Exclusive: Child Trafficking Rescuer Highlights Horrors of Online Sexual Exploitation

(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

“The United States is the biggest consumer… of child pornography in the world.” Joseph Sweeney said. Sweeney founded The Asservo Project to fight child trafficking, and he explained how social media drives an epidemic of sexual exploitation of young people in exclusive comments to PJ Media.


The Asservo Project works to help save trafficked children and young adults and to raise awareness about the increasing exploitation of children. The Project’s website says that the average age of a trafficked child is 14 years old, though some are as young as nine or ten. Sweeney himself came into the work during his time working for the U.S. government.

Asservo is involved in rescue efforts and also educates children and adults on the risks that lead to child exploitation. One major factor fueling the child sex trafficking crisis in America is social media, according to Sweeney.

“The United States is the biggest consumer — and producer, at times — of child pornography in the world,” Sweeney told me. “Unsettling, to say the least; and how did we get there?”

The “degrading of our society as a whole” and the rise of social media exacerbated the problem and facilitated child exploitation, Sweeney explained. “The entire industry [is] driven by money,” he said, “it’s very lucrative… We hunt predators every day out there online,” and predators are constantly searching. “They coerce or groom kids into sharing these things, pretending to be somebody else.” So “now the demand side of it has increased,” Sweeney stated.


Speaking of presentations Asservo does in schools and common questions he receives, Sweeney noted that many people just ask about the kidnapping aspect of child trafficking. For most children, however, their predator has or creates some sort of relationship with them. “These predators identify vulnerabilities in people, young adults as well as kids, and then they manipulate them,” Sweeney said.

I asked about what advice he gives parents and children to guard against this type of manipulation, which seems difficult due to the fact it’s usually not done by a total stranger.

“Social media has consumed our entire society,” Sweeney observed soberly. “And these kids, they’re just too trusting. Their lives are on this tech all the time — they’re gaming, they’re chatting, they’re dating. They’re dating without even meeting people in person.”

Unfortunately, that provides the perfect opportunity for predators to create false profiles and prey on young people.

“The predators hide behind… facades,” Sweeney explained, emphasizing how important it is to educate children about this risk as Asservo does. “These relationships happen over months sometimes, sometimes weeks.”

Even while apparently expressing interest in the intended victim’s life, predators are collecting detailed private information and identifying ways to exploit the child. After months of gaming, a targeted child could think that “now there’s a friendship.” Seemingly “innocuous questions are being asked” to collect information, while the predator is sharing fake personal details to encourage trust and give the illusion of empathy.


“It’s a script,” Sweeney warned, but often a convincing one. “And the kids let their guard down, and even young adults. And that’s when sometimes they do some things that they normally wouldn’t do, and they regret doing after they’ve shared” personal information and “maybe a vulnerability. Then [predators] have them, right? The manipulation starts.”

Children and youth will sometimes incautiously share the one thing in their lives they don’t really want anyone to know, and it becomes a tool for exploiting them. “That’s how [predators] manipulate them, either with the pictures, the videos, or some information that they know [victims] don’t want to be shared,” Sweeney said.

The truly terrifying part is that sometimes traffickers obtain content without the child’s consent. “Their cameras can be taken over as well,” Sweeney told me. “This is a very complex crime, and it looks different in so many ways on how they target their victims.” Children with difficult or abusive home lives are particularly at risk of exploitation, susceptible to seeming sympathy from a fake online persona.

Sweeney admitted the difficulty of convincing young people to be cautious enough to protect themselves. “To sum it up exactly, if you don’t know these people, don’t talk to them,” he said. “But that’s not what tech’s about. That’s not what these chatrooms and platforms are about. So it’s hard to get the message across to the kids.” He encouraged parents to be far more active in monitoring their children’s online activities and lives.


Stay tuned for more exclusive comments from Joseph Sweeney on the tragic epidemic of child sexual trafficking, including advice for citizens, parents, and politicians to combat the crisis.


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