Community advocates stress need for safety while using dating applications

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By: Melissa Gonzalez, gonzalezme@mnstate.edu

Online dating can raise a flurry of nerves, annoyances and concerns. Human trafficking probably isn’t one of them, but the Women’s Center hosted a presentation raising awareness of the risks on Tuesday, Feb. 5.

Tama Puhr is a community advocate for the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center of Fargo-Moorhead. Her presentation, “Swipe Right? Sex Trafficking and Online Dating Safety” shared information essential to protecting oneself online from the risk of sex traffickers and their connection to dating applications.

According to Puhr, human trafficking is a $150 billion global industry with 20.9 million victims around the world.

The first type of trafficking is labor, in which vulnerable people are forcibly taken into domestic services, sweatshops, factory work, magazine sales, salon or massage parlors and construction.

The second type, which was the main focus of Puhr’s presentation, is sex trafficking. Sex trafficking can include but isn’t limited to survival sex, prostitution, stripping, child solicitation and mail-order brides.

Local forms of online sex trafficking include online exploitation and recruitment, survival sex/couch surfing, grooming, peer to peer exploitation, selling children, boyfriend pimps and other areas of criminal activity.

According to Puhr, there were 132 victims of sex trafficking in Fargo-Moorhead between Jan. 1, 2016 and Sept. 30, 2018.

Third parties benefit from the involuntary servitude and debt bondages that result in sex trafficking. The most common “buyers” are white males with disposable income, who are between the ages of 30 and 50, and have children.

It was MSUM senior Alexis Kerslake’s first time coming to a presentation like this.

“It’s interesting, our world is so online,” Kerslake said. “To see stats and learn about the types of buyers, where they pray for women to traffic. To know they’re married with children, so alarming.”

According to information from the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, becoming involved in sex trafficking is not uncommon. Anyone with access to computers, with an interest in consumer goods or romantic relationships, or who struggles with insecurities and independence is at risk.

Social class, age, and race also play a part. Human trafficking can affect all groups, but according to rights4girls.org, a majority of victims are women and girls of color.

In a two year study of suspected human trafficking cases in the country, 40 percent of victims were black and 24 percent were Latinx. Not only that, but it was revealed that 40 percent of trafficking victims were Native American women.

One attendant brought up the movement about missing and murdered indigenous women, a movement that is gaining traction in mainstream national conversation that calls for action on the amount of violence indigenous women face in Canada and North America.

To help protect oneself, Puhr outlined the following steps to take:

  • Avoid posting pictures of family, friends and pets.
  • Don’t tell strangers about vulnerabilities.
  • Don’t share specific information about living and workspaces.
  • Don’t share information that can be used to manipulate or blackmail.

Bahati Numbi, a sociology major at MSUM, also attended the presentation. She appreciated the opportunity to be exposed to information about the red flags men and women should look for when encountering strangers online, and even on dating applications.

“I’m interested in knowing things related to human trafficking and the framework,” Numbi said. “… It’s necessary and relevant.”

Puhr mentioned the importance of knowing that anyone can become a victim, and anyone can be a perpetrator of these crimes.

The most common red flags Puhr recommended to look out for include the following:

  • No personal information is available on online profiles, or on any social media platform.
  • The person comes on strong, says things like “I love you” very early.
  • The person asks sexually inappropriate questions early and persistently.
  • The person gives sexual compliments very early in conversations.

The strategies for online dating recommended were to always meet in a public place, alert friends when you are meeting someone for a date, and always have control of your own transportation.

Puhr also suggested avoiding giving an exact address of where you live until you know the person you’re talking to and have a plan in place if you begin to feel unsafe.

Although Puhr highlighted the red flags of online dating, she stressed that not all red flags automatically equate to a perpetrator. She also stressed having clear boundaries and maintaining communication with friends when using online dating apps is essential.

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