It’s Tuesday evening, I’m sitting in a half-empty co-working space in central Stockholm with a few volunteers, eating sweets and scrolling on my computer. Sofia, 18. Anton, 18. Zahra, 18. Maja 18. Images of young males and females in explicit poses, page up, page down. Breasts squeezed together in see-through lace tops. Close-up images of genitals. Portraits of very young girls, well made-up with pouting lips.
Posted price lists
In their presentations on the site, they write that they don’t really know why they have posted their images here. “I was a bit curious” or “This is exciting”. Others say that they long for experience. Or that they like luxury. Many of them have posted price lists. 5-minute video with personal greeting, SEK 750. Meeting in person for one hour SEK 2,500; SEK 1,000 for every subsequent hour.
All of the images I look at are of persons claiming to be 18 – you need to be of age to register for this type of site. Many look younger and certainly are. Some of them don’t seem much older than my 11-year-old, who, right now, is playing with our kitten at home in our terraced house.
Outreach programs for young people selling sex online
My colleague Ulrikah and I are on a project visit to Alltid Sedd (EN: Always Seen), a newly formed grassroots organization that we at Childhood came into contact with at the end of last year. Alltid Sedd conducts outreach programs aimed at young people between 12 and 20 who sell sex online. Just like us, they are convinced that prostitution and sexual exploitation are often not the basic problem in their young lives, but a symptom of their suffering and/or that they are in an vulnerable life situation. But there is help available for this.
After a small investment from us at Childhood, Ulrika, the founder of the organization and its operational manager, is able to take a day off each week from her regular job to work with this. At Childhood, we hope that our investment will help the organization to develop its work and methods. The need for Alltid Sedd’s efforts is enormous and we can see this, not least this evening.
Ulrika has ten volunteers at her side. They have completed a training course on prostitution and sexual exploitation, basic techniques in Motivational Conversations, the methodology that is always the base for Alltid Sedd’s work, and knowledge of society’s support activities.
Online vulnerability increases during the autumn mid-term break
This particular week is the autumn mid-term break and staffing at Alltid Sedd is higher than usual. Online vulnerability often increases during holidays, making the presence of adults extra important. Every evening from Monday to Friday, the volunteers move around online, ready to interact with young people at risk of sexual exploitation. They access the most popular sugar dating and prostitution sites and scan them for members who look young. They contact them, explain who they are and what they can do to help. By building up a relationship with the young people, the volunteers want to support and, as far as possible, guide them onward to appropriate support.
Trustworthy adults in forums where the exploitation of young people occurs
“This is a difficult target group to reach, but being there as trustworthy adults in the forums where sexual exploitation of young people takes place demonstrates that the adult world knows what is happening and that we are willing to listen if they want to talk. And for those who are not ready to accept support and help, it could sow a seed that may lead to them getting in touch at a later date,” says my colleague Ulrikah, who is one of Childhood’s program manager and also participating in the volunteer effort on this evening.
“Alltid Sedd’s vision is that all young people who come into contact with them should feel seen, listened to and strengthened. At Childhood, we know how important adults are, both in preventing abuse from happening at all, but also in identifying and being there when something has already happened. By investing in Alltid Sedd’s work, we can give the organization the possibility to systematically test and document outreach work aimed at this target group.
Glorification of sugar dating attracts young people to prostitution
When the volunteering session is over, I bike home through the autumn darkness of Stockholm. My head is spinning. I feel depressed that there so many young people who appear on sugar dating sites; it felt like the images I saw this evening would never end, no matter how much I scrolled. I am also furious at the glorification of sugar dating that attracts young people to prostitution and at all of these people who apparently have no problem exploiting young people. Nonetheless, it still appears that society does not understand how widespread this exploitation is. “Imagine that there are so many young people who have price lists for their bodies and society doesn’t react,” said Ulrika at our meeting this evening. You could really give up when you think about it. Or do the opposite: Focus on the volunteers’ incredible commitment as I saw clearly this evening. And that we at Childhood, with a relatively small contribution, can hopefully make a difference to the lives of young people. This means there is actually hope.
SUGAR DATING. The phenomenon of “sugar dating”, in which primarily older men enter into agreements with young women, exchanging money and gifts in return for companionship and, in most cases, sex, is becoming increasingly widespread. Online, sugar dating is often marketed as a gilt-edged lifestyle and a chance for a young person to meet an older person who is willing to pay for their shared vacation trips and restaurant visits. In reality, this is often prostitution in disguise.
Text: Åsa Andreasson Åkerström, photo: private