This essay first appeared in Cliterati on August 25th; I have modified it slightly for time references and to fit the format of this blog.
The claims made in moral panics are usually so extreme and outrageous that in retrospect they seem wholly absurd. Few living now could accept the claim that powerful Satanic cults with connections in every part of society had enslaved hundreds of thousands of teenage girls in order to produce infants for sacrifice as anything other than the plot of an unusually-unrealistic Hollywood horror film, but in the 1980s and early 1990s this fantastical belief spread across the entire United States; journalists treated it as a realistic scenario, and innocent people were railroaded into prison based on utterly ridiculous and totally unsubstantiated testimony elicited from young children who had been tortured by many hours of grueling, coercive interrogation by police and prosecutors. Viewing the hysteria from a comfortable distance of two decades, one might well wonder how so many people took complete leave of their senses; how could any rational person believe the sort of absolute rubbish that millions accepted, when even the most basic understanding of arithmetic, science or psychology (not to mention simple common sense and ordinary human experience) should have convinced anyone of even average intelligence that the whole thing was quite impossible?
And yet here we are again, in the midst of an equally absurd, equally unsubstantiated moral panic; the “cultists” have now turned into “traffickers” and their motive is said to be profit rather than devil-worship, but otherwise the hysteria is basically the same: incredibly-large numbers of nubile young girls being abducted and confined in a vast yet hidden underworld for nefarious and primarily-sexual purposes. The fact that there is no actual evidence for any of this, and that the whole thing reads like something a more prudish version of J.K. Rowling might have dreamed up during an acute attack of paranoia, has not stopped it from taking hold of the public imagination even more firmly than the Satanic Panic did (and over a larger fraction of the globe). Any given “trafficking” scare story falls apart under even the most cursory examination…and yet they persist. An example from the August 20th Guardian (modified the next morning after its most extreme claims proved too much for the bulk of the Graun’s readership to swallow) demonstrates just how credulous one has to be to believe the hype:
…a report by the Sunday Times…detailed the growing prevalence of nail salons controlled by human traffickers and staffed by the trafficked, specifically from Vietnam. Industry insiders estimate that there are 100,000 Vietnamese manicurists working in the UK, despite only 29,000 Vietnamese-born migrants officially being registered in census data. The workers are often expected to paint nails by day and work in prostitution by night. Many are children – and even if they’re identified and taken in by social services, 90% will be tracked down by their traffickers and disappear from care…
For comparison, here’s the same paragraph in the modified version:
…A report by the Sunday Times…presented evidence about nail salons staffed by illegal immigrants, specifically from Vietnam. According to the report, industry insiders estimate that there are 100,000 Vietnamese manicurists working in the UK, despite only 29,000 Vietnamese-born migrants officially being registered in census data…It alleges that some of these illegal migrants are victims of “what appears to be a human-trafficking network” and that they are sometimes forced to work as prostitutes as well as manicurists…
“Growing prevalence” became simple “evidence”; a declaration of “controlled by traffickers” became a mere “allegation”, “often” became “some”…and where did the “trafficked children” go? Oops. To the Guardian’s credit, it addressed the numerical claims in a follow-up article:
…the latest ONS data did not include Vietnam in its list of the 60 most common nationalities now resident in the UK. That list stretched from 545,000 Polish nationals to 13,000 Colombians – so the omission of Vietnam would suggest that the 29,000 figure is incorrect…the Sunday Times article…implies that there are 71,000 hidden Vietnamese nationals in the UK and that every [one]…is a manicurist…between the first quarter of 2005 and the first quarter of this year, 81,886 Vietnamese nationals applied for a UK visa – and almost 73,000 of those visas were subsequently issued…a tiny proportion of those applications are for work permits – just 77 (or 0.6%) of the 13,000 visa applications from Vietnamese nationals in 2012 asked to work in the country. Can we assume that all the other immigrants lied, and subsequently remained in the country? Probably not. Many probably came for tourism or to visit friends and family over here…More problematically, the…article leapt from talking about illegal immigrants to victims of human trafficking and in doing so, seemed to conflate these two, very different groups…the…National Referral Mechanism (NRM)…[identified only] 32 Vietnamese nationals…as potential victims in [the first quarter of this year]…and…a report by the Center for Social Justice…suggested that there were around…25 [trafficked] Vietnamese nationals [in the UK]…
But even those whose math and research skills are both sorely lacking should have been able to see through these claims by simply thinking about their own experiences in nail salons or talking to someone who regularly visits such places. As it turns out, I am such a person: I have had my nails done by Vietnamese manicurists every three weeks since December of 1996; that’s almost 300 visits to seven different parlors over the years, and one of those parlors changed ownership twice during the time I regularly went there. Yes, this is the US and not the UK, but given the similarity of “trafficking” rhetoric in both countries I hardly think that makes a difference. Here’s what I never saw in all that time: child manicurists (unless one counts the occasional teenage “polish girl” who is always the salon owner’s Americanized daughter); manicurists who seemed exhausted from double-shifts as hookers; manicurists who seemed frightened or cowed beyond the natural shyness of an Asian lady who doesn’t speak English well; weird vibes from the owners; a parlor with enough room in the back for a brothel. And here’s what I never heard in years of owning an escort service: word from one single client or escort about a clandestine brothel in a nail parlor.
But I must point out that I have an advantage over the authors of both the Times’ scare-story and the Guardian article that credulously parroted it, and over any salon-goers who actually believed the absurd claims: I actually treat my manicurists like human beings instead of vending machines. I talk to them, to the extent allowed by the individual’s command of English (in fact, I spent time helping the newly-arrived wife of my current salon-owner to improve hers); I ask about their children and their lives, and share mine with them. I’ve given advice and rides, brought presents for new babies, received gifts bought on trips back to Vietnam to visit family, gone to eat pho with them, and brought them eggs when their chickens stopped laying. I made the effort to familiarize myself with their culture, and to try to understand why they do things the way they do; I’ve seen one of them rise from new immigrant to owner of her own parlor within a few short years, and I’m told that isn’t all that unusual. Even if the numbers in these articles had not been so ridiculous, I would have recognized them as rubbish for the simple reason that I’ve taken the time to get to know the group about which the claims were made…and as in the case of sex workers and other sexual minorities, that clears out the dark corners where ignorant myths thrive.