From communists to drugs to terrorists, the US has had its share of panics. While each of those entities existed, the putative cure often brought additional ailments and instead of fixing the problem, exacerbated it. We are seeing the same drawback today with the focus on human trafficking. Alarmist language, stereotyping, and relying on those without expert training are leading to the same problems we saw with the other panics.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown, writing for Reason, profiled how hotel giant Marriott, in a now-deleted Tweet, boasted that its employees are trained to “spot an escort, to “keep an eye on any women who are traveling alone,” and to “not allow some women to drink at the bar alone.” Certainly, no decent person would want human trafficking anywhere and it’s easy to understand a business being vigilant about making sure it never took place on its premises.
But the deleted Tweet insinuates that a woman cannot be trusted to be by herself or to be left to her own devices. Not that men get a free ride, either. Some airlines conspicuously move adult males seated next to an unrelated minor and some men have even been accused of having an underage concubine at a hotel when the teenager was actually his daughter. None of these measures are eradicating human trafficking.
Often, the paranoia takes on racial overtones. Cindy McCain, co-chair of the Arizona Governor’s Council on Human Trafficking, made a minor news splash when she contacted airport police about seeing a woman and toddler of different ethnicities together. She recalled, “Something didn’t click with me. She was trafficking that kid. She was waiting for the guy who bought the child to get off an airplane.”
This overzealous effort to foist a kidnapping turned out to be nothing more than McCain inconveniencing and embarrassing a mother and her child. Terry Firma at Patheos wrote, “A passion for or against a movement or a great cause often leads people to look for, and then to see, examples of their bugbear everywhere.”
McCain was likely unaware that 14 percent of the population is biracial, and with surrogacies, adoption, and remarriage, mixed race families are common. Also, about 20 percent of women keep their maiden name when getting married, and this can result in immediate family members having different last names. But these changing demographics are ignored in favor of alarm at airports, bus stations, and hotels.
One example cited by Reason involved an Asian woman and a Puerto Rican man sharing an orange juice, with this being touted by an airline employee as one sign that something wasn’t quite right. Another time, members of the Korean band Oh My Girl spent 15 hours detained at LAX on suspicion they were being trafficked. Keeping with the ethnic stereotyping, hospitality industry personnel are trained to consider references to massage parlors and Southeast Asia as potentially being a trafficking tipoff.
Like other panics, this one encourages citizen spying, which is now augmented by enhanced digital surveillance capabilities. Traffic cameras, indeed. Employees are cautioned to be on the lookout for travelers who seem fatigued or sleep deprived, even though these are common and expected conditions for someone who has spent hours on the road. Also under suspicion are guests with little luggage, with pornography, with multiple phones and computers, or who decline to have their room cleaned. Other signs are said to be: A waiting woman who is picked up by a man (especially if she’s scantily clad and he’s older); a car parked with its license plate away from the door; multiple rooms booked under one name; and having too many condoms. Even shabby clothes, sunglasses, and an oversized hat can be considered evidence of wrongdoing.
For all this hyper-vigilance, we are seeing no uptick in trafficking convictions, and in fact, this nightmare seldom occurs. Firma wrote, “Sex trafficking is so rare that an experimental court in Delaware, set up to fight it, had to close for lack of victims. In the UK, the biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution in spite of hundreds of raids on sex workers in a six-month campaign by government departments, specialist agencies and every police force in the country.”
Police, specialized agencies, and prosecutors are finding very few human trafficking victims. It’s hardly fair to expect flight attendants, bus drivers, and hotel housekeepers to manage it.