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. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Sep 2017 @ 11:53am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    CL and backpage already filter out all adult ads on their regular listings.

    Whenever some submits an add as being in that category, but should they be held criminally liable is someone slips an illegal add into a different category?

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