SESTA Is Being Pushed As The Answer To A Sex Trafficking 'Epidemic' That Simply Doesn't Exist

from the reality-check dept

The rationale behind the Section 230-upending SESTA bill is that sex trafficking is such a huge problem, some collateral damage is a small price to pay. The push begins with the targeted criminal behavior itself. No one wants to appear as though they're opposed to fighting trafficking, so that scores some quick wins with a few legislators. It continues with inflated numbers suggesting trafficking has become a multi-billion dollar industry here in the US.

Two backers of an earlier human trafficking bill - Rep. Bob Goodlatte and Rep. Ann Wagner -- both cited unsupported numbers while discussing the criminal activity. Goodlatte claimed "child sex trafficking alone is a $9.8 billion industry." Wagner's money quote was about the same -- $9.5 billion -- but didn't narrow it down to just child sex trafficking.

It doesn't matter whether the number included children or not. The numbers are false. The Washington Post dug into the stats and couldn't find anything independently verifiable that added up to the $9 billion price tag asserted here. What WaPo found was the $9 billion was a worldwide estimate based on some very questionable extrapolation from a few small data sets with large sampling errors. The paper tracked the numbers all the way back to figures provided by ICE in 2003, which was a worldwide estimate that also included human smuggling.

Other reports have suggested an incredible amount of profit per exploited person:

The ILO in 2014 released another report on human trafficking with updated profit estimates. This report provided a calculation of $26 billion in profits for “forced sexual exploitation” in the 36 industrialized countries, based on the assumption of 300,000 prostitutes, earnings of about $115,000 a year, and profits of $80,000.

These are the sort of numbers being pointed to by supporters of SESTA. This is the extremely fuzzy math that leads SESTA frontman Sen. Rob Portman to declare sex trafficking an "epidemic" in America. The real numbers are never cited because they'll never convince anyone to sign off on an internet-damaging bill like SESTA. Elizabeth Nolan Brown does the actual math using actual FBI crime figures and there's nothing approaching a $10 billion/year trafficking epidemic.

Human trafficking arrests are almost nonexistent in most states, according to the FBI's newly released U.S. crime statistics for 2016.

Part of the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) project, the new data on sex and labor trafficking shows that arrests for either offense are rare and that many suspected incidents of trafficking did not ultimately yield results.

Lots of law enforcement resources get poured into human trafficking investigations but the expenditures vastly outweigh the results.

For instance, Florida reported 105 investigations into human-trafficking offenses in 2016 but zero human trafficking arrests last year. Nevada worked on 140 human trafficking investigations but made only 40 arrests on trafficking charges. Louisiana looked into 123 potential cases of human trafficking but only arrested 16 people for it.

Last year, supporters of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act were claiming 1,000 children become victims of sex trafficking in Ohio alone every year. These numbers were based the same sort of small data set + sampling errors + baseless extrapolation used to reach the national figures.

[T]he study’s authors took that 15-per-year figure [number of minor victims IDed in Toledo] and applied it to all girls ages 12 through 17 in the state of Ohio. That population, 337,961, yields an estimate of 202 girls per year.

Then, the commission multiplied 202 by five, because a University of Toledo study claimed that each sex trafficking victim they interviewed knew an average of five more underaged minors "not known to law enforcement, but who were engaging in the sex trade."

One big problem: The Ohio study did not control for the fact that Toledo’s child sex trafficking rates were the highest in the state, which inflates their estimate even before multiplying it by five.

The commission then threw in some boys for good measure, reasoning that being gay, transgender or a runaway are "risk factors" for becoming a child sex trafficking victim. Because 3 to 5 percent of the overall US population identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, the committee added 63 males to the estimated number of child victims.

The attorney general’s trafficking study concluded that an annual 1,078 minors in Ohio were potential victims.

More than 1,000 children exploited every year by traffickers! And by the wiliest of traffickers, apparently. Actual arrests in Ohio for trafficking? Five in 2014. Zero in 2015 and 2016.

Even some of those nominally supportive of SESTA are finding it difficult to reason with citizens affected by government-led sex trafficking hysteria. Roseville (CA) Police had to take to Facebook to combat misinformation being spread about sex trafficking by a viral social media post. The post detailed the "suspicious" activity of a man spotted in a grocery store parking lot. To those passing around the post, "suspicious man" = "proof of rampant human trafficking." The Roseville PD responded with some nice, cold facts.

[T]he post mentions that the suspicious man was probably a human trafficker looking to kidnap children. This is highly unlikely, as kidnapping by strangers is a rare crime in the United States. Stranger abductions of children are so frightening and so unusual that when they do happen, they make national news. According to national research, children taken by strangers or slight acquaintances represent only one-hundredth of 1 percent (.01%) of all missing children.


The Roseville Police Department has never taken a report of anyone being kidnapped by a stranger and forced into the sex trade. Our vice officers have interviewed numerous prostitutes and exploited victims over the years, and asked them how they got into their situations. None have said they were originally kidnapped.


We recently conducted undercover operations in retail areas, and found no evidence that human traffickers were there recruiting strangers.

Human trafficking in the US does exist. No one's denying that -- and no one's denying that it's devastating for those victims and their families. But it's not the multi-billion epidemic it's portrayed as by politicians and SESTA supporters. The problem should be addressed, but there are plenty of laws on the books already that allow for the pursuit and prosecution of actual sex traffickers. Throwing third-party service providers into the mix does nothing more than allow the government to attack third parties (because it's easier) rather than engage in the more difficult work of targeting traffickers themselves.

Filed Under: moral panic, politics, sesta, sex trafficking

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  1. icon
    Ninja (profile), 28 Sep 2017 @ 5:58am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    "Drugs are very illegal, and have never had anyone tolerate them advertising in public."

    You ignored the point. I clearly said AVAILABLE. But since you went into the details I never talked about you don't see ads because you can't "disguise" it into something that looks legal. Prostitution can be 'disguised'. You can't really say if an "escort" service is actually prostitution.

    "If anything, the legalization of weed should tell you what happens when drugs get even marginally legalized - people ilne up for it. Imagine if you could legally put ads for smack and coke on Backpage..."

    Read about the experience with legalization in Europe. Heroin is legal in some places there. The consumption spiked at first and generally settled at lower levels than when they were illegal. And of course there's the US where govt is discovering there's tons of tax money to make from marijuana (incidentally just like tobacco and alcohol, two drugs that are much worse than marijuana). The fact that lines would form to buy means there's plenty of demand, simple as that. Sure coke is a worse problem but then again you treat it as a public health issue, screw the drug cartels by selling it legally and get a bonus of assisting people that develop an addiction.

    "Okay, reality check for you: Prostitution is unlikely to ever be fully legal in the US because it's not going to play with the conservatives or the extreme libs either. So that fantasy won't play out."

    Like marijuana?

    "Legalization didn't do anything except give the illegal operators ANOTHER way to dodge the laws."

    That's their experience. And they put some idiotic limitations. Let the girls offer their services directly to the customer in ebay and new entrants will have exactly zero incentive to go with pimps. Less developed places have other underlying problems that make the issue more complex but we are talking about the US and Hong Kong is not a good comparison point.

    "Amsterdam? Red Light district, doors, and well maintained government mandated testing and licensing... and tons and tons of street prostitution, pimps, and organized crime. "

    That's one source. I've done some research right now and while this may be true in fact the legalization brought much more benefits than negatives. Contrary to you I am more actively engaged in these issues and I follow/sponsor activism aiming to legalize the job and all the evidence seems to contradict you. I respect sex workers.

    Legalization does not fail. What failed (if it did, most of my research shows it's actually bad regulation that makes things worse).

    "Want another example? Nevada. Legalized prostitution everywhere except Clark County, and yet Nevada has the highest level of prostitution arrests, the most "girls to your room" bull crap, and not surprisingly, lots of Backpage style activity. Hmmm. Legalization has worked out, right?"

    What's the exact context of the arrests? Because we know cops are salivating over marijuana even though many states are legalizing it. They are specifically targeting people from states where it's legal and federal govt couldn't care less about respecting the law. So again, what's the context? What's the impact of law enforcement agents bias against them? It's much more complex and nuanced than you think. Legalization alone isn't the panacea. Legalizing with severe constraints is the same of keeping it illegal. And society still has a ton of prejudice that will get in the way either making legalization difficult or poisoning it with idiotic restrictions.

    I don't expect you to understand anything but at the very least I'll leave it here as food for thought.

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