Much Ado About Sex Trafficking

Moralizing about sex trafficking has become standard practice in politics. Every headline associated with sex work has some scandalous title hinting at an evil world that is right under our noses. Women, according to several news sources, are being sex trafficked against their will by men who are sexually deranged. However, these aggressive headlines invariably lead to misinformation. For instance, in the United States Robert Kraft was accused of trafficking women into an illicit sex ring. Splashed across mainstream media, Kraft was allegedly ‘busted’ for what has been regarded as the high crime of sex trafficking. However, this opinion eventually yielded to factual reality when prosecutors conceded that no sex trafficking had actually occurred. So why was there this rush to declare that Kraft had been an immoral, sexually deranged individual? Perhaps an economic explanation would comprise the perverse incentive that exists in this market. That is, the demand for apprehending a sex trafficker is astronomically high, while the supply of sex traffickers is actually quite low. 

As a result, police are incentivized to bag up potential suspects in order to meet this high demand, which is evidenced by the millions of dollars pouring into sex trafficking task forces. Of course, these perverse incentives motivate police officers to carry out actions that are questionable at best, and malpractice at worst. Character assassination is a high cost to pay for someone who was not in anyway trafficking women against their will. Sadly, media outlets aid and abet police officers in this respect by celebrating police efforts to ‘bust’ sex trafficking rings. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown, a specialist in this area, said in an interview with John Stossel “I’d say 99% of the headlines are not true.” In fact, articles claiming that these women have been ‘rescued’, are often describing women who have subsequently been imprisoned and given a criminal record.

Katylin Bailey, a former sex worker who also appeared on Stossel’s program, reinforced this point by saying that “being arrested doesn’t help you.” Naturally, she looked dismayed when she was reminded that police claim that she suffered from trafficking. Unfortunately, network television perpetuates this myth that sex trafficking is spreading like an infectious virus. After all, if sex trafficking was really so pervasive, then why would police need to engage in endless sting operations to catch an extremely small number of predators? 

If sex trafficking was really as ubiquitous as media outlets make it seem, then shouldn’t we expect catching these predators to be far less elaborate? As CNN reports, police spent months busting Robert Kraft’s fictitious sex trafficking ring. Homeland Security and other governmental entities were rummaging throughout these women’s trash, monitoring their purchases at drug stores, and engaging in general surveillance for months. If these women were genuinely being sexually assaulted three or four times per day, then why would police linger around for months and let it happen? Surely, catching a predator in the act would benefit victims far more than five month long surveillance program. And surely this moral crusade, which often involves criminalizing women who engage in consensual sexual transactions, isn’t worth it on a serious analysis. 

So the question then becomes: how can we fight against the anti-prostitution conservatives and supposedly anti-exploitation progressives pushing for even more illiberal prostitution laws? First, these myths may be dispelled by taking a hard look at what the data bears out. Of the many statistics that are thrown around in these discussions, perhaps the most persistent is the point that 300,000 children are at risk of being sex trafficked. While politicians and news anchors alike sing this tune from the hilltops, the facts are that this statistics has been completely discredited. The National Crimes Against Children Research Center has pleaded with people not to cite this statistic due to its misleading character. So, in short, the facts that are often cited in support of this moral panic are often false or misleading

Second, one way of avoiding these hit-and-run attacks on women by both police and prosecutors is to decriminalize prostitution altogether. With prostitution decriminalized, the line between sex trafficking and prostitution will become much clearer to those that are concerned about women being exploited. Allowing adults to make consensual transactions is not only good theory, it is good practice. Part of believing in female empowerment is respecting, and not criminalizing, women who consensually engage in sex work. 

What’s more, is that decriminalizing sex work will actually improve our chances of busting genuine sex trafficking. Once prostitution is in the realm of legality, prostitutes will feel more comfortable with reporting instances of trafficking. With this increased likelihood of crimes being reported, we will be better equipped to handle situations in which women are being abused. So, for safety reasons as well, we should decriminalize prostitution. 

Nathan Bray is a research intern at the Adam Smith Institute.