Since the world was gripped by Covid, online sex trafficking has risen by a third. In her powerful images, Kiwi photographer Nikki Denholm sets out to depict those affected as survivors, rather than victims.

Sunitha stares into the camera with big, dark eyes that have seen too much.

The photo was taken not long after she was diagnosed with AIDS, and shortly before she died.

After being sold to a brothel by her orphanage at the age of nine, Sunitha was forced into sex slavery – she worked round the clock for nine years, sometimes servicing up to 30 clients in a day.

Sunitha is gone but her haunting image remains. She was just one of the 4.8 million people currently held as sex slaves around the world, the vast majority of whom are women and children.

Bringing in an estimated NZD$230 billion a year, sex trafficking is the world’s fastest growing criminal industry. But it’s one of the newest heads of the hydra that Kiwi photographer Nikki Denholm wants to raise awareness about now.

“Online sex trafficking has flourished since Covid,” she said. “We had 45 million reports of child sexual abuse material online, doubled on the year before.”

Online sex trafficking is when sex slaves are made to produce sexual content to be distributed and sold online. In our quickly shrinking world connected by the digital, this is easier than ever.

It may also be more insidious. Online sex trafficking happens behind closed doors, sometimes in family homes or brothels outside of tourist-focused red light districts. It can happen anywhere with an internet connection.

Over the last year, online sexual abuse has risen by a third, according to non-profit organisation Tearfund.

Denholm puts this down to three main reasons.

Firstly, the growing ubiquity of digital technology has made it so much easier for pimps to get online.

Secondly, the stranglehold Covid has put on global tourism has moved the demand provided by people on sex trips to countries like Thailand and the Phillipines online, where such consumers can partake from within their bubbles.

Thirdly, the mammoth economic impact of Covid has put immense strain on the lives of people who were right on the edge of hunger. In the Philippines, where 20 million people live on less than a dollar a day, the opportunity to survive by selling a daughter into slavery is sometimes the last chance a family may have.

Tearfund CEO Ian McInnes says poverty is what drives families and their children into the arms of traffickers.

“In a world where families can’t put food on the table but there’s a $10 phone and reasonably cheap internet, this becomes an option.”

Like many industries, Covid forced sex slavery to pivot. Moving online means the slavers can promote and sell the material across borders.

McInnes says Covid may have prevented offenders from travelling overseas to abuse in person, but the numbers say they have found other ways to offend.

“You might think without inbound travellers on sex trips, the abuse number would go down – but Thai police say the number is as high as it has ever been,” he said.

The Royal Thai Police seized 150,000 files of child sexual abuse material since last April. Meanwhile, in the Phillipines, the number of cases reported has almost tripled on the year before.

“Those are just two we know a lot about,” said McInnes. “It’s a global problem.”

So now more than ever, New Zealanders need to be aware of what they consume online. 

That’s the point of Denholm’s photography, which has been used in campaigns by groups like Tearfund and Operation Red Alert.

“I want people to be mindful of what they are watching,” she said. “And dig into their pockets.”

Ian McInnes says Denholm’s pictures help people put a face on an issue that is so large it can seem nebulous and far away.

“It’s hard to comprehend the 4.8 million people who have been trafficked for sex,” he said. “But it hits home once you tell an individual’s story.”

He says the move online represents a shift to the export of commercial sex exploitation, so New Zealanders need to be aware of what they consume online.

“There’s a live human being on the other end of the line,” he said. “We need to start thinking about what an exploited individual looks like.”

Denholm aims to humanise her subjects, emphasising survivorship over victimhood. “The images they use to talk about this all used to be high heels, tears and running mascara,” she said. Her photos place the girl’s dignity front and centre.

A young girl in the Phillipines recently rescued from trafficking who now lives in a safe house in Manila. Photo: Nikki Denholm

Although it can be difficult to set people who have been through such horrific circumstances at ease, Denholm has ways of helping them put down their guard.

“I spend a lot of time with them before I even take out the camera,” she said. It helps when she is accompanied by her 12 and 14-year-old daughters, she added. “The girls are always interested in them. They’ll plait their hair or just hang out and it will make them feel a lot more comfortable.”

Denholm’s work filming and taking pictures for humanitarian organisations has seen her working across 40 countries, documenting war, famine and the global refugee crisis.

She began to focus more on human trafficking after a workshop in India opened her eyes to the sheer scale of the problem.

“I hadn’t understood the enormity of it all,” she said. “I was horrified. Only 1 percent of these girls are rescued. Their average age is 12.”

Although the industry remains one of the most lucrative criminal enterprises on the planet, McInnes says raised awareness on the subject means we may be on the path to a future where fewer people are sold into slavery.

“It’s easier to talk about it now,” he said. “Five years ago, we wouldn’t have been invited to schools. These days, learning about what’s going on is almost part of the curriculum.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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