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Sarah Cooper – United States

I was 12 or 13 when I first got a Facebook account. Early on, I would aimlessly go online once or twice a day for an hour or two. Things rapidly progressed and I joined various Facebook subgroups – music fan groups, ones about Harry Potter, Twilight, and animals. It was an outlet and way to meet like-minded people, where I felt like I could be myself without stepping outside of my comfort zone. 

I wanted to be popular and initially it was about getting the largest number of friends on Facebook. I had multiple accounts and by 16, I had over 1,000 Facebook friends, many of whom were people I didn’t know in person. 

I didn’t have a clue about the risks. Older men messaged me but I didn’t want to connect the pieces, I wanted to be naïve. I honestly don’t think it crossed my radar that people might be dangerous. 

When I was 15, I got a Facebook request from a guy I didn’t know. His profile picture was of a cartoon character and his username was “J”. We started chatting and connected over music and books. Soon we were speaking all the time over Facebook Messenger, often late into the night. I told him all about my life, things in my past, problems I was having. We became really close and it felt like he adored me, like he was my best friend. He asked me to send some explicit photos and I did it because I wanted to be accepted by him. I was young and flattered by his attention and didn’t realize that he was grooming me. 

Things carried on for a few years, we started speaking on the phone but never saw each other in person. It was shortly after my 18th birthday that we finally arranged to meet. J pulled up in his car and I knew something wasn’t right because I’d always thought he was around the same age as me but he looked closer to 40. 

I wanted to sort things out so I went with him. He took me to a house where there were other people and they forced me to drink shots of alcohol and take cocaine. Then I was made to have sex with J and another woman. Someone else filmed it and they said it was my “audition” tape. I was terrified. 

The next day J drove me to a motel. I was locked in a room guarded by armed men and sold into sexual slavery. There were other girls being held captive too and I thought I was never going to get out. When I begged to leave I was given drugs and alcohol that kept me in a daze. After a week and a half I managed to phone a friend, he drove to get me and we escaped. 

For years, I didn’t tell anyone what happened. I was scared but eventually, I thought enough is enough. There are so many stories of children being victimized, this stuff needs to be talked about, we need to get rid of the stigma. I’m sharing my story publicly because I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. Internet safety education needs to be fully integrated into our children’s curriculum. It’s important to start talking about this stuff at a younger age, not wait until after young people are already experiencing this stuff. 

Things could have gone a lot differently in my story if I had known more. I know it’s not an easy conversation to have with a child, it’s difficult and uncomfortable, but you need to speak with young people to make sure they have the knowledge to keep themselves safe.

This story was shared as part of our 2021 report, Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards.