When we debunk a fanatical faith or prejudice, we do not strike at the root of fanaticism. We merely prevent its leaking out at a certain point, with the likely result that it will leak out at some other point. - Eric Hoffer
How well do you remember the “Satanic Panic” of the ‘80s and ‘90s? Do you remember when you first heard about it, and what your reactions were? Do you remember how widespread and exaggerated the claims were, and how seriously everyone took them? The reactions from believers when skeptics pointed out the tremendous absurdities? The decline and fall of the hysteria? I sure do, and if you do as well you’ve probably noticed the strong resemblance of “trafficking” hysteria to its older sibling. Both revolve around gigantic international conspiracies which supposedly abduct children into a netherworld of sexual abuse; both are conflated with adult sex work, especially prostitution and porn; both make fantastic claims of vast numbers which are not remotely substantiated by anything like actual figures from “law enforcement” agencies or any other investigative body; both rely on circular logic, claiming the lack of evidence as “proof” of the size of the conspiracy and the lengths to which its participants will go to “hide” their nefarious doings; both encourage paranoia and foment distrust of strangers, especially male strangers; etc, etc, etc.
I first became aware of the panic through the medium of the McMartin Preschool witch trial, in which six women and one man were charged with sexually abusing children as part of Satanic rituals. Though the case first began in September of 1983, it was not until the bizarre allegations started to be publicized a few months later that I realized I was reading about something very strange. The fantastic, dreamlike quality of the “testimony” extracted by fanatics from the children (including claims of flying people, hidden tunnels, being flushed down toilets into secret chambers, and genital and anal mutilations that magically healed by the end of the afternoon) so reminded me of the “confessions” extracted via torture from women accused of witchcraft that I instantly recognized them as essentially the same phenomenon. Unfortunately, very few others did; though I moved in a hardheaded circle which soundly rejected the rapidly-spreading claims of widespread Satanic cultism, my students were shocked when I lampooned the sensationalistic reports of a local TV newscaster in the autumn of 1986. It wasn’t until the following year that a few skeptical journalists began to question the most farfetched aspects of the panic, and another five years after that before the public was done scaring itself into a frenzy; the fad dropped off quickly after 1992, and in 1995 a highly-rated TV movie depicted the McMartin Trial as the hysterical witch-hunt it was.
It’s not possible to directly map one moral panic onto another; the interplay of events and social trends is far too complex for that. There are a few obvious differences between the Satanic Panic and sex trafficking hysteria, the three most important being:
A) The Satanic Panic had a very specific focus, so it wasn’t as easy to force unrelated events into the model as it is to force consensual migration and sex work into the “trafficking” model.
B) The Satanic Panic was driven by a relatively small number of therapists, authors and cops out to make a profit and a name for themselves, with the support of religious fundamentalists; sex trafficking hysteria is driven by a very large number of NGOs, religious fundamentalists, neofeminists, cops and wealthy prohibitionists out to make a profit and a name for themselves and to advance a busybody agenda.
C) Most people probably find criminal conspiracies more believable than devil cults, so sex trafficking hysteria has an innate feel of verisimilitude that the Satanic Panic lacked.
However, it is the nature of moral panics, no matter what their subject, to die off in roughly the time it takes a generation to come of age, about twenty years; as I pointed out in “Crystal Ball”, even local witch panics of the 15th-18th centuries fell inside this time limit, and there’s no reason to suspect this one will be any different. The hysteria began in earnest in January of 2004, and with the exception of sex work writers, skeptics and experts in migration went largely unquestioned in the media until 2007, when isolated criticisms started popping up in the Washington Post, the Guardian and other large newspapers. Then in the last few months, we’ve started to see the skepticism spreading even more widely, with a number of prominent “trafficking” hysteria profiteers such as Nicholas Kristof, Somaly Mam and The Grey Man caught in outrageous lies. All things being equal I’d say we were on track for a TV movie about the trafficking hysteria by the beginning of 2016, but given the big-money interests who will work very hard to extend the panic past the end of its natural life, I prefer to err on the side of caution and keep to my original estimate of panic’s end by 2017 and critical docudramas by 2019.
Once one is able to examine the hysteria from an historical and sociological perspective, it becomes rather fascinating (though none the less frightening for those of us whose profession is being targeted by the witch hunters). For example, one can see how events that would have been interpreted one way 15 years ago are now seen through the lens of “human trafficking”; this recent trial in which members of a Somali gang were convicted for forcing young female members into prostitution would have been reported as a “gang-related violence” story in the late ‘90s, but is now labeled a “sex trafficking case”. In the ‘80s, every city in America imagined itself overrun with Satanic cultists; now it’s “human traffickers”, and there’s a creepy competition for the title of “leading hub for sex trafficking”, generally on the basis of how many interstate highways pass through or near the city (since none of them have any actual statistics to support their claims). In the past year I’ve heard New York, Dallas, Miami, Portland, Atlanta and Sacramento vying for this dubious distinction, and now Tulsa, Oklahoma is as well.
But the most fascinating specimen of this mass psychosis I’ve seen lately was the one which inspired this column; playwright Simon Stephens, whose expertise on prostitution and migration consists of “The one statistical piece of information I remember was from the chief prosecutor in Talinn, who said that 20 girls were trafficked from Estonia in a three-month period.” Armed with this mountain of data he wrote a play about “sex trafficking” named Three Kingdoms, and considers himself such an expert that he felt comfortable criticizing Dr. Brooke Magnanti for stating in her new book The Sex Myth that the extent of “trafficking” has been grossly exaggerated: “…it doesn’t matter whether 50 girls are trafficked every week, or 50 a year…If it’s just fucking one, that’s ghastly enough.” Obviously, inserting an expletive somehow turns “If it saves only ONE child!!!!” into insightful analysis. He also had words for those who rightfully recognize that the topic has already been done to death: “It’s slightly emotionally arid that something [a subject like this] should pass from fashion.” Given that view, I look forward to Mr. Stephens’ future plays on such pressing topics as Satanists breeding children for sacrifice, communists infiltrating the free world and witches attempting to bring about the downfall of Christendom by withering their neighbors’ crops with the Evil Eye.
One Year Ago Today
“Extra, Extra” discusses my attitude on reporting current events, examines the implications of Massachusetts’ “sex trafficking” law and criticizes the glacial pace of New York police’s investigation of the Long Island Killer.