A decade ago, I was approached by a documentary film crew filming for a production about “human trafficking.” At the time, sex trafficking was thought of as something you see from a Hollywood movie like the 2008 movie “TAKEN” starring Liam Neeson. (In the movie, two teenagers are kidnapped by human traffickers and sold at an auction.) If we could write a movie about this latest panic, we could call it “MISTAKEN”.
What a difference a decade makes! We now live in a society saturated and obsessed with sex trafficking panic. If your city hosts a major sporting event like the Super Bowl, then you will hear about it. States like Florida are pushing legislation requiring hotels to report any suspicious activity to police. The hotel at the 2016 NARSOL Conference in Atlanta had bathroom signs advertising a hotline for reporting suspected human trafficking. The annual Contemporary Christian festival Winter Jam tour now promotes anti-trafficking agencies during their concerts. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 ad campaign made numerous references to “stopping human trafficking” while showing pictures of dirty, sad looking children, obviously implying sex trafficking of children, which is what most people think when they hear the term “human trafficking”. The post 9/11 mantra “If you see something, say something” is now applied to suspected sex trafficking. So if the hype is everywhere, it means sex trafficking is an epidemic, right?
In reality, the number of “stereotypical” sex trafficking cases in America is as miniscule as the number of “stereotypical” kidnappings. While media reports (mostly citing anti-human trafficking activists) claim between 100,000 and 300,000 people are trafficked yearly in America, actual arrests of suspected human traffickers remains extremely low. Sex Work activist Maggie McNeil tacked the source of this 100k-300k claim to a poorly devised research paper written in 2001 that merely estimated the number of people “at risk” for human trafficking. McNeil adds, “To sum up, then, what this study actually says is ‘We can’t be sure because it’s really hard to count, but we think that up to 100,000 (and maybe, possibly as high as 300,000) people of both sexes from puberty until their late teens possibly may at some point come close to being sexually involved with people who are older than them, and this includes stumbling on internet porn, going to work in strip clubs to support themselves after 18, joining gangs and having older boyfriends. Of these possibilities trafficking is the least common. Oh, and we don’t accept that women can ever voluntarily engage in prostitution because they’re too stupid to be entrepreneurs; only guys are smart enough to do that.’” The anti-trafficking activist group Polaris still refers to this study when claiming there is a “sex trafficking” epidemic in America.
In reality, these annual stings find little evidence of actual trafficking. Nationwide sex trafficking arrests between Jan. 2008 and June 2010 by the feds were 410 suspects and 460 victims, of which 248 are under age 18. (Duren Banks and Tracey Kyckelhahn (2011) “Characteristics of Suspected Human Trafficking Incidents, 2008-2010.” BJS.gov). Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote in at Reason.com recently, “In 2016, 56 juveniles and 916 adults were arrested on labor or sex trafficking charges, according to FBI-gathered data from state and local police agencies. In 2017, 49 juveniles arrested were arrested and 643 adults were arrested. There were a total of 1,196 suspected offenses reported in 2016 and just 1,220 in 2017.”
The Super Bowl in particular has been zeroed in on over the years by law enforcement agencies due to claims of a unique trafficking influx. Arrests for suspected underage prostitution in Miami in for the Super Bowl 2010 was 16. More recently, the FBI’s Violent Crimes Against Children/Human Trafficking Program and Metro Atlanta Child (MATCH) Task Force worked alongside 25 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to conduct a large-scale “trafficking” sting. They boasted 169 arrests, but most were typical online entrapment operations or prostitution between adults. Only 9 juveniles were “recovered” and none were under age 14.
This is not to say sex trafficking does not exist in America. However, the amount of resources it took to find nine alleged juvenile sex trafficking victims by 26 different law enforcement agencies (one alleged victim for every 3 agencies) in the entire Atlanta metropolitan area that covers 5.3 million people is ludicrous.
If our paid professional law enforcement agents struggle with finding bona fide cases of sex trafficking, how less equipped is the average citizen? People are taking to social media claiming to have had near-close encounters with “sex traffickers” and the media is all-to-quick to report these incidents as facts. Here are a few of these reports:
In February 2019, Tampa FL resident Emmy Hurley claims she was almost sex trafficked at the airport. In reality, she jumped into the wrong Uber car, and the driver was taking her to the address for the person she came to pick up. Police conducted an investigation and reasonably concluded a case of mistaken identity.
In January 2019, Cindy McCain, wife of recently-deceased US Senator John McCain, claimed she stopped a human trafficking incident at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, but a newspaper and local police debunked that claim. There was a similar report from the Huffington Post in April 2017, this time from Maura Hufrey, whose husband was erroneously interrogated by 4 officers from the four officers from the Port Authority and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for suspicion of sex trafficking. In April 2017, Brian Smith was also taken aside and interrogated on return from a vacation in Florida, traveling with his adopted Chinese daughter. In all three of these instances, the falsely accused were interracial couples.
In March 2017, Diandra Toyos of Southern California claimed she was stalked by would-be sex traffickers at a local IKEA store. No incident report was reported to the police, so the only claim of a crime was a Facebook post.
In February 2016, Amanda Cropsey Florczykowski of Longview, TX claims on social media that three East Indians attempted to take her baby. Again, there was no police incident report associated with this alleged act, but she is taking preorders for a book she wrote about this alleged incident.
These are but a few anecdotal examples but there are plenty more reports to be found online involving harrowing stories of close calls at nearly every major retailer store in America. Many of these reports are never reported to police but they “go viral” primary through social networking sites like Facebook and through alternative media (i.e., special interest websites and blogs that share news not covered by the mainstream media). While not every story listed was based upon social media reports, most information on searching for suspected sex trafficking comes from the Internet.
The term “going viral” is a fitting term for this mental disease we refer to as moral panic. A generation ago, when I was a child, we believed in the most fantastic stories of underground satanic cults running daycare centers, molesting children, and sacrificing children to the devil. Moral panics existed even in ancient times (think witch burnings) but with the Internet the amount of crackpot theories has proliferated. Just as people continue to believe in Bigfoot even after the man who took the picture admitted he created a hoax, people are far too willing to believe the fantastic over the realistic.
Marriott Hotels announced in January 2019 that it is offering mandatory sex trafficking awareness training to over 500,000 company employees. The PR Newswire press release from Marriott and a January 24, 2019 Quartz at Work article by Lila MacLellan tell us what these layman sex trafficking hunters are now looking for:
People traveling alone
Minimal clothing and luggage
Intoxicated people or those who can’t speak freely
Multiple men seen being escorted one time to a guest room
Avoiding contact with staff or guests
Asking for “excessive” towels
Pays hotel in cash
If you are shy, don’t talk to stranger, don’t like maids pilfering through your hotel room, don’t like credit cards, get drunk, or have hosted a meeting of folks in your hotel room, congratulations, you’re now a suspected human trafficker! Expect to hear more stories like those of Craig Darwell (April 2017) and Karl Pollard (February 2018), who were falsely accused of sex trafficking by Travelodge employees, which received similar training through Polaris.
The October 30, 2015 New Republic article by Noah Bertlatsky entitled, “‘Human Trafficking’ Has Become a Meaningless Term”, adds we don’t even have a clear definition of human trafficking:
“‘Trafficking,’ in practice, is less a clear-cut crime than a call to moral panic. The vagueness of the definition allows or even encourages governments, organizations, and researchers to claim that there are tens of millions of trafficking victims worldwide on the basis of little more than hyperbolic guesses… The exact origin of the term “sex trafficking” is unclear, but according to Alison Bass, author of Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, it seems to have been developed by anti-prostitution feminists in the 1990s. Bass told me that ‘trafficking’ was used especially to describe the migration of women from the collapsing Soviet Union to the United States… But anti-prostitution activists like Hughes often use “sexual exploitation” to include any kind of prostitution or sex work—in fact, (Donna M.) Hughes insists in her article that ‘trafficking occurs even if the woman consents.’ In other words, trafficking can include sex workers who decide to illegally or semi-legally migrate from Eastern Europe to the United States…When you say ‘trafficking’ people still think sexual slavery.” That FBI Atlanta report boasted of 169 arrests, but most consisted of mundane prostitution stings between consenting adults.
Unfortunately, this panic shows no signs of slowing down. Today’s headline from WCPO, a Cincinnati ABC affiliate, reads, “Patriots owner Robert Kraft faces charges as ‘john’ in human trafficking/prostitution investigation”. This headline illustrates the melding of an act merely frowned upon in some circles and legal in some areas of America with an act that strikes fear in the hearts of women and those with families all across America.
Admittedly, our movement to reform the attitudes of society and expelling myths surrounding sex offender laws has largely neglected the sex trafficking panic, but we should remember that sex trafficking laws can become vessels for widespread deprivation of freedoms. Remember California’s 2012 “Proposition 35, Ban on Human Trafficking and Sex Slavery” contained a provision requiring every registered person in California to turn in all internet authorities to law enforcement agents. Only 18.7% of California voters voted against Prop 35. In the federal level, International Megan’s Law requires registrants whose offense involved minors to receive a derogatory stamp on their passports under the guise of preventing “sex tourism.” This is why we should take a closer look at this latest hot-button topic with greater scrutiny and recognize as well as strategize ways to combat this latest moral panic fueled by largely by social media.
Derek W. Logue of OnceFallen.com