Mike tells Sarah how NGOs, activists and George W. Bush resurrected the 'stranger danger' panic for the modern era. Digressions include Reply All, muffins and Yelp for massage parlors. Mike's vocal fry is even worse than usual.Support the show
Sarah: It's so easy to traffic people on the east coast. I mean, like I have to go to New Jersey for a Michael Bolton concert.
Welcome to You're Wrong About the podcast where we teach you how to succinctly counter your relative’s Thanksgiving Day arguments.
Mike: Ooh, that's good.
Sarah: Thank you.
Mike: The ‘succinctly’ is a little ambitious considering how long the episodes have gotten.
Sarah: Okay. Here's how I think this works, you have probably done like a hundred hours of research for this. We're going to talk for three to five hours for an episode that's going to be an hour long. And the people who hear this episode can boil that one hour down to, you know, five minutes of impassioned, whisper shouting over stuffing.
Mike: I liked that we've turned our listeners just as insufferable as we are.
Sarah: Yeah. I think they were already insufferable, and we're just wanting tools to become even more inseparable, and that's what we're offering them.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall. And I am allegedly working on a book about the satanic panic. Although my front burner is all OJ.
Mike: And if you want to support the show, we're on Patreon at patreon.com/yourewrongabout. And we have a merch store. There's a link in the description.
Sarah: Can we call out something other than merch?
Mike: We should just say tchotchkes.
Sarah: I feel like merch is what comes out of a Paul brother when they sneeze.
Mike: And today we're talking about human trafficking. So can you tell me, what is your understanding of the term ‘human trafficking’?
Sarah: I want to try and connect this to a recent news item. And this is going to be something that I vaguely remember, and you can help me fill in the holes. But basically there was some female conservative politician. Who was it?
Mike: If you're going where I think you're going, it was Cindy McCain.
Sarah: It was Cindy McCain. Okay. So it wasn't a politician, but she's obviously part of a political family. She was on a morning talk show, and she told a story about seeing in an airport or something like that, which she deemed to be a suspicious situation with an adult and a child, who she presumed to be in the act of being trafficked.
Mike: Yes. The evidence of trafficking was that the child was a different ethnicity than the mother. We do not know if it was like a mother of color and a white kid, or a white mother and a kid of color.
Sarah: Or like two non-white people of different backgrounds. But yes, my guess is that that's not what she noticed. So my concept of human trafficking is that the posters that you see in airports and stuff, which is that a white child is somehow being exploited and sold, probably for sex or some other nefarious purposes. That's my understanding of the Cindy McCain version. Okay.
Mike: This is going to be a fun episode because this is like a medley of all of our previous moral panic episodes. There’s some satanic stuff. There are some repressed memories. There are some bad statistics.
Sarah: This is like when the Carpenters would play a medley. Take it away, Richard. Where do you want to start us? Like what, what point in time is the best place to begin?
Mike: I think the place to start is that the version of trafficking that Cindy McCain is describing and that I think a lot of people have in their heads of, you know, children being kidnapped, forcibly, taken from one country to the other.
Sarah: And being taken in broad daylight, like being snatched away and in a public area.
Mike: It's not clear there has ever been a confirmed case of that. So I have spent the last two weeks calling human trafficking organizations, speaking to sex workers, and advocates, and people on the Christian right. I’ve looked quite hard, and I have not found a case of a child being taken against their will by a stranger on an airplane. And we'll get into the reasons why. But I think it's important to note that like when it comes to children, we are in the middle of a stranger danger panic.
Sarah: Hurray! Isn’t it like Jesus, we just went through this. Like, why do we have to go through the same panic that we just had?
Mike: Yeah. So to go through a couple of the statistics, one of the things that's really interesting is we have these giant estimates of the prevalence of child sex trafficking. So I saw one yesterday that said there's 79,000 children in Texas alone who are being trafficked for sex. Another phrase you hear is ‘sold into slavery’, which again, you can never say like there's no case of this ever happening because it's a big country and literally everything thing has happened.
Sarah: And that word means a lot of things.
Mike: One of the numbers that goes around is, this is from the U S Institute against human trafficking. There are hundreds of thousands and potentially over a million victims trapped in the world of sex trafficking in the United States. Because of the hidden nature of the crime, it is essentially impossible to know how many for sure. So like, we don't know, but it's more than a million.
Sarah: Yeah. We have no way of knowing, but it's your worst fear.
Mike: Yes, exactly. Yeah. And so another, where that goes around is that one in seven runaways are likely victims of trafficking, that comes from the national center for missing and exploited children, who you may remember from our stranger danger episode for propagating all kinds of terrible statistics on children's disappearances. And so that claim, one in seven runaways, was fact-checked by a Washington Post column in 2015, that basically found no evidence for the claim. In response to this fact-check, the organization added the word likely. So they used to say one in seven runaways are victims of trafficking. And now they say one in seven are likely victims of trafficking.
Sarah: It's either a statistic or it's not, that's like saying this milk is likely 2% fat. Yeah. And then if they're saying this statistic then what is that based on any numbers of any kind or is it just a gut thing for someone?
Mike: I called up the national center for missing and exploited children. I talked to one of their researchers for more than an hour. And the methodology behind this statistic is essentially when people call the hotline, their missing children hotline, if there is any width of trafficking, they mark it as a victim of trafficking.
Sarah: What is a whiff of trafficking when it's at home?
Mike: What's really interesting is they told me 83% of their calls are from foster care facilities or other state institutions. These are super at-risk kids who have run away for some period of time. If the person who calls them says, “James has run away, we think he might be being trafficked.” That’s enough.
Sarah: It seems like this is a system designed to create false positives, which is weird.
Mike: Yes, 100%. And there's no, there's no verification whatsoever. So if I call, I'm a parent, I say, “My kid has gone missing, I think he might be a victim of trafficking.” He comes back two hours later. There's nothing to take that off of the statistics. So we now have a person who's not a runaway and not a victim of sex trafficking being marked as a sex trafficking victim.
They also admitted to me that the same kids can be counted an infinite number of times a year. So if I have a really bad relationship with my parents and they're really abusive and I'm running away from them five or six times a year, and every single time they call and say, Mike has run away, we think he's being trafficked, that counts as six trafficking cases, none of what you're confirmed.
Sarah: God like flawed data is just like, it's so frustrating to realize that the solution to our big social problems is just like, well, we need more wants. So we need more people who are just fixated on the details and want to do the grinding meticulous work of getting things, right? Like we cannot skip that ever.
Mike: The answer is always more spreadsheets. I also think it's important to note that these are not all reports of runaways in the country. These are reports of runaways that are reported to the national center for missing and exploited children.
Sarah: Right? So it's a self-selecting group.
Mike: Yeah. There are all kinds of reports of missing children that get filed to various law enforcement agencies, maybe different NGOs. There are all kinds of places you can report a missing child. So this 1 in 7 only comes from people who call them.
Sarah: So it's like, if you have the like foreign objects and muffins bureau and people are calling and they're like, I found a foreign object in my muffin, or like maybe I did, it could be. And then American consumers are like, did you know that half of muffins have foreign objects in them? And it's like, well, that's just the foreign object muffin bureau statistic. That's a little bit specific.
Mike: That's a better explainer than any of the academic articles I've read on this all week.
Sarah: I'm just hungry.
Mike: One of the things that's really interesting about this is the huge mismatch between the numbers put out by NGOs and the actual numbers of arrests, reports. One of the numbers I found is that in 2017, the whole year, the department of Homeland security found 500 victims of trafficking nationwide and that's adults and children. So we've got numbers of It could be more than 1 million, it's 79,000 children in Texas alone, and then we've got 500 actual confirmed victims.
Sarah: So at that point, it's like, if there's such a disparity between the number of people being identified by the authorities and the estimates, then how are you even getting the numbers? It doesn't connect to me based on anything I know about any other situation of this kind, that you would be able to have knowledge of these many cases, but not take action on any of them, especially in a country where we do not have under zealous law enforcement, especially where border issues are concerned.
Mike: One of the things, I mean, one of the things that is central to, I think, all urban legends of this type, like won't someone save the children, is this idea that we're insufficiently concerned about it, right? It's like, well, nobody's talking about the child sex traffic. Like actually a lot of people are talking about it.
Sarah: No one cares about white children. It's like, that is the one demographic that we, I mean, we live in a terrible country for child welfare across the board, but we do talk about white children a lot. We do that.
Mike: So I think to be fair, one of the people I interviewed this week was a prosecutor for King County who prosecutes sex trafficking cases here. His explanation for why there's this huge mismatch between arrest numbers and estimates of the prevalence generally, was that he says these cases are really difficult to try. Because a lot of these people come from very vulnerable families, a lot of them have drug issues. A lot of them have mental health issues. They have criminal histories that the defense team is going to question them about. So it makes sense to me that those are, those numbers would be artificially low.
Sarah: Right, or that we would have lower numbers for this than for other types of crimes that are prosecuted.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. So I think it's worth taking that seriously. Although I also, I want to say, you know, this is a prosecutor, right? He is on the other side of the tough on crime ideological divide than we are. He's someone who believes in trafficking. He believes it's really bad. I was asking about the kinds of cases that he sees. And first of all, he's never seen a trafficking case with a prepubescent child. He sees lots of abuse cases, but the idea of children being sold, you know, trapped in hotel rooms, he's never seen it.
Sarah: I can see there being cases of that, that aren't discovered. And that I think there's always, all things are possible. And as we'll often say, it's a big country, but the, you know, the issue here is not that these things aren't happening, but that if you are taking a story of, you know, this case that is horrific because it is about a prepubescent child, because it is about the specific kind of trafficking, and then using that to whip up a public sentiment that allows you to unnecessarily penalize sex workers then like, that's the issue, you know, not that this thing doesn't happen, but that powerful people are using the existence of a certain type of crime to police a fundamentally different type of crime.
Mike: Another thing he said about this that I thought was really interesting is that, when he deals with underage sex workers, the vast majority of the clients don't know they're underage, because they're lying about, you know, you ask if you're 18 and she says, yeah, yeah, I'm 18, but she's actually 17.
Sarah: Also, if you're soliciting sex, like, you're not going to entice someone to do an illegal thing with you by telling them that it's also illegal in a more dire way.
Mike: Yeah, I think, I mean, I think there is, you don't want to defend men who are buying sex with underage people, but it's also the morality of it, to me, feels very different than going into a hotel room where somebody's in some way chained or bound and having sex with that person.
Sarah: It’s a completely different order of scale. And I think it just is not going to help any of us to see complicated issues as less complicated than they are. Like, I don't think that ever improves anything.
Mike: Yeah. One of the other really interesting things, this tough on crime prosecutor said to me was that most of the actual cases of quote unquote trafficking that he sees are actually an extension of domestic abuse. What this usually is, is people that have a lot of vulnerabilities. They're leaving the home because it's abusive or they get, you know, they start dating somebody at 17, there's a period of abuse and then escalation of the abuse. I actually interviewed somebody who was homeless in Portland. And she met a guy who was older than her. And she says he was the first guy that was nice to me. She grew up in an abusive home.
Sarah: This was the start of so many stories.
Mike: And so she considered the guy her boyfriend, and then he said, “Hey, do you want to have a threesome sometime?” And maybe we can have a threesome, but I'm not part of the threesome. And you have sex with this other guy. And then it's kind of like, well maybe you have sex with a guy. Like, I don't really know him, but…
Sarah: But I need you to do it and I'm your boyfriend.
Mike: Yes, and she’s still actually not sure if money was changing hands behind the scenes. At the time she didn't, but she now considers herself a trafficking victim because that's basically what it became, but it was an outgrowth of all of this other abuse and her extreme vulnerability. So even this tough on crime prosecutor guy said that, you know, most of the people that he sees are ethnic minorities. They have child abuse in the home. They have a very young drug addiction.
One of the victims he's working with now, she was addicted to hard drugs by 13 because her mother was a drug addict. He says, when he sees sort of suburban kids like the Liam Neeson myth, it's almost always because they're queer. That creates a vulnerability for those kids that kind of pushes them out of the home and pushes them into networks where they're meeting boyfriends or girlfriends that are able to coerce them because of the lack of self-confidence that they have, the lack of support systems that they have.
Sarah: And society kind of hating them already, which certainly creates a good substrate for being abused in your personal relationships.
Mike: Yeah. Well this is what’s so fascinating to me about the way that this moral panic has perpetuated itself in that if we're thinking of, you know, the sort of quote, unquote real cases of human trafficking, where teenagers are coerced or manipulated into engaging in commercial sex work by their partners, that's a very specific form of abuse. So why would we be focusing on this one outcome.
Sarah: The outcome of being forced into sex work by a partner?
Mike: Well, because, well, there's, there's now this army of trainers that are going into schools.
Sarah: What did they tell them about? They just told us to not smoke weed until we were 25. I feel like I really got off easy.
Mike: This is, um, this is from Shared Hope International. These are their warning signs that a teenager is being trafficked, “unexplained absences from class, overly tired in class, less appropriately dressed than before, sexualized behavior, withdrawn, depressed, distracted, or checked out, brags about making or having lots of money. New tattoos, tattoos are often used by pimps as a way to brand victims. Tattoos of a name, symbol, money, or barcode, could indicate trafficking.
Sarah: That's so weird. That's so specific.
Mike: The barcode one is so hilarious, like the barcode one shows up everywhere.
Sarah: Wouldn't you get that like iPhone scanner thing at this point? Like, no, one's caring. Anyway. I do not doubt that people have done this, like somewhere. But again, like this really plays into the idea that we see a lot in conspiracy theories, that like everyone does it the same way and there's some kind of national hierarchy maybe involved.
Mike: Yeah. And also the barcode thing is really important because it's this idea that like, the numbers are so big that you need barcodes to track all the grid, like they're tubes of toothpaste.
Sarah: So it's the argument that these are functional barcodes and that the pimps have little, like self-checkout scanner guys they're using.
Mike: Like, I also, I know people at my middle and high school that got barcode tattoos, but that's because they were anti-capitalist goths and they got them as a kind of like, fuck capitalism type of tattoo.
Sarah: Yeah. So once again, we have to suspect goths. Also, aside from the barcode tattoo thing, I think the warning signs of trafficking all sound like being a teenager, right? Like you're tired and you look more promiscuous than you used to? I mean, yeah.
Mike: You know, Florida just passed a law that every school has to have an anti-trafficking curriculum.
Sarah: This really bothers me because I feel like we have this narrative too, that it's like, that women and girls, especially aren't allowed to care about staying safe, unless the imagined foe is like a scary monster. We're not allowed to talk about keeping safe from normal straight men, especially like the ones that we marry. We're not allowed to implicate them in our fears for ourselves, but if it's about a monster, then we can talk about it and we can try and keep people safe, but only from the monster. Right.
Mike: And it's also so telling that these trainings aren't aimed at boys.
Sarah: And I was going to ask you, have you ever seen like an ‘are you being trafficked?’ sign in a men’s room?
Mike: Nope. I don't think so.
Sarah: And like, aren't boy children supposed to be being trafficked in all this, like, is it only girl children on top of everything else that this is supposed to be happening to?
Mike: This is the thing it's like, a big sign of moral panic to me is when you hold all of these contradictory ideas at once. So oftentimes I'll say like, Ooh, it's, you know, it's usually somebody close to you that's going to coerce you into commercial sex work. But then the next sentence, they'll say, oh, you know, if there's men standing outside your school, trying to recruit you, don't speak to them.
Sarah: That seems like common sense advice. I will accept that.
Mike: Another one of the source list statistics that goes around is that 70% of child sex trafficking cases begin on this.
Sarah: This really is Santa’s bag. There's something in here for everyone. If you're afraid of the internet, if you're afraid of the migrant caravan. Yeah. It's great. It's very diverse.
Mike: One of the curricula that they're going to be using in Florida apparently is called my life, my choice. And it's a 10 session exploitation prevention curriculum designed to change girls' perceptions of the commercial sex industry, as well as build self-esteem and personal empowerment.
Sarah: How many perceptions of the commercial sex industry do they have going into this training?
Mike: This is the thing it's like, some of the articles about Florida's new curriculum mention sort of paragraph 17, that in 2017, there were only 65 human trafficking incidents and there were zero reports of minors being trafficked in Florida. And so it's like, when we talk about what's actually endangering teens, you know, suicide is now the number two killer of kids under 18 after car accidents. When you ask actual kids, and there's a lot of activism going on around this, they need help with depression and anxiety.
Sarah: No, no, depression is a sign that they're being trafficked, actually. I remember that from the list earlier, right? If we get the trafficking, everything will be fine.
Mike: I think the counter argument to all of this is like, well, what's the harm in focusing on sex trafficking? Like, what is it really? What's the problem with teaching kids? And when it comes to sort of the damage of this framing, I think I mentioned on here that my boyfriend manages a cafe in Seattle.
And one of the things they've been dealing with lately is there's this kid that comes in who's like 17 and he comes in sort of 3:00, 4:00 PM, like after school would be getting out and he just sort of sits at the cafe and sometimes he's drunk. Sometimes he's drinking something out of a thermos and they're not entirely sure if it's alcohol or not. They're not comfortable calling the cops.
So they've called the school and sort of tried to get some information about this kid. It seems he's not homeless, but it seems there's some reason why he doesn't want to go home and, you know, they don't really want to pry. And it's, you know, when you think about kids that are at risk, what help is it to go up to that kid and be like, are you being sex trafficked? Is that kid at risk of sex trafficking? Like, I guess that's true, if that's the way that you want to frame it, but like that kid’s at risk of a hundred thousand things. Putting him into this binary frame of like it's sex trafficking or else we don't care is not helpful. Right. Because if that kid says I have a new partner and he coerced me into sex, well, that's not really trafficking pal, sorry. Or like my parents are abusing me. Like that's not really trafficking, so like, I can't really help you. Like our organization gives out gift bags to trafficking survivors and like, sorry, your parents are hitting you and you don't want to go home, but like, it's not trafficking so it's not really our problem. Like, right, it's this very narrow understanding of like one of the risks. When you think about all of the other constellations of things that like that kid might be going through, we need to have some way of gathering information from kids of like, how can I help? What do you need?
Sarah: And we need to care about kids when they're not the victim of the specific, big, bad that we've decided to focus on this decade.
Mike: Yeah, totally. And it's also, I mean, this transitions very well into the history of human trafficking and how does this playing out for adults.
Sarah: Act 2.
Mike: Yes. So do you remember the case of Robert Kraft? Do you know who Robert Kraft is?
Sarah: Is he related to the Kraft Mac and Cheese fortune?
Mike: Oh, not that I know of. I only know a fact about him because he's a sports person. And so I have to look up all sports-related facts.
Sarah: Yeah. Otherwise we'll get a bunch of replies about how you said someone played the wrong position.
Mike: Yes. Those are still coming in. Thank you. Yeah, that's noted. So Robert Kraft is the owner of the New England Patriots. So last year Robert Kraft was arrested in a massage parlor in South Beach, Miami, and this immediately went into the sex ring trafficking, evil criminal conspiracy type of framing.
So I'm going to read to you from the New York Times article that came out, that was like a feature story that came out right after his arrest. “Beyond the lurid celebrity connection lies the wretched story of women who the police believe were brought from China under false promises of new lives and legitimate spa jobs. Instead, they found themselves trapped in the austere backrooms of strip mall brothels, trafficking victims trapped amongst south Florida's rich and famous. I don't believe they were told they were going to work in massage parlors seven days a week, having unprotected sex with up to a thousand men a year, said Sheriff William D. Snyder of Martin County. We saw them eating on hot plates in the back. There were no washing machines. They were sleeping on the massage tables. Sheriff Snyder said he believed at least some of the women were working to pay off debt owed for what it costs to bring them to the United States. In some cases, the women's passports were taken away. Traffickers cycled women in and out of parlors every 10 or 20 days, Sheriff Snyder estimated.”
Sarah: That seems like a lot of turnover.
Mike: “I would never consider them prostitutes, it was more of a rescue operation”, he said.
Sarah: Oh my God, okay.
Mike: I know! I'm glad that this is setting up awooga noises for you because it should have for everybody else. Also note, all of the information in this New York times story is coming from a single source, who is the sheriff.
Sarah: Oh have they not learned since the Kitty Genovese fiasco in the early sixties?
Mike: Right? There's a later CNN interview where they're asking about trafficking and prostitution and et cetera. And he says, ‘I just don't understand why women would go and allow themselves to be trafficked.’
Sarah: This really speaks to the binary that I feel like a lot of men in law enforcement believe in about women, which is that the two kinds are like rescue worthy and prostitutes.
Mike: There's also his great thing too where we build up these perfect victims, but then it's like, oh, they went and allowed themselves to be trafficked. Right. So even when we find those stories, it's like, ah, weren't they kind of at fault a little bit. Like they let them go.
Sarah: It’s like saying someone let herself get murdered. It's very interesting how volition works depending on the category of person.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, I think it's also, so every factual claim in what I just said is false.
Mike: Every single one. So first of all, there's this great Vanity Fair article that comes out months after this, of course, where they find that none of the women were from China.
Sarah: At least got the country right. How hard is that?
Mike: I mean they were Chinese. They were already living in the United States, the owner of the massage parlor recruited them through advertisements in Chinese language magazines and newspapers in, you know, Chicago and LA and all these other places. It was like a normal sort of Craigslist ad that happened to be in Chinese. Like, come to Florida, work at a massage parlor. So none of them were trafficked from other countries.
Sarah: They cross state lines. So I guess they've, they did violate the Mann act, which people used to get excited about in the 1930s.
Mike: That’s such a huge spoiler, Sarah, we're going to get to that.
Sarah: Very sorry.
Mike: That to me is a really important distinction. The number of people who are brought to the United States against their will: vanishingly small. The much more common thing is somebody wants to come to the United States. They pay somebody to take them into the United States, and then they are charged too much, they are dropped in a place that they didn't agree to. There’re all kinds of structural vulnerabilities with paying somebody to smuggle you into a country and those people get victimized at extremely high rates, but there is a difference between people being, you know, clubbed, knocked out in Cambodia and they wake up in Detroit. That doesn't happen again.
Sarah: I think this distinction is important because it's based on our unwillingness to confront the deepest culprit and all this, which again, is economic insecurity, domestically.
Mike: And also, I mean, when you think about it economically, if I'm running a massage parlor where I'm exploiting young women and sort of in these terrible conditions and they're working long hours and I'm not paying them very much, why the fuck would I recruit people from other countries? There are so many desperate people in America.
Sarah: Right? It's based on the idea that there's a shortage of people in America who would do anything for a decent paycheck, which is like, what a weird thing to believe, right?
Mike: It just doesn't make any sense when it's like, you can just put an ad in a newspaper and people will apply for jobs. Like when terrible farms, terrible food processing plants, when they have job openings, they put ads on Craigslist and people apply.
Sarah: I mean, look at the, what was it, a poultry processing plant in Mississippi that was just raided by ICE. And that was a raid carried out, I think, because the boss didn't want to pay his workers and it was cheaper to just have them all scooped up by law enforcement. I mean, those weren't people who had been kidnapped and brought to the United States in order to work for insufficient wages. They were people who had taken those jobs voluntarily because there was nothing else for them and then had their lives destroyed because of it. And no one had to take anyone across international borders to achieve that.
Mike: Right. And if I'm like an asshole poultry plant director guy, why would I spend money on plane tickets? And like reaching tentacles into Guatemala, to find workers for my low wage, low skilled jobs?
Sarah: You can really tell a fake conspiracy by the fact that it's just economically impossible. Why would you exploit people in a different country when there are plenty of people you can explain in your own county?
Mike: I think that distinction is extremely important. Whenever we talk about trafficking, we need to be really clear that there is a huge difference between people coming here and people being taken here. And the reason why it's dangerous to come here is because there are no laws that allow people to come here legally, right? Like why is there an economy of people that will take you across the US border for $10,000? Because there's a really terrible immigration policy.
Sarah: Again, we're saying we'll solve this problem if we strengthen our border, or if we make it harder or more punitive for undocumented people to come to the United States. And it's like, no, like that's going to make it worse because that means that you will owe more money to someone who's smuggling you and they will have even more justification to work you to death.
Mike: Yeah. One of the other factual claims that the sheriff makes is that they're working seven days a week, having unprotected sex with 1000 men a year. It doesn't appear that there was any sex going on, like intercourse. These cops spent six months surveilling this massage parlor, which is a huge waste of their time, by the way. They had all kinds of weird, hidden camera shit going on. And in six months of surveillance, they only found 20 people who got any sex acts. The vast majority of them were hand jobs and a little bit of it was oral sex. There were a couple instances of oral sex, but there was no sexual intercourse.
There's also, the women were not living on the premises. Only one of them was living on the premises and it was because she was living kind of far away, so the owner of the massage parlor would actually pick her up in the mornings and drive her to work. And then there was like a car trouble or something. And her boss was like, “Hey, do you mind sleeping at work for a couple of nights? Because like it's getting harder for me to pick you up”. So she's like, yeah, okay. Maybe that's exploited too. Like it's not great. Right? Like it's not.
Sarah: We're talking about something that does connect to things that happen in our world. Right. But the version of that event that seems most likely is supported by America as it is also.
Mike: Also in research for this story, I also found out about something called, have you heard of something called rub maps?
Sarah: No. My first mental image is like, what if you had a roadmap or a state map and you could scratch and sniff different areas to smell like their food specialties. So you could have, like, you scratch Kansas City, and it smells like barbecue. I'm sure it's not that, wouldn't that be great?
Mike: Yes. So Rubmaps is apparently Yelp for massage parlors. So people can rate different massage parlors, talk about their experiences. So there's reviews of this massage parlor on roadmaps, apparently. And half of the reviews are men complaining that the women at the massage parlor won't give them hand jobs. Which implies to me that there's some level of control in what they're actually doing.
Sarah: Or like you could look at that and be like, okay, like consent could very well be an issue here, right? Because we have women who have traveled for this job, so it is expensive to move. Like it's an expensive economy to be living in. And this is an illegal trade that we're looking into. So we could take this seriously and be like, “Hey, do you feel pressured to give hand jobs?” If someone's paying a couple hundred bucks to get a hand job, are you getting a fair cut of that? How is that? You know, obviously the police are not like a union for sex workers. Like they are in my fantasy, but you know, these are the questions that are relevant at this point. So it's like, you don't want to help women, you want to save women. That's great.
Mike: Yeah. And there's this, there's this great quote in the Vanity Fair article where she's talking about how officers are interrogating one of the sex workers for apparently hours. And she's the only one who's had her passport confiscated. It's not clear sort of who has it, or why. She eventually says that her boyfriend actually took it and that he had pressured her into working at the massage parlor. But then she later recants that and says, I just wanted to get out of the interrogation, and I was telling them what they wanted to hear.
The author of the Vanity Fair article is talking about this long interrogation of her. And she says, “It was somehow easier for law enforcement officers in south Florida to believe that the women had been sold into sex slavery by a global crime syndicate, then to acknowledge that immigrant women of precarious status hemmed in by circumstance, might choose sex work.” All of this goes back to this idea that, first of all, people cannot consent to sex work. Sex work is inherently exploitative. And that they have to be rescued.
Sarah: We're getting into weedy territory. But I feel like if we're going to talk about like issues of, of consent and, you know, can someone consent to sex work? Like A.) yes, I think that they can. And B.) if you are worried that sex workers are unable to meaningfully consent to the vocation that they're in, then like make it so that they can have another job. Give them something to do to reasonably support themselves. Give them better alternatives if you don't want them to go into sex work.
Mike: And it's also, I mean, I spoke to a really interesting sex worker in Chicago who's been doing sex work for years. The way that she got into it was she had a kid right after she turned 18. The kid had asthma and there was this machine that helps him breathe, that she has to rent on a daily basis. It costs $89 a night. And she was working at Denny's. She basically just was barely getting by, or really not getting by, sort of slowly sinking. And so one of her customers at Denny's offered to pay her to have sex with him after her shift was over. And that was how she kind of got by for many years. And since then she has ended up homeless at times. She says that was the most physically dangerous time because a lot of people target homeless people for sex work, because they know that nobody is going to believe you if you say this guy raped me, this guy was terrible to me.
Since then, she's gotten a day job. She's gotten a more stable place to live. She still does sex work, but it's a much smaller number of clients. And she also does phone sex, which is a form of sex work that I had completely forgotten about because there's been so few movies about it. But what's interesting to me is when we think about this myth of trafficking, you could easily cast that guy in the Denny's as coercing her into sex, right? Like this is a guy that offered money to his Denny's waitress to have sex with him. Like that's a dirt baggy thing to do. But then when she talks about the story, she acknowledges that, of course there's an element of coercion there, but first of all, it was the medical bills that were coercing her.
Sarah: Right. And like, people are vulnerable enough working in legal industries where they don't have unions, you know. Think about what it's like if admitting to practicing the trade that you're in means that you got arrested. I mean, it is impossible to have rights in that situation.
Mike: Right. I also think taking the right wing argument seriously that like, there's no such thing as consenting to sex work. It's inherently exploitative. Fine. I don't agree with that, but like, if that is true, then the question becomes, say you're a sex worker. You're working in this massage parlor. It's super exploitative. I'm now going to go in, I'm going to arrest your boss. I'm going to shut it down. I'm going to take away your source of housing, right? Because part of the myth is that they're living there. I'm going to take away your source of income because you're no longer going to have a job. So like, you're welcome. I've just rescued you, even if you're this right-wing, pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of person. Okay. Then like those people need a bunch of money.
Sarah: What if you had just taken their only bootstraps away? I guess the assumption is that they have been forced into sex work and now they don't have to do anymore because this corrupt organization that forced them to become sex workers is gone now. And so now they can skip away and do whatever they want. Which is what.
Mike: Right? There's a survey of sex workers in Britain, all of whom are foreigners. Only 6% of them said that they were deceived in any way by coming to the UK. What they say is that they went to the UK to like work at coffee shops, but either they got those jobs and the conditions were shitty and they couldn't pay their rent, or they just couldn't get those jobs. And so a lot of them sort of started doing sex work because they didn't have a lot of other options. But it's also like, well, what do those people need? Like, how do you rescue them from sex work? It's like, pay more at the coffee shops.
Sarah: Right, right. Stop complaining about how much your espresso costs. I think making an espresso is much harder than giving a hand job.
Sarah: There's so many layers on those things. The entire history of this whole thing that the origin of trafficking has always been about saving women, mostly white women. I've been reading all these historical documents and they all include the names of old laws of sort of like how this works. So there the precursors to this, there's something called the 1870 act to prevent the kidnapping and importing of Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese females for criminal or demoralizing purposes.
Sarah: But only Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese. If you're allowed Laotian, then you can just fuck off.
Mike: There's one in 1875 that has in the preamble, that it's trying to end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.
Mike: Which then morphs into the Chinese exclusion act of 1882.
Sarah: So the Chinese exclusion act, this is fabulous, began as a sex trafficking panic law.
Mike: Yeah. I interviewed a human smuggling expert who I cannot name because he's an old friend of mine and his university will not allow me to name him because they have weird restrictions. I mean, one of the things that the human smuggling researcher told me, because he's looking into the history of this too, is that every time we've had a resurgence of the trafficking panic, we've had to crack down on immigration.
Sarah: That is ah, that's classic. That is a stone cold classic.
Mike: The extremely important reframing of human smuggling to human trafficking is, human smuggling sounds kind of defensible. People are sneaking into this country because they want to be here.
Sarah: Human smuggling is how some enslaved people escaped back in the day.
Mike: Yeah. And he mentioned this too, that there's also great stories of people smuggling Jews out of Europe when the Nazis came to power. We sort of understand that to be a much more complicated concept, but then as soon as you say, oh, there's trafficking. People are being brought here against their will. Then it's like, oh shit, we really need to crack down on the borders because they're not migrants. They're not coming here for jobs. They're being kidnapped and taken here.
Sarah: Right because it doesn't criminalize the person who is trying to cross the border. It demonizes the person who is theoretically moving them, but then it makes them into collateral or evidence or something.
Mike: I mean, this is what he said too, that the difference between trafficking and smuggling is that in human trafficking, the person coming into the United States is a victim, whereas in human smuggling, the United States is the victim, right? It's a crime against the United States to smuggle someone in and there is no victim. So what trafficking does is it allows you to reframe, oh, some percentage of these migrants, I'm really worried about that like they're not choosing to come here on their own volition.
Sarah: I'm not racist, but I am concerned.
Mike: What's really interesting is this whole thing gets wrapped up in this concept of white slavery from the early 1900. Are you familiar with this?
Sarah: Yeah, I guess this idea that, I mean, the classic idea that we have now in different clothing that, I mean, this kind of birth of a nation idea, almost in a way. Right? That like white women are constantly being preyed upon by an ethnic other who wants to kidnap them and smuggle them and just do something terrible.
Mike: There was something called the 1904 international agreement for the suppression of white slave traffic. That's one of the first times the term trafficking is used.
Sarah: I was going to ask when that started showing up, I'm surprised it's that old.
Mike: Yeah. Well, it hasn't changed at all. This is the same stuff we see now. So there's this great article by Janie Chung, where she talks about the concept of exploitation creep, where trafficking has always been a bad thing, but over time, we've expanded the term trafficking to cover more and more and more human behavior and it's now this behemoth that covers like 50 different activities.
Sarah: Yes. So what did it originally mean?
Mike: It originally meant this is what she says in her article, “That the word ‘trafficking’ denoted the cross border movement of white women and girls by force to seat or drugs for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation.”
Sarah: Okay. White women and girls by forced deceit or drugs. It's amazing that we were so transparent just over a hundred years ago, we were like, this is a lot about white girls. You know, it's like, that's so the unspoken thing at the bottom of everything, but it's the one thing you're not allowed to explicitly say.
Mike; Right. And it's, I mean, the DNA is all there. I mean, this is like how bad it gets, is in the actual law, it defines a victim as ‘a white woman who is a victim of the animal lusts of the dark races’. What’s really interesting is, this is what Janie Chung, this really interesting researcher, told me was that a lot of this comes out of the anxieties over slavery ending and a huge anxiety over women's rights. That you have women who are starting to show up an interracial couple.
Sarah: Right. And they can't be doing that on purpose.
Mike: Right. And so all of these same gut-level anxieties are there in the very beginning. And this initial panic culminates in the 1910 Mann Act, with the way that Janie Chung puts it is ‘which sought to maintain the morality and purity of white women by prohibiting women from crossing state lines for immoral purposes and criminalized interracial couples’. So it's like from the very beginning, trafficking has been a way of talking about basically like race mingling that makes us uncomfortable.
Sarah: Or that interracial relationships can only exist in the context of sex crime. Right. That like, it's not that we're criminalizing interracial relationships. It has to be a sex crime. There can't be consent. It has to be that someone's being recruited for nefarious purposes. Like it's not that we're criminalizing these relationships, it's that they don't exist.
Mike: So what happens over time is eventually people sort of accept this framing, but they think that white slavery is too narrow. And so by 1949, the’ international convention to suppress trafficking in persons and the exploitation of the prostitution of others’, these names, but by that point, trafficking has now expanded to encompass people of all races, all genders, all ages, and it can also be transnational or domestic.
Sarah: Holding hands under a rainbow.
Mike: So we already see this good faith effort, I think, to be like, well, you know, white slavery is a pretty bad term. Other people can be victimized. So we need to expand the categories of people that can be victimized by this bad behavior. So I talked to this researcher named Ron Weiser about this, and he says, there's this kind of this period of dormancy, the term kind of goes quiet for awhile, but then it explodes in the late 1990s and especially in the 2000s.
And what's really interesting to me because I'm trying to sort of find the Genesis of this, you know, how did we get to like trafficking becoming a thing, and what this guy run or told me it was that it's one of the few times when it's not a bottom up phenomenon, like stranger danger, there really weren't kids that got murdered in these horrible ways. But he says one of the unique features about human trafficking as a moral panic is that it's top-down. That there weren't cases of human trafficking that sort of captured the public’s imagination.
Sarah: Right. Because we should be able to think like, oh yes, the baby Liza case from 1995 that started. That's the thing. I mean, at the beginning of this conversation, it was like we were trying to open a kinder egg with nothing inside of it. I can't think of even the cases that would have inspired this.
Mike: Right. This is what's so interesting. Is that in the late 1990s, what started happening was you will recognize this, a coalition between neo-conservatives, the Christian right, and feminists to start pushing this.
Sarah: Those never end well.
Mike: It's actually fascinating. I mean, this is another example, just like we talked about with victims’ rights, where basically this argument that prostitution is inherently exploitative, came out of this idea that prostitution is fundamentally about the patriarchy and it's something that benefits men.
Sarah: There are ways in which that argument makes sense to me. I just don't take it to that conclusion.
Mike: Right. And so a lot of first wave feminists started pushing this idea of trafficking because they were losing the wars over prostitution from the 1970s and the wars over porn in the 1980s. That the country was getting much more liberal, and this idea of abolishing prostitution wasn't really working. The idea of abolishing porn, like especially the, you know, the internet was starting to exist in the 1990s.
Sarah: Hmm. Yeah. I mean, we'll talk about this in greater detail in another episode, I'm sure, but that Andrea Dworkin had attempted to pass anti-porn legislation in parts of the US and Canada. And it had been really kind of had had a couple of little successes, but it had been a resounding flop. So there was really, you know, whatever happened was repealed and, that this was a movement that couldn't get off the ground on the terms that were currently being argued.
Mike: And it's really interesting because some of the quote unquote villains of the sex trafficking panic are the heroes of the early sexual harassment cases that we talked about in the Anita Hill episode. Catharine MacKinnon, for example, who's a really important feminist.
Sarah: And a very complicated figure legally.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. And I think, yeah, it's tough to tell the story of sexual harassment without this as an epilogue. And it's tough to tell this story without sexual harassment, the early cases as a prologue.
Sarah: You know how I feel about heroes and villains, right? If you start off seeing everyone as just a person, then you don't have to become so confused when they have different roles and different movements. I think we're getting into the whole problem with work as historians, essentially, which is that you were deprived of these nice Star Wars wineries, right? History is a nonbinary affair, I must say.
Mike: So because they're kind of losing these domestic wars, what they do is they reframe pornography and prostitution as fundamentally nonconsensual acts. And they reframe them as kind of politically neutral things that, you know, this, this isn't about prostitutes in America. This was about poverty in the third world. Like this isn't, you know, messy political stuff. What it really is, is, you know, most of the prostitutes in America, they were taken here against their will. They're being prostituted like a thousand men a year and 14 hours a day. And it's this terrible thing. And all of a sudden, you're not talking about banning prostitution anymore. Right? We've done this shift where all of a sudden, it's like, no, we want to fight poverty. We want to save girls. We want to free people from slavery and the prostitution is sort of secondary or tertiary and people start not noticing what you're really doing.
Sarah: Okay. So it, it, it turns into…
Mike: That was a very ‘Sarah’ sigh.
Sarah: I mean, I think that what I'm expressing with that particular exhale is that there were good ingredients that went into that. Right. It's like you're watching a YouTube cake tutorial, and they like put cake ingredients in, and then they just like put in a bunch of kitchen cleaner, and then they throw it in the oven. And it's like, what did you think would happen? There was a moment when it could have been a cake, but then that moment ended, and we can't go back. Right. That it starts off as coming from a place of genuine concern.
And like, yes, like, again, like people shouldn't have to do sex work against their will. People shouldn't have to do any kind of work against their will as a matter of fact. But do you care about the demographic that you're claiming this is about, are you really just trying to wipe out sex work and your previous arguments haven't landed, and you need to cultivate the kind of allies who will be swayed by this kind of argument. And you're maybe trying to annihilate something that shouldn't be annihilated. And the reason that you haven't been able to so far is some proof of that.
Mike: Yeah. And also to give them some credit, you know, in the same way that the stranger danger panic illustrators and real needs, the law at the time didn't really recognize the idea that you could be coerced, not through physical force. Someone can sort of manipulate you into doing something without putting a gun to your head, right. Or if you're in a really abusive relationship, you might find yourself, you know, committing crimes or doing other things that you wouldn't do otherwise because, like, you're afraid of the long-term consequences. There's no immediate threat, but if your husband is beating you regularly, like he doesn't have to say, I'll beat you if you don't do this.
Sarah: Yes. And that humans have tremendous psychological power over each other, and it doesn't have to be supported by displays of force. It doesn't have to be supported by the consequences that we like to think we would have to be facing in order to do something we don't think that we would normally do. Yeah. There's very little legal recognition, I think, of the fact that our autonomy is a very fragile thing.
Mike: Yeah. And also, I mean, this also intersects with a rising generation of evangelicals. They also were losing a lot of battles, right? That the culture was shifting underneath them. And so what these younger evangelicals did was they started getting away from stuff like gay people and prostitution and, you know, things that were sort of not going to land anymore. They went to these issues that they could still get moderates on. And so what you have in the late 1990s is Christian groups that start focusing on global warming, HIV aids, globally, and human trafficking.
Sarah: Right. Africa's like is the center of the innocent victim industrial complex.
Mike: Really. Yeah. And so in the way that Weitzner was talking about in this, this top down push, they find a very good friend in George W. Bush who gets elected in 2000.
Sarah: Oh it’s a Bush joint. Oh, it was created to suit his fragile little mind.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. And so they pass something called the trafficking victims protection act, which as will not surprise you at all, there's nothing in there about protecting victims. It extends a bunch of sentences. It creates, as we've seen the other moral panics, it creates laws against things that are already illegal.
Sarah: So it doesn't criminalize anything new, it just jacks up sentencing for other stuff.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. Like it's filling a hole that is already filled. So the only actual victims protection that it has in the law is the idea of a T visa, which is a trafficking victim visa, basically.
Sarah: It sounds like a gift card for testosterone.
Mike: But what's really interesting is, you know, as usual, nobody digs into the details of these plans. So the actual T visa, the way that it works is it's temporary. It gives you a one year extension of staying in the United States. And it's conditional on participating in the criminal trial against your trafficker.
Sarah: Oh, Jesus Christ.
Mike: So this creates an incentive where even if you're not really a victim, like you weren't really coerced into sex work, there's now an incentive to say that you were.
Sarah: Yeah. Cause it's how you get human rights.
Mike: Totally. Right. And the thing is, I mean, you know, everybody brags about this program and how great it is, but a tiny number of people even get it every year. It's only 600 people that get it every year. And the fine print for the T visa is that, you know, it's temporary, but you can also apply for this thing called a U visa, which is permanent residency, but this is a system for every victim of any kind of crime. So if you're an immigrant and you're a victim of domestic abuse, like this is the kind of visa that you apply for. There are 60,000 applications per year and they only give out 10,000 of them. There's already a backlog of 150,000 people.
Sarah: So we're at 15 years, there's like a 15 year waiting list. It's like trying to get a new liver, basically. And like that's as good as it gets, like that is as worthy of protection as you can get as an undocumented person in the eyes of the law.
Mike: Well, you know, the thing that I cannot get over when we talk about trafficking and the trafficking panic, the issue that gets the most attention is FOSTA SESTA, these laws that passed I think last year or two years ago, that basically took down any online ads for sex work.
Sarah: And like famously I think it was targeted at Back Page.
Mike: Yeah. Right. Yeah. They're awful. There's a really good Reply All episode about how bad they are and everybody should go listen to it.
Sarah: Yeah. I love that Reply All episode.
Mike: But what's really interesting is there's also local versions of Backpage that have also been caught up in the last couple of years. Not necessarily under FOSTA SESTA, but other basically local laws.
So there's one locally in Seattle called the Review Board, which was essentially Reddit for sex workers and clients where people could post ads. People could also post reviews. The sex workers that I spoke to who had profiles there and posted there said that it was really positive in that if a guy was a total prick, you could post on there with his profile and his information and say, this is what happened, he showed up drunk, he hit me, whatever it was. And the sex workers would then of course say, well, we're not going to see that guy anymore. And the men would post and say like, hey man, you're making us look bad. This is bullshit.
There was all kinds of stuff on there about consent and about, it's okay for them to say no, and it's not okay to coerce them into sex if they say, sorry, that's not a service I'm offering, or I don't really feel like it tonight. Sorry about that. And then a couple of years ago, the cops came in and shut it down. And so the way that I found out about this and the way that most people in Seattle found out about this was, there's a big trafficking raid. We found a sex ring. It's all trafficking. It's all terrible.
Sarah: Oh it’s a ring? If you call it a thing a ring it's automatically so sinister, right?
Mike: Yeah. And so some of the women that were posting on their review board were from South Korea. And so this of course got wrapped up in this sort of, they're being brought here against their will type of narrative. And they're working 14 hours a day and they're not making any money, blah, blah, blah.
Sarah: It’s just so weird when we want to read situations, not at face value for kind of what we're seeing, but we're like, well, we have this thing that we really want to find, and we're going to take anything that, to any degree, supports the scenario we want this to be. And then we're going to say it's that scenario, like that's a really bizarre way to be attempting to solve social problems.
Mike: Yes. And just like barreling forward without actually showing any interest in what's actually going on. So what's fascinating is then later, of course, none of this shows up in the original news reports or like the primetime specials that ran about this “trafficking ring” is that there was no evidence that anybody was being coerced into sex. That these “14 hour days” that the women were working, the only evidence for that was that on their advertisements, they would list their availability as 14 hours. So they say I'm available for appointments between 10:00 AM and midnight. Incredibly, there's no evidence it's that any of the “pimps” were having sex with any of the sex workers or we're providing them with drugs. They were kind of like managers or promoters or like a book agent. They were placing ads for them. They were helping them with like various logistics things.
Sarah: They were like actually doing their jobs.
Mike: And also, I mean, what some of these sex workers have been telling me is that like the whole concept of a pimp is, I mean, first of all, racialized. Secondly, that relationship doesn't really happen as much anymore because of the internet. That it's relatively easy or easier to set up dates and places like hotels or places where there's sort of enough people around that if something bad happens, there is help available. It's not this idea of like exploitative pimps, obviously, you know, it happens in the world, but in general, the internet has been really good for sex workers to be able to have much more independence. And a lot of times the power relationship is actually the other way around now, that the sex workers will kind of hire men to do things like screen clients, to place ads for them to do things like, you know, drive me to this appointment, you know, pick me up at the airport when I come back, et cetera.
Sarah: Yeah. So like to have someone around as a heavy who you are employing and who is dependent on you, I mean, that seems like a good system.
Mike: In this particular case, the “brothel owner” pimp dudes, the women were charging 300 bucks an hour and the guys were taking 100. So maybe that's too much, maybe that's unfair.
Sarah: Who knows? Right. Like, I don't know the industry, but to me that doesn't seem on the face of it, like an obviously exploitative number.
Mike: Right, right. And so at the end of this whole thing, what's amazing is the only people that actually went to jail, nobody was charged with trafficking, of course. The only thing that they got were these second degree promoting prostitution charges. One of the guys, one of these pimps, who of course tarred as like the worst, you know, chaining people to radiators the worst imaginable traffickers. One of them does 60 days in jail and 30 days of community service.
Sarah: You caught the trafficker at the center of the ring. And I mean, thank God they didn't bring in a disproportionate punishment just to save face.
Mike: I mean, that's one nice thing about it. One of the other guys that went to jail for 21 months was a kid who, the only thing he's actually charged with is helping the sex workers post ads and picking them up at the airport when they would travel. So one of the myths of this is that the traffickers are moving them around the country, and they're being taken from place to place. There's no evidence that these women ever traveled with another person. They were going to other places and a lot of the sex workers told me that this is something that you do because if you're a new face in an area, like you go to Albuquerque or whatever, you get like a wave of clients because they haven't seen you before.
Sarah: Like modeling.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. So it makes sense to move around. Also, apparently people pay more in certain cities like New York and LA.
Sarah: Yeah, that makes sense. They're used to paying more for sandwiches.
Mike: So there's no evidence that they were being taken anywhere. They were just going on their own to those places to earn more money. And then coming back and this guy would pick them up at the airport.
Sarah: It’s just such bad faith, you know, it's just, they were like purporting to care about these people's lives. And then we're expressing that by making them harder, which suggests to me that that's all we really wanted anyway, but we just wanted an excuse to screw over sex workers.
Mike: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think it's important to note that this, this website, the review board people talk about, you know, it was a nice positive place, but it was also, I mean, it's not perfect, right? That the guy who it was run by essentially this random dude named Tahoe Ted. They say he was kind of a dick. Like he didn't allow trans sex workers to post and block people from creating accounts if they were fat, like anyone larger.
Sarah: So Tahoe Ted is a shitty guy who accidentally made a place better than him.
Mike: Yeah. That people were able to use in this positive way. But again, it's like, what is creating the weaknesses and the shittiness of that website? It's the criminalization. If this were legal, you would have other websites to choose from that aren’t shitty.
Sarah: Right. And Tahoe Ted wouldn't control the pipeline.
Mike: Yeah. And one of the weird things, this is incredible. This guy, Tahoe Ted, is caught. He's in all of the local newspapers. He's a trafficker, he's the ringleader, et cetera. He eventually pleads guilty to three counts of promoting prostitution. His sentence is 30 days of work release, 30 days of community service. He has to go to a post-conviction sex buyer intervention course. And then the guy ended up killing himself because his name had been dragged through the mud through the newspapers that he couldn't, he had a day job while he was doing this. And of course he lost the day job, and nobody was going to hire him because, you know, Google this guy in the first 50 results are all about how he's a sex trafficker.
Sarah: It's interesting because even so, the actual legal system's consequences weren't that significant for him, but the way he, you know, his name had been destroyed by it. So you don't even need to penalize someone that harshly because the media will do it for you.
Mike: Again, you don't want to get into a place where like, defending this model that I do think has elements of exploitation in it. And it's a structure that can be used very exploitatively. So I don't think any of this is like, all of this is perfectly fine.
Sarah: Right. But we're saying that it's, it's not the very specific thing that people are claiming it to be, which is different from saying it's perfect.
Mike: Right. What's amazing about that case is that it was a five year investigation. There were four different law enforcement agencies involved. So we're talking millions of dollars.
Sarah: I feel like that's an inappropriate use of resources.
Mike: Yeah. Yes. And it's like, what are we spending our money on? Think of all the children that are experiencing domestic abuse during that time, for what? For a bunch of misdemeanor arrests and six months sentences and a bunch of “victims” that left immediately. All of them did not participate in the prosecution. So as soon as it happened, they were quote, unquote rescued and sent to this NGO that was going to provide them services. All of them ran away within 24 hours.
Sarah: All of them did?
Mike: Yeah. So to this day, we don't know where they are. That doesn't imply to me, the Liam Neeson version of this trafficking story.
Sarah: I would love to see though the Liam Neeson movie version of all this, where Liam Neeson like raids a fairly stable home that some sex work is being run out of. And then forcibly takes a bunch of women to a safe house, and then they all run away and then he just sits there sadly having made breakfast for everyone.
I mean, this is another recurring theme for us, that if we create the sort of bucket categories and public discourse where like, okay, there's traffickers and they're this kind of person, and maybe as the public, we only want it to apply to this very sinister, very specific kind of a figure that we're thinking of. But then once we've created that category socially, then legally it can be used however people want. And if there's one thing that we've learned, you can take a very scary sounding charge and then find ways to sort of pull that parachute over like a huge number of defendants.
Mike: And this is, I actually read this fascinating report by the greater New Orleans human trafficking task force. That was actually like in the way that bureaucrats do it was like quietly, scathing, but like that's not scathing.
Sarah: It's kind of like salty judge quotes.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And so what they note is that everything since 2000 has been about victims, right? Protecting victims, helping victims, like this is the language that we always hear. What they mentioned is that in the entire state of Louisiana, there's only 291 beds available for trafficking victims and only 46 of those are actually like trafficking beds. The rest of them are homeless shelters. It's this absurd duality where it's like, trafficking is huge. It's growing. It's the most offensive form of exploitation imaginable, right, it’s literally sexual slavery. But then after we rescued them, we're sending them to a fucking homeless shelter.
Sarah: Wow. Okay. And that there are no actual resources for this most exalted category of victim.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. They talk in there quietly, about how, because all the homeless shelters are full, it often takes 5 or 10 phone calls to find a homeless shelter for that night. It's like, can you name 10 homeless shelters in your city? Like, how do you even do this?
Sarah: We can't get the numbers because they're so traumatized that they don't know what happened to them, but they have to be calling around homeless shelters until they like through sheer persistence, find a bed.
Mike: Only one of the shelters serves foreign nationals. A lot of them do background checks and other document checks. The Cindy McCain definition of trafficking is that these people are not from the United States. Why is this not an emergency to anti-trafficking organizations?
Sarah: Right. There are no resources being allocated for them. There's no real system in place for taking care of them once they're saved from their abusers. Like no one seems to have much of a plan of where to put them or how to find resources for them. Like it all goes to criminalization.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, this is like the darkest shit that I haven't found in other taskforce reports, but I think it is really widespread, that the only forms of housing available to trafficking victims are like long-term housing. And so all of them have these weird intake requirements where you have to be in before a curfew, you have to commit to sobriety.
Sarah: If I had been trafficked, I'm not staying sober. You know, I got some demons to handle.
Mike: This is from the task force report “required activities include counseling therapy, life skills, activities, religious activities, and group or wellness meetings for residents.” And also two out of three of them cut off your internet and take away your cell phone.
Sarah: Okay. Isn't that what you're supposed to do to someone when you're trafficking them though? I mean, these restrict their movements and control their life. Like are we rescuing the victims of trafficking by re-trafficking them?
Mike: And I also read about this thing outside of New Orleans, where there's a house for trafficking victims out in a rural area that is run by the New Orleans Sheriff's department, where they're also taking away people's cell phones and there's no public transit out there.
Sarah: Living in a house in rural Louisiana with no public transportation where you're being supervised by the Sheriff's department sounds like a spiritual sequel to Get Out.
Mike: Warning signs include that in the training for the kids. Why aren't we looking at kids in airports?
Sarah: And like being isolated in a remote location where the people who are restricting your movements have no sense of accountability because of their own belief in the righteousness of what they're doing. Like, again, this is coming back to our, you know, torch song of all torch songs, which is, the most dangerous people are the people who believe in their deepest heart of hearts, that they are on the side of what is right and just. The dangerous people are the people who think they are good and who society thinks are good and therefore who have the kind of power that lends itself very easily to abuse.
Mike: You're going to love this. I'm going to read you something really dark right now. This is the darkest NGO, Christian NGO thing. This is Rebecca Charleston who's the director of something called Valiant Hearts, which is a Christian charity that helps trafficking victims. She identifies as a victim of trafficking herself.
This is from a Christian website. “Charleston spoke about working with police departments who set up sting operations. Posing as potential clients, they create online posts to lure individuals to a hotel room. Once the person arrives, law enforcement officers will give them an ultimatum. Either they can go to jail or accept Valiant hearts offer to help. However, many of the traffic individuals decline the help, believing initially that it is their choice.”
Sarah: Uh, I'm very curious about the situations that are being described here.
Mike: How many red flags were there in that?
Sarah: So the people who are being courted in the sting operations are sex workers?
Mike: Yeah. And this Christian organization has taken it upon itself to make fake ads and entrap sex workers.
Sarah: Are they, are they minors or are they just adult, just random adult sex workers?
Mike: It appears there. adult sex workers. There's nothing in here indicating that it's children.
Sarah: It's just like, you know, you can look at the founder of this organization and say, you have been through a real trauma. And maybe that doesn't qualify you to know what these people in this very broad group of backgrounds and possible situations all need. Like it's because it's not appropriate for individuals to be able to join forces with the police in this way either, I don't think. Like this is a really weird thing that we kind of accept as normal in the United States because it happens so frequently. And especially because of the severity of the crime, the knowledge base required of the person collaborating with law enforcement doesn't need to be as high.
Mike: This is one thing that shows up that, you know, I was talking to this person who has to remain anonymous, who was on a state trafficking task force. What he found in the state, where he was working, that cops would do these “stings”, raids on massage parlors or whatever. And they'd sit down with the sex workers and say like, look, you can go to jail, or you can say you're a trafficking victim. Those are your two options.
Sarah: If your choice is between jail and something else, then the something else would be pretty bad for you to choose jail first.
Mike: It's just, there's something so corrupt about like the cops telling people that they're a victim of something.
Sarah: Also then if you say, yes, I've been trafficked, then I'm like, what?
Mike: Then you go to the fucking homeless shelter.
Sarah: And what if you have a perfectly nice house that you're paying for with your sex works that you're just trying to do for God's sakes. Or like, if you are in a bad situation, how was going to a homeless shelter going to make that better?
Mike: Right. I mean, one of the really interesting shifts here is that, you know, one of the things that accompanies the trafficking panic is this idea of ending demand or like the Nordic model.
Sarah: Is that where you criminalize client ship?
Mike: Yes. This is like the woke sex worker criminalization policy. So you don't want to arrest the sex workers, but you want to arrest the Johns. So it's like you're cracking down on the demand and you're not going to like, revictimize sex workers, which sounds great. Right?
Sarah: That sounds better. I think anytime we call something the Nordic model it might be because it needs more credibility than it actually has.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this is what you find is that, you know, there's been all these studies of Sweden and Norway now where they invented the Nordic model and what they find is that it doesn't actually make sex workers any safer, because first of all, by criminalizing people buying sex, you're essentially taking out all of the like law abiding people out of the customer pool.
Sarah: It's like you take away like normal shoppers and you just have like black Friday people. Like that would be awful.
Mike: And so the other thing that it does is because it's still trying to abolish prostitution as an institution. So what ends up happening is, even though the sex workers themselves are not criminalized, the place that they're working, the brothel, is now a criminal organization.
Sarah: So they're part of a conspiracy.
Mike: Exactly. So they can be written up on racketeering charges if they had any financial relationship. There's also, what's really interesting is in the definition of ‘trafficking’ is, “a sex worker over 18 that has been coerced into sex work through force, fraud, or coercion.”
Sarah: It's kind of a tautology there, isn't it?
Mike: But what's interesting is for people under 18, you don't have to prove anything. All you have to prove is that they’re engaged in sex work because of age of consent laws. And I feel quite strongly that children cannot consent to sex. Like I, I'm okay with the principle.
Mike: However, what I've heard from a lot of sex workers is that what happens is the cops will sort of do a bus they'll arrest, a bunch of sex workers. They'll find one who is under 18 and that's kind of like the Eureka moment. Because once you find one 17, 16, 15 year old sex worker, then you have a circle of people around that person who you can charge with sex trafficking.
Sarah: Who could all be 19, 20 years old.
Mike: Yes. I interviewed a lawyer for a sex worker who is now convicted of trafficking because she drove another sex worker over state lines. She was 19, the younger sex worker was 17.
Sarah: Right. Which also means that you penalize offering help. Like you render it a criminal act to help someone who's trying to survive in an industry where maybe they need a lot of tips that you might have. Like, it just feels very sinister to me.
Mike: This is from a report about the Nordic model and sort of the failure of the Nordic model. “In Sweden, no one can operate a brothel rent, an apartment room or hotel room, assist with finding clients, act as a security guard, or allow advertising for sex work. This intern implies that sex workers cannot work together, recommend customers to each other, advertise work from property they rent or own, or even co-habit with a partner. since their partner is likely to share part of any income derived from sex work.” You don't get them on prostitution charges anymore, you get them on accomplice charges.
Sarah: Wow. So it's like less be nice to sex workers and indict them for racketeering instead.
Mike: So like, aren't we woke? Like, isn't this helping? It's like, well, yeah, really Norwegian.
Sarah: That's the most American you've ever sounded. Right. And just, I think that we really, just in general, like any kind of legislation that's brought forth where you look at it and you're like, now if someone were to use this in bad faith, you could really destroy some lives. And it's just so weird because if you're saying I'm doing this to protect the trafficking victims who are teen girls. And so in this scenario, I'm going to ruin the lives of all these teen girls to protect the teen girls. And it's like, well you're protecting imaginary people at the expense of real people and the imaginary people don't even vote.
Mike: And also, I mean, hat all of this does, whether you're criminalizing the sex workers or the people who purchase sex, either way, all it has the effect of is driving things underground. And so, you know, one of the sex workers that I talked to about trafficking, she was saying that like, you know, there's now signs in hotels was like, know the warning signs of trafficking, all of which are warning signs of sex work. Right. It's like, oh, they keep a, do not disturb sign on their door.
Sarah: Okay. First of all, I always do that, mostly by making this show in there. But also if the laws are taking away your ability to have coworkers and some kind of maybe secure arrangement than like, if you're losing access to hotel rooms then like Jesus Christ, where else is there?
Mike: Well, this is what one of the sex workers I interviewed told me is that like, a hotel is a pretty safe place to be a sex worker, right. Because you're in a room with, we all know, hosted in hotel walls are.
Sarah: Where security cameras everywhere.
Mike: The most important thing is that the client knows that if you scream, someone will come. And so she says, you know, the harder it gets to work in hotels, it's like, I'm going to have sex with people in their cars. That's where they have a lot more power over me. Like they can drive me where they want to drive me. I can't necessarily leave. Like all you're doing is making it harder for people to report this stuff.
Sarah: And If you scream in a car, then like maybe the police come. I think you're farther away from being arrested yourself in that situation is also important.
Mike: All of this, I mean, there's now states passing laws that all hotel staff need awareness raising training of this problem for which there is huge and false awareness already.
Sarah: Yes. So what are the signs that people are being educated to look for?
Mike: Again, it's like, you know, young women checking in by themselves and like someone with men visiting their rooms.
Sarah: Sounds like it’s criminalizing spring break more than anything.
Mike: But so this leads us to the last aspect of this and this is the last for this week, I promise.
Sarah: Oh, I'm very happy for you to lead me through all the darkness.
Mike: The last form of exploitation creep, the last one widening of the term trafficking happens under the Obama administration. So the Obama administration comes in. They, like everybody else, notices that the Bush administration has spent eight years saying, “Prostitution is the same as trafficking, and we need to eradicate prostitution”.
So they're like, okay, well, you know, the real form of trafficking and exploitation that's going on in the world is forced labor. There is ample evidence that forced labor is rampant. There are a lot of migrant workers, like conditions are really terrible. So what we need to do is expand the definition of trafficking to pull in all of these exploited workers, right? Like Indian construction workers in Dubai and Guatemalan farm workers in America. Like we need to include all of these people in this problem of trafficking, that everybody's super concerned about.
Sarah: That seems fairly reasonable to me. And I'm therefore extremely anxious in reality, it didn't end up working out as well as I'm hoping.
Mike: Well, again, it's like, it's this sustainable thing and everybody seems to be working from good motives. But what they do is they first redefine trafficking, and this is now the international definition, that any form of what's called ‘bonded labor’ is considered trafficking. So for this episode, I had the treat of calling up Joel best.
Sarah: Joel Best! Our hero!
Mike: He Is a researcher, a sociologist who studies contemporary urban legend.
Sarah: Oh, you talked to Joel.
Mike: He was great. He was like the coolest. And it was really nice in that, you know, like with researchers, if they haven't looked into something you want to sort of be careful, like, you know, I don't want to make you talk about something that isn't your area of expertise. And so I called him up and I was like, you know, I'm, I'm a little bit concerned about, you know, human trafficking, like, uh, I know it's not something you've looked into and he's like, oh yeah, it’s a scam. I was like, okay Joel, tell me more.
Sarah: Is his middle name ‘is’ though or what?
Mike: So what Joel Best actually mentioned to me was that, you know, you're a poor Kenyan, 23 year old. You want to move to the United States to be a domestic worker, because you're going to make more money being a nanny in the United States than you would in Kenya. So you apply for a guest worker visa, you get the visa, great. But a plane ticket is $1,500 bucks and you don't have $1,500 bucks. So you take out a loan from one of these recruitment agents that you can find locally. And they say, okay, you have to pay us back, you know, 300 extra bucks a month or whatever, but you'll be making decent wages and it's not going to be that big of a deal. That scenario, that is trafficking. That's bonded labor. You're paying off a debt.
Sarah: It's interesting. Cause we've talked about this kind of deal before as something that could be very easily abused, but also if this arrangement doesn't have legitimate means of existing, then how are people going to get to the US in the first place?
Mike: Right. What's really interesting to me is when I started working on this, I thought that scenario wasn't bonded labor, that, what then often happens, that like you get there and their recruitment agent says like, well, I said it was going to be $300 bucks, but now it's a thousand bucks a month and I'm taking 90% of your salary. Like this does happen. But that actually isn't necessary for it to be trafficking. The definition of trafficking is simply working to pay off a debt. That's it.
Sarah: So it's just, it's an indenture, essentially.
Mike: It's anyone who has to pay off a recruitment fee. It's bonded labor, you're paying off a bond. But then what that does is adding this huge category of workers. I mean, this is a massive percentage of migrant workers, are operating under some form of paying off debt because who in a developing country has money for a plane ticket? Like this is how people do this. So now you've got these numbers that go round about like 40 million people in the world are trafficked, but it's like, first of all, 14 million of those are in forced marriages. Which I'm not wild about but are also very different than sort of modern day slavery. You also have a huge number of people who are just paying off debts and like are some of those people deeply and darkly exploited? Yes. But some of them aren't, some of them pay off their debts and then they go home, or they could be in the United States and like, whatever.
Sarah: And, what that means is that you lose the ability to get real numbers on the situation. You don't know how many people are being abused. You're not trying to estimate how many people are in abusive situations because it's just the presence of a contract is the definition.
Mike: Yeah, It's the contractual form. Yeah. That's a good way to put it. It's very clear that they're doing this to get the numbers up, right and to pitch the problem as much bigger than it is. Right. And so the second thing that they start doing is that they start talking about modern day slavery. This is the way that trafficking is now portrayed when it's labor trafficking. So anybody working under these terrible conditions is considered a modern day slave.
In another hallmark of a moral panic, what you now have is the term modern day slavery being used to describe a huge range of activities, right? That it does include people that are in the worst working conditions imaginable right there under rural areas. They're not being paid. They're essentially trapped there. Those cases exist. They're extremely prevalent. Like that is a massive problem, but then you're also using the same term to describe people as, I borrowed a bunch of money to go be a nanny in the U S for six months, and I paid it off and I came home. Is calling all of that slavery, is this helping?
Sarah: And what's the logic that says that it is?
Mike: What's really interesting is as there is more NGO activity and more, you know, there's just more awareness raising campaigns of all kinds these days, right? Like breast cancer, human trafficking, there's all kinds of issues that we are constantly having somebody tap us on the shoulder and being like, hey, you should care about this. And so that has resulted in this arms race among NGOs to cast,’ my issue is more important than these other issues’.
And so if I say like, you know, there's Kenyans that are coming to America, they're working as nannies. A lot of them have to pay off really huge debts. There are not real complaint mechanisms for them. You're like, eh. And then somebody else comes to you and says, there are 25 million slaves in the world, and we thought we eradicated it in 1865, but it's back. This is a huge component of modern day slavery rhetoric, comparing, it explicitly comparing it to the experience of slaves in the United States. And so when I say to you, we thought we eradicated slavery, but it's back. That gives you a specific mental image.
And I'm telling you this more slaves now than at any time in history, which is one of these numbers that goes around, which like, yeah. If you're defining slaves as like a huge percentage of the workforce in developing countries, then like, yes, slavery is back. If you're explicitly equating it with American slavery, it's like, those conditions are not common.
Sarah: Does it also speak to our rescue fantasies? We would prefer to rescue someone who's been enslaved to just, you know, providing resources for people who are like, you know, I got here and like, I thought this was a fair deal. Or like, I thought I could pay all this off, but like it turns out I can't, or like the interest on this is really exorbitant.
I mean, I can see how that also would be harder to get attention for because exorbitant interest is crucial to American economies. So it's kind of rich to be saying that like, it's not okay when people do it, you know, in this one situation. So it's like you have to catastrophize the whole thing. That once again, that we would prefer to be someone's savior than to be someone's helper.
Mike: Totally. And Janie Chung has this great article where she defines exploitation creep, where she says another reason why it emerged was because at the end of the Bush administration, people were starting to put more emphasis on forced labor and about structural systems that were creating these problems.
Of that companies don't know their supply chains, there's really low wages in a lot of countries, there's not a lot of labor inspectors. That was the kind of consciousness that was happening in the 2000s. As you know, as people really turned against Bush in his later years of office, they were also turning on the concept of trafficking and saying like, well, you know, it's not a secret criminal enterprise, it's farms in the United States. Like we know where it is. It's restaurants and it's hotels. Like these hotels that are having like the warning signs of trafficking, it's like a really big warning sign is that you all use contractors for all of your cleaning services and you don't even know what your employees make.
Sarah: Your workers are being trafficked.
Mike: Yes. Like that's the warning sign. Right. And so there was this sort of larger consciousness emerging of like, it's us, right? Like it's not mysterious. We know exactly where it's happening. We know exactly how. And we know how to fix it. Like there need to be better procedures. There need to be complaint mechanisms.
Sarah: Yes. The title of the actual spiritual sequel to Get Out.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, what, what Janie Chung says at the conclusion of her article “recasting all forced labor is trafficking and all trafficking as slavery, exploitation creep relabeled abuses as more extreme than is legally accurate in what appears to be a strategic effort to garner increased commitment to their eradication.” So end modern slavery, that's the phrase you see all the time.
Sarah: We love ending. We love solving, it's our favorite thing.
Mike: Yeah, totally. And it's, it's much sexier than being like hotels shouldn't have outsourced cleaning staff, these procedural things that are like actually how you end forced labor.
Sarah: Or like, you know, you let people unionize for God's sake.
Mike: Yeah. It takes us back to this rescue mission.
Sarah: Yeah. It's not about workers getting rights for themselves. It's about us finding the ones who happen to be being exploited in this terrible, very unambiguous way, and saving them and everyone who's working conditions, while also terrible, don't fall into this exact paradigm, can just go fly a kite.
Mike: I wrote this article last year about this house painter in Miami who had suffered really bad wage theft from his employers. His employers basically said like, I'm not going to pay you. It's like a year and a half long process to sue your boss for fucking wage theft. It was this awful nightmare and there was finally a judgment where his boss had to pay him and just didn't. And so he had to start an entirely new process because one was a civil and one was criminal. And it's like the place where you're going to find, quote, unquote trafficking, real exploitation is where there are not systems for accountability. And we know those places are.
Sarah: We know that maybe better than we know anything else. So essentially, it's like, we find this problem. If we're, to be honest with ourselves in any way, we have to admit that the problem is a structural one and it deals with, you know, the much broader issue of labor conditions in the United States. And in order to distract ourselves from that, we have to create a big, bad.
Mike: The last thing I want to say about this amazing Jenny John article is that she describes this case of 300 Filipino teachers who came to the United States to work in Louisiana public schools. And they came under legal visas. There's an H1B visa where foreign workers can come over. They paid $16,000.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: Which is four times what they were earning per year in the Philippines to come over and work as teachers.
Sarah: And to work as teachers in public schools in the United States. I mean, oh my God. Okay.
Mike: Once they came, the recruiter charged them again was like, it's like Ticketmaster, but they're like, oh, by the way, there's like an extra thing you have to pay. Like the recruiter treated them terribly.
Sarah: Yeah. That happened to me with Michael Bolton. It's awful.
Mike: And like the recruiter then made them work for an extra year in the United States. And essentially, they had to pay, like awful, awful stuff. What's really interesting is they actually came forward and they filed a case against the schools and against the recruiter. And they were both acquitted because, according to Janie Chung, who I interviewed, she said that the jury was like, this doesn't sound like modern slavery to us.
Sarah: Right. And it's like, it's not like, it's pretty, it's, it's unfair. And it's, to my mind criminal, and it shouldn't be allowed to happen, but like, yes, it's not, it's not the very overblown thing that it has been described to you as, and that's not that jury's fault.
Mike: So it's like, this is the hole that we've dug with this term trafficking where it's like, we've gone to the most extreme exaggeration of the problem. But then it's like, when you describe the actual conditions that people are working under, which are extremely common, it's like, eh, I don't if it’s slavery.
Sarah: I don't know. I mean, I don't get paid enough either.
Mike: Yeah. But like, by any other metric, this is fucking terrible.
Sarah: It's just, it's only if you compare it to slavery that it doesn't seem that bad.
Mike: Yeah, we're setting ourselves up to fail. Like, is this helping at all?
Sarah: Which should be the question we ask about all these things, you know, regardless of, you know, of so many other factors, like, is this actually helping the actual people who we claim to want to help? Or does this feel good to us for some reason?
Mike: Right. And it's like, yeah, I'm just going to say the same thing again. I don't know. I want to, I want to be really careful in that one of the things that I really struggle with in this field, is that there's a lot of, there's a lot of NGOs and a lot of philanthropists working on trafficking who seem really nice.
Sarah: Oh yeah, there's lots of very nice people who are putting their energy behind something that might be politically ineffective.
Mike: And they really care. And like, it's not evil, but it's just, to me, it's really naive. I spent a lot of time on the phone with this organization, Polaris, this week that has the national trafficking hotline. And I sort of confronted them about this, of like, you have all these signs in airports, yet your website says that like the vast majority of “trafficking” does not involve movement. And like, you're quite good, actually, at saying on your website that it's like, it's going to be someone, you know, stranger danger doesn't exist.
And I'm saying like, but now you have these posters saying, if you see something, say something, in airports, and they're like, oh, but you know, it has our national trafficking hotline on there. We're not telling people to call the cops. Like, you know, cops can be abusive, we get it. But I don't think people are going to see those posters and remember the number. I think people are going to see those posters and then a week later they're going to see something “suspicious”, and then they're going to call the fucking cops. You're feeding into this myth and you're not taking seriously the unintended consequences of every person in America, feeling empowered to quote unquote, save the children and like snitch on random neighbors and getting them into contact with the police.
Sarah: I think this has to do with the idea of awareness as a universal thing, right. That we have to raise awareness of things.
Mike: I want you to take me down this rabbit hole so bad.
Sarah: I mean, the first thing that comes up for me around that is that, you know, we're living in a time of awareness sweeps week perpetually, right? Like, so to get someone to pay attention to something, you kind of do have to sell it. I mean, first of all, if you're trying to raise public awareness of an issue, I think we're in a time when you have to think even more than in the past, maybe about, you know, if I am needing to go to all these rhetorical lengths to get people to even pay attention to the thing I'm trying to tell them about, am I changing in some way, the nature of the thing I'm trying to describe in order to try and beckon people to listen to me and pay attention to it? Like, am I doing a hard sell that essentially changes my point. And then if that's the case, then like, what does awareness become? If you're like looking for something that you're probably not going to see, and then you just seize on something else that rubs you the wrong way, but maybe you can't say why.
Mike: As a little wrap up thought here. One thing that's really difficult about this is that you don't want to sort of over debunk and take away what really happened to people. One of the people who is pushing for more of these posters in airports is named Alicia Kozakevich and she's someone who had the worst thing happen to her. Like she was groomed online. She was kidnapped from her home. She was confined in a basement. She was abused. She was filmed. I mean, it's the worst thing you can imagine. It's real.
Sarah: Yeah. And something that shouldn't be able to happen in a society where children are being raised.
Mike: And what's interesting is some of the anti-trafficking debunking type people I talked to this week, sometimes you get this sort of tinge of, well, you know, doesn't this survivor's story sound a little far-fetched? Or like, you know, this internet sleuth-ery stuff of like, well, if she says that she was kidnapped, the windows in her bedroom actually locked, so why were- I mean, this type of stuff that I find is so gross in general and especially gross here.
Sarah: Like the grasping at straws rhetoric of like, let's not admit that any terrible things are happening.
Mike: Yes, and also, you know, I interviewed people for this that identify as trafficking victims, and something really terrible happened to them. And I'm not going to take that away from them. Like the worst thing you can do as a journalist and especially as a person is to tell somebody that their pain isn't real or that it doesn't matter. And so I think we can all be adults and talk about this in a way that acknowledges the real pain of people who have experienced forms that sort of do fit the stereotypical narrative. But also, but that's not the only narrative, that we can acknowledge that there are other forms of abuse that we also need to take seriously.
Sarah: I think that we are struggling to find ways to say that all kinds of human experience and trauma are real, but that there's this certain form of trauma and this certain form of crime that is being represented in a really disproportionate way. That feels like a headlock that it's hard to get out of. You're asking me to only think of that awfulness when telling you is like some powerful person in society that you can do whatever you want to, maybe these other people.
Mike: Right. Well, also, I mean, to me, I think it has to be possible to recognize the trauma of somebody like Alicia Kozakevich and acknowledge what happened to her. And it's possible to acknowledge the trauma of someone whose boss is stealing from them for year and has to go through a long court trial or someone who is a homeless teenager that has to engage in survival sex to get a warm place to sleep that night.
Sarah: Or someone who's a sex worker. Who's getting busted all the time.
Mike: Yes. I think it's like, it doesn't have to take away from one person to acknowledge another person's pain. And I also, I think somebody like Alicia Kozakevich has every right to advocate for posters at airports, like that is her right. She can use her experience for anything she wants to.
I also think that sex workers have the right to talk about their trauma and the way that this is affecting them. And I think interracial couples that have the Cindy McCain’s of the world calling TSA on them also have the right to describe their experiences. And all of those experiences are valid, and you know, the purpose of politics and the purpose of sort of adulthood is to look at these different interests and look at the way, not the way that they compete with each other, but the way that they intertwine. And that there are ways to acknowledge the experiences of people who went through these terrible things without making other people's lives worse.
Sarah: I think that there's also something going on where the more dangerous of a country we become for the child, the more we preach about caring for the child. And it's like, maybe you care about the idea of children, but like, why don't you give free lunch to the real ones? The real ones are hungry. I think that this speaks to the fact that if you were trying to get help for someone, then the best way to do it in the society we live in might to be like, no, no, no, they're not a criminal and they're not criminalizable because they fall into this tiny slice of humanity called unambiguous victim. And it's because they're the victim of the crime of the week.
Mike: Right. I think, uh, I think you've ruined Thanksgiving. I think that's pretty good.
Sarah: Oh, good. Okay, so everybody, ruin Thanksgiving. Ruin it.
Mike: So when you fly somewhere, if you see something, don't say something. But if you see Cindy McCain…