Introduction & Background
The COVID-19 Pandemic has undoubtedly impacted the ability for individuals to exit the commercial sex trade. Prostituted persons’ ability to meet their quota has been severely restricted by widespread lockdowns. To compensate, there is evidence that traffickers have moved victims online to maintain their current profit levels (Rosseland, 2020). Yet, at the same time, many involved in the commercial sex industry have contemplated next steps since the pandemic forced them out of their daily routines. In the past few months, individuals we serve at The Avery Center for Research & Services have clearly indicated thinking about “what’s next,” which prompted the need for the present study.
Understanding how prostituted persons experience these shifts is best framed using the Stages of Change model (SCM). This psychotherapeutic tool is used to predict a person’s ability to succeed at a particular behavior change based on their current perception of reality (Horwath 1999). The most recent iteration of SCM includes six stages of change, and specific predictors and indicators of progression through each stage including pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and relapse (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1994). Psychologists and researchers often use this framework to understand how individuals seek help for depression, weight management and smoking cessation (Johnson et al., 2008; Jordan et al., 2013; Levesque et al., 2011; Velicer, Redding, Sun, & Prochaska et al., 2007).
This model is also particularly useful for understanding how prostituted persons exit commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), a process that often takes multiple attempts (Baker, Dalla & Williamson 2010). Indeed, the original SCM has been adapted by researchers to better understand the often non-linear journey prostituted persons have to take in order to fully exit. Successfully exiting commercial sexual exploitation is often rife with barriers, including risk of incarceration, physical and mental health injuries, substance use, among others (Månsson and Hedin, 1999).
The purpose of this study was to apply the SCM to prostituted persons on social media during COVID-19. The guiding research question is: how has COVID-19 affected prostituted individuals’ readiness for change?
Method & Sample
The sample for this study was derived from a private social media network monitored by a lived experience expert researcher on commercial sexual exploitation. This individual maintained her social media network during and after her trafficking experiences, so the individuals in her network have watched her move through her own stages of change over the course of many years. Data for this project are derived from this network and were qualitatively coded for themes related to SCM.
Coding schema were devised based on Baker, Dalla & Williamson’s (2010) framework for understanding how street-prostituted persons move through the stages of change. Adapted for use on social media, the research team sought out accounts containing common phrases and images associated with commercial sexual exploitation, including hashtags, photos, posts, and bio content to assess which stage of change each individual was in.
A total of 46 publicly available social media accounts were analyzed for content related to stages of change during February 2020-April 2020. Over a third of the accounts are suspected or confirmed victims of pimp-controlled CSE based on the content shared. The remaining accounts did not present overt connections to or indications of being under pimp or trafficker control. It is important to note than many individuals involved in the commercial sex trade will actively try to present themselves as an independent sex worker as a tactic to attract buyers and new recruits to a pimp’s network. Thus, given the complexities in presentation of self (discussed below), many of the accounts are categorized as unknown.
Though the accounts were concentrated in California and Nevada, individuals from across North America are included in this sample. All accounts represented women involved in the commercial sex industry.
Below, we present data to support the stages of change as they appeared in individual posts, bios, photos or captions. We did not find any publicly-available evidence of contemplation, preparation or relapse, and discuss these findings below.
Sixty-seven percent of the individual accounts were coded as being in the pre-contemplation (PC) stage of change. We coded these individuals as PC because these individuals shared information on their bios, in their posts and photos that clearly supported their current situation and did not indicate any acknowledgement that change was needed. Examples include posts normalizing or promoting pimp control, the importance of making money, and an “us vs. them” mentality delineating those in the commercial sex industry and everyone else.
Six percent of the individual accounts were in the action stage. We coded these individuals as “action” because there was evidence that they had put a plan in motion to change. Examples include posts suggesting that a very big change had been made (e.g., exiting the commercial sex trade or escaping their pimp), or alluding to “becoming my best self.” Posts coded as “action” also reflected confidence or hope in the future because of a change away from the commercial sex trade.
Twenty-seven percent of the individuals were coded as being in the maintenance stage. These individuals actively post about their journey and the progress they have made. These posts indicate self-growth, acknowledgement of the challenges and rewards of the journey, and the importance of healing. If we consistently saw evidence of any of these indicators, and if historically these individuals had been observed going through prior stages, we coded them as in maintenance.
Contemplation, Planning & Relapse
As mentioned previously, we did not find evidence of any individuals in the contemplation, planning & relapse stages, and while this is a limitation, there are also some theoretical considerations to help understand why this is the case. Researchers have documented the ways in which individuals use social media to maintain impressions (Bullingham & Vasconcelos, 2013; Hogan, 2010; Hendriks, Duus & Ercan, 2016). Goffman (1959) suggests that when we manage our impressions, we do so in a front stage, where we try to present an idealized version of the self. The backstage, on the other hand, is “a place, relative to a given performance, where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course” (Goffman 1959, p. 112).
Given these theoretical considerations, it makes sense that different stages of change might be characterized as more “back stage” than “front stage” behavior. Theoretically, managing one’s impression on social media is solely front stage behavior. Back stage, then, is the behind-the-scenes self that can be a contradictory self to the one presented on “stage.” This stage, by definition, is not performative. As such, it can include planning, contemplation and taking action to be able to present a new self once the change has taken place or is well on its way.
Pre-contemplation is characterized by an assurance that no change is needed with the individual’s current situation; the impression one is presenting on social media is presented as internally consistent with the sense of self. Individuals in this stage celebrate their impressions and appear confident with their identity and give off the impression that all is well.
Contemplation and planning, on the other hand, are more introspective in nature out of necessity; individuals in these stages are likely experiencing uncertainty and are actively seeking out information to support a change. These stages, in relation to experiencing commercial sexual exploitation, have to be occupied in secret. Given the danger associated with contemplating and planning change as a sexually exploited trafficking victim, individuals likely should and would not broadcast their thoughts and plans on social media. Pimps and traffickers and others in the network would undoubtedly punish this type of behavior. Contemplation and planning, and potentially even action, need to be kept under wraps. This could explain why we only identified six percent of all accounts in the “action” stage. We would not expect these individuals to be engaging in the risk of posting on social media but instead reaching out behind the scenes for information to help formulate next steps.
Our own experiences in direct service support this theoretical application of the SCM. Since one of the researchers on this project is a survivor and has rapport built with individuals on the network, we have access to anecdotal data that supports this idea. Indeed, many of the victims in the contemplation, planning and action stages often private message the researcher for help in exiting. These social media interactions are often referred to as “dark social” because they happen behind the scenes, in what could be described theoretically as the back stage. Most of the dark social we have seen in direct services follows the same general script of victims seeking out support from an individual who’s moved through the stages of change successfully; seeking advice, assistance in planning, and celebrating a successful transition and supporting during any potential relapse.
Relapse, theoretically speaking, is a complex issue to pin down as either front or back stage. In our experiences in direct service, many victims held two social media accounts. One account might be used during their exploitation and often was controlled or monitored by their trafficker. Upon exiting, many prostituted persons create a new account to signal “starting over” on a new front stage. When relapse occurs, these individuals likely disappear from this new persona and can operate in different ways. On one hand, when individuals return to “the life” out of survival (which is very often the case), participating in survival sex could be categorized as back stage behavior. Many prostituted persons who engage in survival sex do so because they are planning for a full exit and have such limited access to resources for stable employment, housing, and trauma-informed healing. By engaging in survival sex, theoretically, these individuals are participating in a contradictory performance to what is presented on the front stage and what their ultimate goal is; exit. On the other hand, relapse could indicate that the individual is vacillating between two front stage performances, as is often the case during exploitation, according to our prior research. Prostituted persons often suffer from dissociative identity disorder as a result of needing to occupy two identities: their true self, and that of the willing sex partner in a commercial sex transaction.
In conclusion, there is much to be taken from a content analysis of social media accounts when it comes to the commercial sex trade. Roughly two-thirds of the accounts reviewed for this research were in pre-contemplation stage and also difficult to categorize as being under pimp or trafficker control. This correlation makes sense using Goffman’s impression management theoretical framework; individuals in pre-contemplation are more likely to post positive impressions of their current situations and therefore would not likely indicate any third party control or undue influence. Additionally, those in the pre-contemplation stage were the most active online. This indicates that social media is potentially an excellent means of outreach, intervention, and redirection towards relevant information and support services and harm reduction.
Similarly, the second highest category we identified – maintenance – provides insights into how formerly prostituted persons utilize social media throughout their healing journeys. They too were once in the pre-contemplation stage and in this online community are actively sharing parts of their journeys out of the commercial sex trade. Further research should delve into the interactions between individuals in various stages of change with one another on social media to elucidate if and how those in pre-contemplation, contemplation & relapse are impacted by what those in planning, action and maintenance post and share.
It is also important to note how essential timing is for turning this research into action. Since COVID lockdowns started in March 2020, we also have seen an uptick in activity among currently and formerly exploited individuals on our social media network. Our social media network has grown organically by 10% in under 2 months. According to our initial analysis, most of these new followers are categorized as pre-contemplation, yet the mere fact that they have begun to follow a CSE survivor who has successfully exited could be an indication that contemplation is not too far off. A significant amount of information exists for those in pre-contemplation that could be redirected to resources to assist victims. Additionally, individuals in the action and maintenance stages could also be directed to support services to assist them.
In all, a unique opportunity exists to expand our understandings of these stages for individuals in their journeys so service providers can tailor their outreach and services to meet clients where they are instead of a broad approach. The Avery Center for Research & Services has prepared materials for service providers to utilize with clients based on the SCM. The Avery Center is also available to customize reports to your local area using our Avery Analytics: Snapshots of Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Your Area periodic updates.
Thank you to our contributors who created the project framework, adapted the SCM for social media and this population, collected and analyzed the data, built the outline for this report, and created the graphics to support our findings.
Breanna VanDenBosch | Intern
UNIVERSITY OF NORTHERN COLORADO
Allison Rago | Intern
UNIVERSITY OF NORTHERN COLORADO
Erinn Gonzalez | Intern
UNIVERSITY OF NORTHERN COLORADO
DIRECTOR OF MARKETING
The Avery Center
Megan Lundstrom, M.A.
DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH
The Avery Center
Angie Henderson, Ph.D.
LEAD DATA ANALYST & TRAINING COORDINATOR
The Avery Center