Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Those of you who are sensitive to symbolism may have noticed that my metaphors about trafficking hysteria often involve circles, spirals and other such forms. In “The Widening Gyre” I used Yeats’ image of the falcon who has spiraled too far from the falconer to hear his commands; in my column from this last New Year’s Day I used the image of a runaway carousel. This is because a moral panic, like a living thing, has a life-cycle; but unlike a living thing, it can go through long periods of dormancy and then return again from the dead. The “sex trafficking” hysteria is so similar to the “white slavery” panic that the differences are barely worth noting, except that this time around it went through a period of appearing to be something else (the Satanic Panic) before settling back into its old, colonialist, Victorian anti-sex shape, complete with racist violence disguised as concern for the welfare of “victims”. The panic grew from the same filth which always nourishes such monsters, went through a larval stage in which it was difficult to tell what it might mature into, metamorphosed into its adult form and has now reached its maximum extent. But unlike a living thing, hysteria does not decline into old age; rather, it expands until its structure disintegrates and it implodes upon itself. As recently as the beginning of last year the “trafficking” myth was fairly coherent between the various cults which adhere to it, but now we’re beginning to see wide variation in the narrative; as Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
To be sure, there are still plenty of paint-by-number “trafficking” articles on the market; this recent one about the New Jersey Super Bowl, for example, has all the typical elements: gypsy whores, denial of women’s agency, cartoon “pimps”, and the obligatory “survivor” witnessing to the congregation (Hallelujah!). While those intended for a general audience usually rely on pompous pronouncements from authority figures with a few magic numbers thrown in for effect, those intended for an audience with pretensions to intellectuality are often dense with bogus statistics (including the impossible “average debut at 13” and “100,000 children enslaved per year” idiocies); this still works because the prohibitionists know they can count on their readers’ mathematical illiteracy and intellectual laziness.
Even some of these cookie-cutter articles have variations which demonstrate the lack of coordination between cultists; one of the most obvious is the absurd “King of the Hill” game in which cities vie for the dubious distinction of being the largest “sex trafficking hub”, citing whatever nonsensical “reasons” they can think of from “FBI reports” to the presence of highways to the number of nearby rivers. The funniest of these in my opinion are those who claim that large rural areas are somehow “attractive” to “sex traffickers” for the exact opposite reason given to rationalize the “gypsy whores” myth: while mega sporting events are supposed to attract “traffickers” because of their high (temporary) population density, some fetishists (notably those in North Carolina) proclaim that their states are attractive because of low population density; even small towns want to get in on the act. But one almost has to admire the chutzpah of officials in Two Harbors, Minnesota (population 3745), who want to have it both ways: they claim that “hunting season…is a key time for traffickers and pimps because it draws…large groups of men into the Northland.”
And that’s only in the articles which are strictly canonical; a growing number of them diverge from the narrative to varying degrees. Some quote old-timey cops who obviously prefer to paint whores as “criminals” and give little more than lip service to the “sex trafficking” catechism; for example, here’s a clown who justifies arresting adult escorts in a “sex trafficking” sting on the grounds that “we don’t know…how many of these young women might have started in that profession when they were minors“. Others seem to be on the verge of seeing the truth, then slap a hasty coat of “trafficking” paint on it: “The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 60 percent of children likely to be victims of sex trafficking have run away from foster care or group homes. They are easy targets for traffickers because of their lack of a strong family support system…” So, so close; all that’s left is for them to recognize that it’s the kids running away of their own volition, not being “lured” away by imaginary “pimps”. And still other articles openly challenge “trafficking” claims:
Human trafficking…[statistics] are certainly alarming and appear regularly online, and in newspaper, radio and television reports. They are seldom interrogated by the reporters who quote them. But are they really accurate? Is there research to back them up?…[Chandre Gould of the] Institute for Security Studies…states that…“The numbers of trafficking victims presented in…reports [are] not based on rigorous quantitative research, but on estimates which are almost certainly inflated based largely on anecdotal evidence”…[no research] suggests a figure close to the claims that between 30,000 and 45,000 children are currently or annually being trafficking for sexual exploitation in South Africa…Gould’s research revealed very few children working as prostitutes in Cape Town. Over a 16 month research period, only five children were encountered working as sex workers. None of [them] were victims of human trafficking…there is little tangible evidence available that human trafficking…plays a large part in the sex trade…only 8 of the 164 women [Gould] canvassed said that they had at one time been a victim of human trafficking-like practices. “This finding is likely to cause controversy,” she writes. “An enormous amount of donor money is available specifically for projects that counter trafficking, so organisations working in this area potentially stand to lose funding if trafficking is not in fact as prevalent as assumed”…
The article goes on to debunk the “gypsy whore” myth, and concludes that “The estimated number of human trafficking victims…are exaggerated…and sensational …claims regarding the trafficking of children for prostitution and the increase of human trafficking during sporting events are not supported by research.” And while articles like this are entirely absent from the corporate American media, a few like this one are starting to pop up in the UK:
In recent years a motley crew of government agencies, police forces, human rights activists, feminists, religious groups and celebrities have turned human trafficking into one of the biggest issues of our time. The anti-trafficking lobby claims that millions of people around the world – mostly women and children – are being smuggled across borders by means of threat and coercion and are forced into prostitution, bonded labour and domestic servitude. The UK media – both broadsheet and tabloid – has slavishly accepted this narrative, filling column inches with salacious reports of foreigners trapped in cellars, used for tawdry sex and held under the threat of murder and even voodoo. But this modern-day slavery scare is underpinned, not by hard evidence, but by speculation and prejudice. It is a moral panic which masks a fear of foreigners, of fluid borders and of women who exercise their agency by moving across the world in the pursuit of a better life…time and again the thousands of victims and perpetrators that the anti-trafficking lobby claims are out there fail to materialize…For anti-trafficking activists, migrants are either vicious thugs who must be locked up (the traffickers) or helpless victims who must be rescued (the trafficked)…
Shortly after the collapse of the Satanic Panic, skeptical treatments were common (and now form the dominant, though not yet universal, consensus). And from the safe distance of a century, virtually nobody outside of the Salvation Army hesitates to declare the “white slavery” hysteria a moral panic without any basis in fact. The same will eventually be true for “sex trafficking” hysteria, and then the circle will again be complete…for our lifetimes, at least.