be hyper-sexualized—by claiming to love them. By the time the girl realizes what is really going on, it’s often too late.’”

The “incredible pressure to conform” that Tilbury refers to is key to understanding what is happening on Instagram. Girls are increasingly feeling the need to conform, not just to their own peer group, but to the larger expectations of the online community. They feel pressure to adopt a certain type of look, and engage in specific poses, that reflect a porn chic aesthetic that originated with commercial pornography but has now been internalized by an entire generation of Instagram users who associate this aesthetic with peer-acceptance and attention-gaining validation.

Of course, just because a girl posts a sexy selfie doesn’t mean she will wake up the next day with her natural barriers eroded destined to a future in the white van. But trafficking is not the only type of sex labor. What is more common, even among girls growing up in stable middle-class environments, is that Instagram will suck them into a type of sex work that masquerades itself as freedom and sexual liberation. To learn more about that, read our article, "How Instagram Recruits Women to Sexualized Labor: Mark Zuckerberg Has a Harem of Sex Workers that Facebook Doesn’t Want You to Know About."

has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at

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