Law enforcement agencies will occasionally trumpet that they have conducted a sting or undercover operation that has resulted in the arrest of dozens of human traffickers and rescued hundreds of trafficking victims. This leaves people breathlessly wondering, if all this has taken place in one city over a few months, how widespread must this tragedy be?
But when journalists have the time and wherewithal to follow up and break down the specifics of each arrest, it turns out the actual number of traffickers apprehended and victims saved is almost always zero.
The law enforcement agencies arrive at their greatly exaggerated numbers by intentionally conflating all sex work with kidnapping and rape. A man and woman who use an app to arrange a clandestine for-money hook-up that involves no one else would be touted by police as human trafficking. No distinction is made between traffickers and masseuses, or between victims and found runaways.
Police round up the usual suspects and put another notch in their shining knight belts, regardless of what really happened.
In Reason, libertarian-minded John Stossel wrote about one of the more well-known instances of this grandstanding, when Florida police charged New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft with soliciting prostitution. The media praised this rescue of sex slaves, but all involved women were willing participants. And far from being rescued (not that they needed to be), they were instead jailed and entered into the criminal justice system.
These are the results of the latest moral panic, in line with witches in Puritan America, Communism in the 1950s, and Satanism in the 1980s. Rep. Ann Wagner screeched on the Congressional floor, “300,000 American children are at risk,” a typically hyperbolic and evidence-free number bandied about my anxious believers.
Wagner got this number from a study that has been disavowed by its lead author. Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown told Stossel that if trafficking was that prevalent, “Cops would be able to find this all the time and wouldn’t have to go through these elaborate stings.”
Another unsubstantiated number comes from Ashton Kutcher, who told Congress about an app that has “identified over 6,000 trafficking victims this year.”
Yet Brown noted, “If Ashton Kutcher is finding all those victims, he’s not turning them over to police.” This is similar to claims 30 years ago that thousands of children were being raped or murdered by Satanic cults, yet no one making these assertions was able to offer the name of a victim, perpetrator, or location. The only exceptions were a couple of instances in which the allegations were false, ruining innocent lives.
These alarmist attitudes are especially impacting the hospitality industry, where hotel employees are encouraged to be unpaid law enforcement deputies. They are trained to remember long lists of innocuous activities, descriptions, and distinctions, and to consider them evidence of human trafficking.
Examples include: Having lingerie, condoms, an alcohol stash, lots of cash, or multiple phones and computers; declining housekeeping service; leaving minors in the room; infrequently leaving the hotel; using more toiletries and towels than most guests; or a prolonged stay with few possessions. Even wearing hats and sunglasses or being seen with a toy is considered evidence that the person is holding children captive and supplying them to lowlifes for the most malevolent purposes.
Because of all this, Brown has trouble containing her glee that police are starting to pay for their panicky pronouncements. There have been so many announcements making such grandiose claims that recipients of these messages have begun to suspect trafficking from the most benign activities. They then waste police time by reporting this, or worse for the cops, turn into an agitated activist whose social media campaign berates the cops for failing so stop the peddling of our children.
Brown cited an example from Glendale, Wis., where locals chided police for failing to put an end to “girls as young as 12 being snatched up from two local malls and sold into prostitution rings.” The person starting this campaign said a Milwaukee Police Department detective had told her that two Glendale malls were regularly used to traffic people.
This was followed with calls to keep girls and young women locked up at home and to engage in vigilantism: “If you shop in or frequent these areas keep your eyes open, you could make a huge difference.”
Yet no arrest records or information from the suspected trafficking center’s public affairs departments yielded one piece of evidence to support the claims. Like all good moral panics, this resulted not in relief, but in charges of denial and cover-up.
One commenter was somewhat placated, but warned, “It could happen here. Scary.” Yes, and NASA may somehow have missed a meteor that will wipe out two-thirds of the planet’s population later today. But stewing about such matters is neither reasonable nor a prudent use of emotions and resources.
Another commenter was less generous and declared, “Just because there have been no reports of this sort of thing does not mean it is not happening.” One went further still and insisted, “It IS happening and turning a blind eye does not save these young women.”
Any posters who sided with the police (and reality) were chastised for being naïve or were even called traffickers.
These reactions happen, Brown said, because, “When confronted with credible evidence that contradicts our understanding of a situation, we tend to double-down on our erroneous belief and seek ways to discredit the information or the messenger.”
The mall cases featured generic terminology, but sometimes reports of supposed trafficking feature names and specific actions undertaken – though the proof remains nonexistent.
According to Oklahoma media outlet KFOR, a woman named Amanda Kalidy said she was at Target with her 4-year-old daughter. While there, a girl about 9 years old asked Kalidy’s child multiple times for candy. Nearby, there was the most frightening creature imaginable: An unknown male. Kalidy concluded that this man was using the 9-year-old as bait to lure the preschooler into a child sex trafficking ring.
The usual panicked responses ensued, and it’s doubtful many of the posters were assuaged by an Oklahoma official telling KFOR that when trafficking does occur, the victims are usually drawn into the web by an acquaintance over time. They are not snatched from their mother at a retailer in broad daylight.
The Wisconsin and Oklahoma cases are just two examples of concerned citizenry responding to officials hyperventilating about human trafficking. The results have been dire warnings about Hobby Lobby abductions, Zip ties or shirts tied to side-view mirrors to distract victims, or white vans with external locks (used by contractors to keep their tools safe). Or there are horror stories about someone accepting a stranger’s Friend request, then having their child abducted at school later that day by their new-found Friend, who gleaned the school’s location from the person’s profile.
Most of these are anonymous, undocumented examples but sometimes a person like Kalidy will post that their child was targeted, and this is shared ad infinitum. In a typical tale, a panicked mother writes that she encountered a man found four times in same aisle as her and again at the checkout stand, and this can only mean he was there on a kidnapping mission. Of course, these supposed abduction attempts never result in an actual abduction or even attempt. And in the cases from the above paragraph, no victims are ever named.
Rather than being the end of it, this is all treated by believers as evidence of how efficient traffickers are, meaning we should be exhibiting even higher level of panic.