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Human trafficking (a.k.a., trafficking in persons) has been referred to as "the face of modern slavery" and usually refers to illicit labor managed by a boss, pimp, or other middleman who arranges the transaction. The more desperate the worker, the less autonomy they have to leave their job, and the worse their wages and working conditions, the more likely the situation is to be considered a case of human trafficking. In many countries, much of the behavior now being called "human trafficking" is criminalized under other laws too; for example, a pimp's confiscating a prostitute's passport to prevent her from leaving the country is theft; threatening a prostitute with death if she tries to escape is a crime of violence; and locking someone up in a sweatshop is false imprisonment. However, there is a push among NGOs and federal officials to get local law enforcement and courts to recognize and punish these offenses as human trafficking.
In some cases, the people being trafficked take the initiative to cross borders in search of a better life, but it is still considered human trafficking when they end up working at a sweatshop or as a prostitute (which often happens because, as undocumented immigrants, they don't have a work permit that would allow them to work outside the underground economy).
In the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000, which offers amnesty and T-1 visas to foreign women in exchange for co-operation with investigations of international prostitution rings. It was also one of the first legislations in America to define either sex trafficking:
[T]he recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.
or human trafficking:
the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.
While some claim that prostitution is being slowly redefined as sex trafficking, this assertion is mostly incorrect, since the very text of the law states that force, fraud, and coercion must be present under the TVPA in order for it to be considered trafficking (unless the victim is under 18 years of age, which would make the person incapable of informed consent under American law). However, more recent legislation, such as FOSTA-SESTA ("The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)"), which became law in 2018, does conflate "consensual sex work with nonconsensual sex work by doing nothing to differentiate between various kinds of sex work and related content — even if the workers and content are all legally protected by local law." FOSTA-SESTA has been described as having "failed miserably on its own terms".
In 2018, FOSTA-SESTA was used to shut down Backpage, a site which featured "advertisements for sex workers". Previous attempts had been made to shut down the site, including one by former Attorney General of California Kamala Harris, who filed charges which included "money laundering, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping. Her argument was that [Backpage] was a hub for sex trafficking, with some of the victims being children, even though the site was far more often used by escorts doing consensual sex work." A judge dismissed the pimping charges, writing that an "attempt to assign criminal liability to defendants who offered an online forum on which other people posted advertisements that led to prostitution [...] confuse moral obligations with legal ones and have been rejected in other jurisdictions". Although CEO Carl Ferrer eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy and money laundering charges, and some individuals who used Backpage for the purposes of pimping and trafficking have faced prosecution, a mistrial was recently declared in a case involving the site's founders, with the judge "ruling that US prosecutors unfairly tainted the jury by focusing too heavily on claims of child sex trafficking in a trial that involved zero charges of child sex trafficking."
Most confirmed cases of force, fraud, or coercion that are related to prostitution, particularly underage, unlicensed prostitution, have involved either solitary pimps or small domestic rings of pimps. To combat prostitution among minors, sex with minors above the age of consent has been criminalized if said sex was an act of prostitution (age of consent varies between 16 and 18 in US states). There is some controversy about the fact that trafficked children are also sometimes treated as criminals themselves.
Large numbers of people are trafficked each year according to the flawed U.S. State Department 2019 Trafficking In Persons Report, which shows 70,000-90,000 identified victims, and had also found that 6,000-9,000 traffickers have been convicted each year for the past 4-5 years - with thousands more possibly unseen. However, some sources have suggested that the issue of sex trafficking has become a moral panic. There have also been phone scams which have used the issue to con people. Unsurprisingly, politicians love to bandy about shocking figures about trafficking in order to pass bills such as the aforementioned FOSTA-SESTA, although such laws often do very little to solve the problem, and can even make things worse. A Washington Post investigation into the claim that 100,000 children in the United States are being sexually exploited each year found that the "figure was conjured out of thin air, based on old data from a largely discredited report." Thankfully, the organization which touted this claim on its website, ECPAT-USA, agreed to remove it after being informed just how dubious it was. Bet that won't stop people quoting it though.
At the same time, genuine cases of sex trafficking can end up being overlooked by the authorities. In 2009, the United Kingdom's biggest ever investigation into sex trafficking purportedly "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." However, the results of this investigation were somewhat undermined over the next few years by revelations relating to criminal gangs such as the Rochdale sex trafficking ring, which operated from 1997 to 2013, in which "[a]t least 1,400 children were subjected to appalling sexual exploitation". The police later apologized, admitting that they "were "distracted" by achieving targets on burglary and other crime".
There are some similarities between the current hysteria surrounding sex trafficking and the Satanic Panic, which was prevalent in the United States in the 1980s. Although sex trafficking is undeniably real (while evidence of satanic ritual abuse is incredibly dubious), certain religious groups have excelled at using these moral panics as a cover for pursuing and pushing their own agenda. For example, Fight the New Drug, a group founded by Mormons (who literally teach adherents that "masturbation is just below murder") have argued that "porn fuels trafficking", despite providing no evidence to support such a claim. They've also been criticized for peddling pseudoscience and deliberately misrepresenting studies.
In 2020, Pornhub ended up deleting around 80% of their content after a sustained campaign by Exodus Cry, an organization which opposes the "entire global sex industry, including prostitution, pornography, and stripping", and was "founded by a member of a Christian dominionist ministry, which has advanced anti-gay, anti-abortion, and antisemitic views." Exodus Cry itself is so toxic that actress Melissa McCarthy, who initially planned to make a donation to the group, backed away at great speed once she found out how much their founder, Benjamin Nolot, hates homosexuals.
However, in spite of the occasional PR fail, Exodus Cry has been fairly successful, at least when it comes to generating publicity. They have managed to associate Pornhub with sex trafficking by "churning out increasingly sensationalist messages and outright falsehoods to make it appear as though Pornhub is intentionally acting in bad faith, and/or is encouraging people to abuse their own platform terms of service by uploading illegal content."
Exodus Cry have also argued that porn is responsible for sexual violence, despite numerous studies failing to establish such a link. In fact, "[i]t has been found everywhere it was scientifically investigated that as pornography has increased in availability, sex crimes have either decreased or not increased."
Their ultimate goal has been to shut Pornhub (or Traffickinghub, as they love to call it) down, and a petition established on their website has apparently gathered over two million signatures (which seems a little odd, given their comparatively low number of followers on social media). However, this "number is unverified. The petition is hosted on a private domain, meaning its display is subject to the whims of its owner." Exodus Cry also made a petition on Change.org which contains over a million signatures, although it appears that at least a few of those involved were just doing it for the lulz ("I’m only signing this to tell you how stupid this is").
Exodus Cry have actually gone to great lengths to hide the fact that they used to be a temperance movement for sex; the organization's so-called Director of Abolition (yes, that is a real title), Laila Mickelwait, has insisted that the campaign is "nonreligious and nonpartisan", but the Wayback Machine doesn't lie. According to Exodus Cry's own website, their "very first response to the injustice of human trafficking was to gather for prayer." Truly the mark of a secular organization. According to Nolot, the next day, a huge international child trafficking bust occured. Although no details whatsoever are provided about this event on the site itself, according to Wikipedia it occured in 2007, and "involved approximately 2,400 human-trafficking-related arrests in 77 countries." However, news sources at the time mention nothing about trafficking, but rather the sharing of child pornography; furthermore, despite a figure of 2,360 suspects (or at least IP addresses) being quoted in articles, it is not clear how many of these actually ended up being charged (in Austria, where the case began, only 23 arrests were made).
Can anyone say "confirmation bias"?
Despite its purported efficacy, Exodus Cry seems to have realized some time ago that praying isn't actually "the most powerful and effective weapon to combat slavery", which is why they need you to donate your hard-earned money so they can spend it on vague, poorly-defined goals like "[m]essaging". Although ostensibly a nonprofit, like the best televangelists they are raking in the dough (they raised over $1 million in 2017 alone).
Co-sponsoring the campaign were the infamous anti-pornography group Morality in Media, which was founded by clergymen back in 1962; in the 1990s, they "aligned with religious-right groups to push abstinence-only sexual education programs in schools and a boycott against Disney. The groups opposed Disney for distributing non-children's films under its Miramax film label and for extending employee benefits to LGBTQ workers' same-sex partners." In 2015, they changed their name to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) in order to hide their organization's religious affiliations (sound familiar?). Exodus Cry also claim that their work has been "endorsed by over 300 anti-trafficking, child protection, and women's rights organizations in the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK, Europe, and Latin America", although the exact names of all of these organizations don't seem to have been listed.
The crusade was boosted by an article in the New York Times by journalist Nick Kristof, as well as support from hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, a man who exploited the coronavirus market crash to make himself even more of a billionaire. Ackman saw the Kristof story and, being a father of several daughters himself, was so concerned that he personally contacted an acquaintance of his, Ajay Banga, who just so happens to be the executive chairman of Mastercard. These combined forces managed to convince payment processors to suspend their services on Pornhub. Ackman's involvement seems to have been a major catalyst, which is a little awkward, since his wife apparently didn't have any issue with taking money from everybody's favourite billionaire, the late Jeffrey Epstein, back in 2017 (this was before his arrest for sex trafficking in 2019, but long after his 2008 conviction for sexually abusing minors). Ackman's wife, Neri Oxman, who works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a professor, even gave Epstein a gift (an oversized 3D-printed marble) after he donated $125,000 to her design lab, one of many donations Epstein made to MIT, allegedly "in part to make amends for wrongs he committed earlier in his life" (yes, seriously). Although Oxman has subsequently apologized, Ackman understandably wanted to keep this story under wraps; guilt by association sucks when it happens to you, doesn't it?
Still, managing to get Pornhub to essentially cut their own legs off by persuading the internet, international media and banking institutions to serve as judge and jury is quite a feat, although as of now Pornhub remains very much active, and even if the site were to somehow be shut down, there are a myriad of other pornographic sites scattered all over the web hosting virtually identical content, with servers located in a variety of jurisdictions across the globe. And while "NCOSE and Exodus Cry have been teaming up to portray Pornhub as a uniquely prolific and unrepentant purveyor of smut featuring minors and abuse [...] reports from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), tech companies, and law enforcement do not support this contention. [...] A Google News search reveals ample activist campaigning and political hubbub about Pornhub, but few stories of actual prosecutions involving predators who used the site."
While there certainly have been reports of illegal content posted to Pornhub, including videos featuring rape and children being sexually abused (in some cases by "relatives of the victims"), which was apparently the result of lax or inept moderation by the site's owners, how exactly do they compare with other sites?
"In the last three years, Facebook self-reported 84 million instances of child sexual abuse material. During that same period, the independent, third-party Internet Watch Foundation reported 118 incidents on Pornhub".
One wonders why there's been no campaign to shut down Facebook. Perhaps the absence of the word "Porn" in the name has something to do with it.
In 2021, a very similar story occured, this time involving OnlyFans, who suddenly made plans to remove pornographic content from their site. Again, the reason appeared to be groups like NCOSE targeting payment processors by using the spectre of trafficking and child exploitation, which no company wants to be associated with. NCOSE were of course subtle and modest about the part they played. The media were also involved, with the BBC (no pun intended) publishing an article about an investigation they had conducted into the site. It did not take long for politicians to jump on the bandwagon, such as Republican Representative Ann Wagner, who was also one of the major figures behind FOSTA-SESTA (what a coincidence). She joined 100 members of Congress in asking the Department of Justice to investigate Onlyfans in a letter "large on accusations, but short on actual facts". Bill Ackman also reappeared to save the day, once again making use of his contacts in the banking industry to save sex workers from themselves. Perhaps they'd have better luck if they became neo-Nazis; apparently, accepting their business is just fine, according to Mastercard.
Unfortunately, the one group who absolutely, categorically were not consulted (as usual) were the site's users, who were understandably angry at being unceremoniously deplatformed. The backlash was swift and loud. It's much easier to argue with people watching porn than it is to do so with actual performers who use OnlyFans to pay their bills. Seemingly wrongfooted by the public response to the announcement, and perhaps seeking to draw attention back to Pornhub (where they've had rather more success, at least when it comes to generating panic and moral outrage), Exodus Cry doyenne Laila Mickelwait made a catastrophic error of judgement, and decided to tweet a genuine video of a girl being sexually assaulted. Needless to say, the response was one of shock and horror; even an anti-trafficking organization which shares Mickelwait's views (North Carolina Stop Human Trafficking) denounced her actions, although they have since removed said criticism without explanation, possibly due to legal threats, or perhaps simply out of sheer cowardice. The original tweet containing the video was obviously deleted, but apparently sharing such material is not grounds for a ban from Twitter, as long as it's considered to be for a good cause.
This demonstrates how the subject of sex trafficking and exploitation can be abused by fundamentalist organizations who are dedicated to eradicating all forms of sex work. A hundred years ago, telling people in the United States that porn was bad because it made Baby Jesus cry was effective, but nowadays, with religious feelings waning, other tactics are required. The Helen Lovejoy method is always effective: "Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?"
Measuring the problem
Human trafficking is a classic case of something where it is very hard to measure the prevalence or gather statistics. By its nature, human trafficking is very secretive. Victims are normally closely watched or imprisoned by their traders. Victims are also unlikely to speak the same language as researchers, and being without legitimate visas or travel documents, may be fearful of reporting their captivity or exploitation due to fears of being deported by the state as well as fears of violence from their captors. Victims may not even know that they have been the victim of a crime or possess rights that are denied to them. It is also possible that people working voluntarily as prostitutes and illegal immigrants who arrived by their own actions may be mistaken for the victims of human trafficking, or may even claim to have been trafficked to avoid prosecution or deportation.
A 2008 report by the Vera Institute of Justice (VIJ) looked into some of these issues. It found that a rise in concern about human trafficking in the 1990s and 2000s was not due to any actual increase in incidents, but was due to other social and political factors, as well as mobilization by interest groups. This is not necessarily a bad thing when the increased awareness is based on reality, but it becomes a bad thing when it is predicated on conspiracy theories which not only lack basic things like evidence or coherent logic, but also spread false ideas about human trafficking (such as Pizzagate and QAnon). The document also found that most published estimates were based on obscure or undocumented methodologies. The U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Reports were "[p]erformed by a single analyst who failed to fully document the work", and as a result "the data-generating process has been inaccessible for review or replication." Similarly, the estimates of the International Labour Organization (ILO) were based on a "capture-recapture model" which also involved unproven assumptions.
Additionally, poor-quality or methodologically-dubious estimates were repeatedly cited throughout the literature without a clear understanding of what they measured or how they were gathered. After reviewing 144 estimates in 45 published studies which claimed to discuss the prevalence of human trafficking, the VIJ discovered that in only one publication was the estimate based on original and documented work; others often cited only vague sources like an agency name with no date or further details. The conclusion was that existing reports on human trafficking failed to cite sources, failed to be clear about what they were measuring, and failed to document their methodologies. Thankfully, "[o]ver the years, the methodology, content, and design of the TIP Report have evolved, reflecting in many ways the broader anti-trafficking movement's progress in understanding the crime", and the 2020 TIP report now uses information from "U.S. embassies, government officials, nongovernmental and international organizations, published reports, news articles, academic studies, research trips to every region of the world, and information submitted to email@example.com." Nonetheless, a 2014 report by the VIJ noted that underidentification of cases remains an issue.
While people tend to associate human trafficking with sex trafficking, according to the ILO the majority of trafficked victims are in fact labourers. Although global statistics are hard to verify due to the illegal nature of trafficking, they estimate that:
"Out of the 24.9 million people trapped in forced labour, 16 million people are exploited in the private sector such as domestic work, construction or agriculture; 4.8 million persons in forced sexual exploitation, and 4 million persons in forced labour imposed by state authorities."
This means that, according to these statistics, for every single person trafficked for the purposes of sex, approximately four are trafficked for the purposes of forced labour. Other estimates suggest that the difference is even greater, and that "for every trafficking victim subjected to forced prostitution, nine people are forced to work."
The 2008 VIJ report also examined this issue, concluding that:
"[M]any analysts suspect there is significant underreporting of [...] labor trafficking in both U.S. and international data. The Second Annual Report on Victims of Trafficking in South-Eastern Europe, which presents standardized data on assisted victims, highlights the diversity in victim profiles and forms of trafficking, cautioning that "[m]any service providers have been trained in identifying only victims of sex trafficking, which may lead them to overlook victims of trafficking for labour and begging.""
So why do people conflate human trafficking with sex trafficking?
As Richard Danziger, from the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, explains: "We talk a lot about trafficking for sexual exploitation [because] sex and violence sells newspapers".
- 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report U.S. Department of State (archived from November 14, 2016).
- On This Day In History: The Trafficking Victims Protection Act Passed in Congress by Rebecca Jun (October 28, 2019) Trafficking Matters.
- Why Do We Treat Child Sex-Trafficking Victims Like Criminals? D.C. just fixed its law. More than half of U.S. states still haven't. by Juan David Romero (December 4, 2014) The New Republic.
- Measuring Human Trafficking: Lessons from New York City by Neil A. Weiner & Nicole Hala (August 2008) Vera Institute of Justice.
- 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report U.S. Department of State.
- "This Modern Day Slavery": Sex Trafficking and Moral Panic in the United Kingdom by Angela Hill (2011) University of California, Berkeley Ph.D. Thesis.
- Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic by Nick Davies (19 Oct 2009 20.42 EDT) The Guardian.
- Fact check: No evidence to suggest text scam is linked to sex trafficking (August 27, 20209:36 AM) Reuters.
- 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report U.S. Department of State.
- Improving Human Trafficking Victim Identification—Validation and Dissemination of a Screening Tool by Laura Simich et al. (June 2014) Vera Institute of Justice. Final Report.