I suspect my friends would be concerned if they knew just how skeptical I was about almost all prostitution-related crimes. Police say they broke up a human trafficking ring? Liars! They call everything human trafficking these days. They arrested ten pimps? Liars! They caught one prostitute in a sting and arrested the then people standing next to her. It’s a task force going after child prostitution? Liars! They arrest 50 adults for every child they “rescue,” and that’s only if you call a 16-year-old a child. It’s all lies, lies, lies.
My skepticism is even cutting into my enjoyment of fiction. I get an attitude whenever one of my shows features a human trafficking story line. It’s especially annoying on Major Crimes, because Captain Raydor’s adopted son used to be a teen street hustler, and none of the cops are saying he would have been better off in jail. (Hey Rusty, next time your mother is sweating a prostitute in the interrogation room, how about you try standing up for your fellow sex workers for once, you useless fuck!)
I probably need to adjust my perspective. Just because police (and prosecutors and politicians and rescue agencies) lie about these things all the time doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There really are human traffickers. There really are violent pimps. There really are people who sell the opportunity to rape a child. I wouldn’t want to dismiss a serious crime just because the authorities have been lying about it with such reckless abandon.
But…damn, there’s some awful things going on here.
In an unremarkable hotel room, a team of officers watches the footage streaming from a hidden camera next door. A middle-aged man is making arrangements to pay a young woman for sex. Once she agrees, the squad will rush in, shouting instructions, their bulletproof vests bulging with firearms and emblazoned with police or FBI. The woman—or is she a girl?—will have her hands tied behind her back and her phone confiscated. She will sit on the bed, partially undressed, as a team of men search her room, pawing through her underwear drawer and toiletry bags, seizing any cash they find. She will eventually be fingerprinted, interrogated, and taken into police custody.
That’s the opening paragraph from Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s long-form piece in Reason magazine about the FBI’s long involvement in policing Americans’ sex lives.
The surveillance of morally suspicious women and the war on commercial sex were what took the FBI—then known as the Bureau of Investigation—from a fledgling East Coast–centric operation to a force with outposts, agents, and authority across America. With the Mann Act of 1910, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, the bureau became responsible for ensuring no one transported women or girls across state lines for prostitution or “any other immoral purposes.”
And this paragraph about the recent Operation Cross Country X anti-trafficking initiative perfectly reveals the reasons for my skepticism (emphasis mine):
Overall, the operation identified 82 “children” engaged in prostitution, an average of about 0.88 per city, or one for every five agencies participating. All were teenagers—mostly 16- and 17-year-olds—and a number of cities where they were found made no simultaneous pimping or sex trafficking arrests. To the feds, anyone under 18 who trades sex acts for money is defined as a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of whether they have experienced abduction, violence, restraint, or threats.
The whole article is filled with details like that. It’s a terrific piece of journalism. Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a clear writer, and after several years of reporting on this subject, she has a masterful command of the facts. I highly recommend you read the whole thing.