Sex trafficking is a moral panic

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I’m about to blow your mind. Sex trafficking is actually not a serious problem in the US. Not by any objective measure, anyway.

Verifiable instances of total strangers kidnapping people and forcing them at gunpoint into sex slavery in the US are vanishingly rare.

When you actually dig into sex trafficking survivors’ stories, a few things pop out at you. One is that some of the most public survivors are making shit up.

But most of the time the “sex trafficking” stories turn out to be exploitation that involves coerced sex for money facilitated by domestic violence, immigration fuckery, and/or drug addition/mental illness.

1. Domestic violence. Girl meets boy. Boy showers girl with attention, gifts, etc. Boy turns controlling and violent. Boy coerces girl into sex for money.

2. Immigration fuckery. Recent immigrant needs job where immigration status, skillset, and facility with the language aren’t a problem. Employer has recent immigrant do sex work they wouldn’t do if they didn’t need help staying in the country.

3. Drug addiction and mental illness. Person has problems that necessitate large amount of cash and a willingness to do sex work they wouldn’t otherwise be willing to do.

These are all huge and ongoing problems. But none of them are new. And none of them are unique to the sex trade. The vast majority of exploitation related to DV, immigration fuckery, and drug addiction/mental illness has nothing to do with sex for money. None of these flavors of abuse discriminate by career. Anyone can be a victim of DV. Immigration fuckery, for instance, can impact any immigrant worker, even programmers in Silicon Valley. I would venture to say most people struggling with addiction and mental illness are exploited in some way, but most do not engage with the sex trade.

All the evidence I’m familiar with indicates that without domestic violence, immigration fuckery, and/or drug addition/mental illness, sex trafficking would basically disappear.

We have zero evidence to indicate a sex trafficking epidemic in the US. Every stat you see about sex trafficking in the US is either made up entirely or based on totally worthless data such as anonymous calls to a tip line which are never verified and are usually reports of adult consensual sex work. Plus, every individual instance of sex work can result in several calls.

Of the hundreds of sex trafficking “awareness” and “rescue” non-profits not one has devoted any of their million-dollar+ budgets into accurately measuring the scope of the problem. You can’t measure whether your tactics are reducing the incidence of sex trafficking if you don’t know how often it’s happening in the first place.

Why doesn’t anyone know how common sex trafficking is?

Why focus on sex trafficking when you could address more common, underlying sources of exploitation?

Because the people running these organizations know it’s a scam. They know they’re creating a moral panic to advance their political goals.

Sex trafficking is a classic moral panic Evangelicals created to get conspiracy-minded, sex-obsessed Americans to fund non-profits that work with police to arrest and deport adult consenting sex workers while fighting to further criminalize sex work and pornography for ideological reasons.

DC cops’ “Human Trafficking Unit” arrests willing, adult sex workers 98% of the time. They made a grand total of four trafficking arrests in all of 2016. These cops exposed their penises to sex workers and forced them to undress. In 2019 the unit arrested more than 18 people per week in resource-intensive, undercover prostitution stings. Of those actually charged, more than 30% were adult, consensual sex workers. 

SFPD filed 69 reports on massage establishments 2014-2015. Not one involved human trafficking. They shut down a third of SF’s massage parlors and arrested a bunch of adult sex workers. That’s it. SFPD counts all adult sex workers as suspected trafficking survivors, even without signs of force, fraud, or coercion, which state and federal law require. 

If these orgs really wanted to reduce sex trafficking they would measure the scope of the problem.

They would also support decriminalizing sex work, which everyone from the WHO to the ACLU to Amnesty International agrees decreases sex trafficking while increasing safety and public health and does not increase the incidence of sex work.

But most importantly, if these orgs really wanted to reduce sex trafficking they’d focus on the real causes of sexual exploitation: Poverty, domestic violence, immigration fuckery, and drug addition/mental illness.

Evangelicals are using sex trafficking victims to gin up support for ending all commercial sex work. But you can’t end sex work. Sex work is always going to happen. You can only make it more dangerous for everyone involved through stigma and criminalization.

Sex work is not inherently exploitative. Stigma and criminalization make the sex trade more exploitative than it needs to be. In places like New Zealand where lawmakers have decriminalized sex work, sex workers are treated better and enjoy safer, healthier working conditions. Decrim also reduces STI transmission and sex trafficking. And the incidence of sex work is the same. When the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine reviewed 33 countries in 2018 they found that sex workers are three times more likely to experience sexual and physical violence in countries with criminalization policies (including the Nordic Model) compared to decriminalization. Workers in countries that criminalize sex work are also twice as likely to have HIV or another STI as workers in countries where sex work isn’t criminalized.

The truth is that even with stigma and criminalization, a focus on the sex trade doesn’t make sense from a mathematical perspective. The vast majority of exploited workers aren’t sex workers. They work across industries, in agriculture, domestic labor, and manufacturing. And the vast majority of human trafficking victims aren’t sex trafficking victims. The vast majority are trafficked into agriculture and domestic labor.

source

The common thread here isn’t the job or the industry. It’s how much power the worker has relative to their employer.

If you actually want to end exploitation you have to empower the exploited. There’s no shortcut.

Sex trafficking is horrible. No one should be forced to do anything against their will. But there’s simply no credible evidence to suggest it’s a common or growing problem in the US. Instead, all the data we have suggests poverty, DV, immigration fuckery, and drug addiction/mental illness are far, far larger problems with far-reaching knock-on effects. So every dollar anyone might put into fighting sex trafficking should go instead to fighting the larger, underlying issues. We need:

  • A UBI (or at minimum a social safety net that enables people to leave their abusers without falling into permanent poverty)

  • Dense, affordable housing near job centers

  • An immigration system that makes it easy for anyone to legally work in the US

  • Affordable, accessible addiction and mental health treatment

  • Sex work decrim

All I’m asking is that everyone raising money or awareness about sex trafficking either:

  1. Explain to me how you’re going to end trafficking without measuring the problem or implementing evidence-based fixes

  2. Show me any evidence your proposed fixes (stigma, criminalization, deportation, arrest, forced diversion programs) are going to work when all the data I have access to indicates not only do these programs not work but they actually exacerbate sex trafficking and have other ill effects

  3. Admit you don’t actually care about reducing sex trafficking or care that stigma, criminalization, deportation, arrest, forced diversion programs actually exacerbate sex trafficking. Admit that you believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that stigma, criminalization, deportation, arrest, forced diversion programs will reduce the incidence of adult, consensual sex work and you don’t care how many sex workers have to die along the way.

    Listen, I get it. You can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs. You’re never going to make the omelette because your tactics demonstrably don’t work. But that’s okay. It’s just sex workers dying. And we don’t count. That’s fine. I mean it’s extremely fucked up, but at least we can have a conversation about it.

    What I cannot fucking handle is when you pretend to care about reducing sex trafficking. If you’re going to be a whorephobic shitbag who knowingly advocates for policies that demonstrably exacerbate trafficking and get sex workers beaten, raped, arrested, deported, and killed, the least you could do is to be honest about it.

The real threat isn’t guys in vans kidnapping people and forcing them to suck dick at gunpoint. That is an extremely, vanishingly rare occurrence. The real threat is an entire system of immigration, employment, criminal justice, and social safety nets that facilitates trafficking and worker exploitation. It’s systems that empower abusers and keep boots on the necks of the marginalized. That ecosystem wants you scared of guys in vans. That system wants you to fund organizations that work with cops to arrest and deport adult, consenting sex workers. Because as long as we’re fighting each other, those systems are safe.