This project evaluates Illinois’ online commercial sex market and delves into the scope and contours of sex trafficking within it. This analysis represents one of the first of its kind following the aftermath of the shutdown of Backpage.com, an event that introduced a seismic shift in the online commercial sex industry in Illinois & throughout the country. The dissolution of Backpage led to a fragmented landscape of disparate marketplaces , with commercial sex activity dispersing across multiple websites. This transformation made it essential to gain a comprehensive understanding of this evolving market in order to inform effective responses to sex trafficking. This project was undertaken as a component of Illinois’ Court Improvement Program (CIP), a statewide initiative aimed at improving the functioning and effectiveness of the juvenile court system in Illinois.
In response to the findings discussed throughout the report, we offer the following conclusions regarding implications for anti-trafficking efforts:
- The Futility of Venue Targeting: Targeting specific venues addresses only one element of the market, and often leads to displacement, chaos, and more concealed activity rather than decreased prevalence.
- The Importance of Services: Even if trafficking survivors have access to economic opportunities, challenges with mental health and substance use could leave them at continued risk of exploitation.
- Evolving Investigations to Recent Trends: A number of trends are emerging in the post-Backpage era that warrant further consideration and analysis. These include providers advertising across multiple domains, utilizing virtual services as a supplementary side gig, the role of communication & client vetting, and the role of diversifying payment methods such as CashApp, Venmo, & PayPal.
- System Collaboration:Collaboration and information sharing with other states and across jurisdictions between private and public agencies is critical. Regional hubs, such as those evidenced in the Rockford / Chicago / Madison / Milwaukee area and between Indiana (particularly Evanston) and Missouri stand out as particularly important travel routes. Collaboration among service providers and law enforcement in these areas may be particularly fruitful in helping trafficking victims
- Closing the Identification Gap:Effective identification and response requires a highly orchestrated effort. To be effective, these efforts must to involve consistent intelligence gathering, ongoing triage of high-risk situations, long-term investigations seeking to refine our understanding of trafficking networks, and ultimately, connecting potential victims to services where services come first without expectation of disclosure.
An interactive version of this report can be found here.