Sex trafficking is when evil men steal little girls from the mall and keep them chained to beds where they are forced to service 100 men a day. Sex trafficking is when you ask your husband to sit in the next room while you see a new client, just in case. Sex trafficking is when a child molester agrees to pay for sex with a hypothetical, nonexistent eight-year-old and then shows up to meet them with duct tape and handcuffs. Sex trafficking is when a client asks for a duo and you book an appointment for yourself and a friend. Sex trafficking is when you “conspire” with your rapist and kidnapper to torture yourself. Sex trafficking is when you place an escort ad online for yourself.
Words mean things. Sex trafficking is a legal term with many different definitions in different states and countries. The legal term has become confused with the common mainstream usage—which tends to involve people being forced into prostitution—and this has led to a lot of confusion all around. As journalists, our job is to be precise with language and provide accurate information to the public. When reporting on sex trafficking, or sex trafficking cases, consider describing what has been alleged or what the statute the person is being charged with actually says—because it rarely refers to people being forced into prostitution.
Here are some examples of people who have been charged with sex trafficking (I’m not posting the names of sex workers or victims, but I promise you these are real cases):
In 2009, the U.S. Attorney’s office filed charges against Sabil Mujahid, who had kidnapped, tortured, and taken the earnings of dozens of sex workers. This man is exactly the kind of monster the public imagines when they hear the words sex trafficking, but his victims were not the people they might have expected. The majority of Muhajid’s victims were sex workers before meeting him and continued to work in the industry after he was arrested. He was charged with using force, fraud, or coercion against women and children in the commercial sex industry, which is the federal criminal definition of sex trafficking. The charges against Mujahid were eventually dropped.
In 2009, the U.S. Attorney’s office also filed 24 conspiracy to traffick charges against one of Mujahid’s victims, alleging that she had conspired with her trafficker to sex traffick women and children. Because she took a plea deal, it’s not entirely clear what the U.S. Attorney’s office was alleging occurred, but it seems that she was being charged for action (like placing ads online) that she took under extreme duress. For a conspiracy charge to exist, a person has to have benefitted from the conspiracy. What this 20-year-old was alleged to have gained, according to the charging documents, was use of the space to perform commercial sex acts in—the same space they also allege that she was kidnapped and imprisoned in. Although charges were dropped against her trafficker, she took a plea deal and spent almost three years in federal prison. (You can listen to her story here.) This is not what the public imagines when you tell them someone is a sex trafficker, so when you report on a case like this you should detail what actually allegedly occurred.
In 2013, a woman got off work at a strip club and hadn’t made her goal for the night. She put an ad up on Craigslist and thought she’d stay up a couple hours and see if she got a nibble. She did: undercover officers responded to her ad and agreed to pay her $180 for a half hour of her time. When the officer arrived, he tried to get the woman to agree to perform a sex act for money and she repeatedly refused, saying that it was illegal to sell sex acts and she was only selling her time. She was charged under an Alaska statute with sex trafficking in the fourth degree, which is defined as facilitating or aiding in prostitution. This is not what the public imagines when you say “sex trafficking,” and you should not include quotes about the sexual exploitation of children when you report on such a case. Read the police report, read the statute the person is being charged with, and report responsibly.
Last month the FBI issued a press release about rescuing 149 “underage victims of prostitution” who were being “treated as a commodity in seedy hotels and on dark roadsides.” They reported that the youngest victim they rescued was twelve years old. In subsequent reporting, we learned that the 12-year-old was a victim of child abuse and exploitation that happened far outside the commercial sex industry, with no seedy hotels or dark roadsides involved. Instead, the 12-year-old had met a 23-year-old man online and after a romantic relationship ensued, the girl’s mother accepted cash and gifts from the man, who is alleged to have had sex with the girl during a Hawaiian vacation. The case came to police by way of a report, and the arrest was timed to coincide with Operation Cross Country. However, newspapers nationwide repeated the FBI’s misleading wording: “More than 500 law enforcement officials took part in sting operations in hotels, casinos, truck stops, and other areas frequented by pimps, prostitutes, and their customers. The youngest recovered victim was 12 years old.”
What Not To Write
I don’t want to mention anyone by name, but I’ve seen some really bad reporting on sex trafficking. Here are a few examples:
- In a story about a sex trafficking case where a woman was alleged to have had a place of prostitution where she and other adult women worked together to increase their safety, a journalist devoted about half of the piece to an interview with a youth agency worker who talked about pimps exploiting vulnerable teens. Yet, no one has been charged with pimping a minor in that state in five years.
- In a podcast about the national epidemic of domestic minor sex trafficking, a woman told a story about being molested as a child—tragic, but her story did not include sex trafficking. Then the host talked about pimps recruiting children from the mall and feeding them drugs. Then the show’s hosts discussed statistics on “youth at risk for sexual exploitation”— a research term which includes teens who watch pornography, measuring a population irrelevant to domestic minor sex trafficking. The end result was that listeners were presented with misleading statistics about this huge, nebulous population as if they were statistics on children being kidnapped from malls and forced into sexual slavery. The podcast completely ignored the voices of youth in the sex trades and the overwhelming amount of research that has been done with and by them.
- In a recent story about the FBI arresting people for prostitution, a newspaper called the workers “possible sex trafficking victims” even though there were no charges or even allegations of trafficking in their cases. The story reported that the “victims” had been “assisted” by being arrested. Arrest is not a service and it doesn’t help people. Journalists should not participate in rescue washing institutional violence.
How do we distinguish between trafficked workers and those doing work voluntarily?
This was asked one morning in a journalists’ group that I’m a part of. I think it’s a great question because it points to some of the misguided premises that journalists often base their work on trafficking on.
Trafficking does not mean that a person is doing the work involuntarily. In all of the charging documents for sex trafficking cases I’ve read, I’ve never found one where the person was doing the work involuntarily.
Sex trafficking (on the federal level) means the use of force, fraud, or coercion against people performing commercial sex acts or the existence of minors in the industry. In every case I’ve ever read about, the victim of sex trafficking was already a sex worker or was inquiring about becoming one when they became a victim of force, fraud, or coercion. I’m sure there are cases where people are forced into prostitution, but they are not common enough that I’ve run across them yet in my extensive research. Several women who have gotten away from abusive pimps have told me, almost verbatim, that they liked the work but not the guy abusing them in order to take their money.
On the federal level, sex trafficking also refers to any minors involved in the sex industry at all. Research shows that those minors are most often working alone or with friends. In a Justice Department study of 329 minors in New York’s sex trade only 1.6% reported an abusive or involuntary induction to the sex trade, and only 16% of girls reported recruitment via “boyfriends” or pimps. Following induction, only 9.6% continued to work with pimps.
So, if you are trying to determine if a person is doing the work voluntarily or not, look at the police report, look at the statute that is being charged, ask the victim if they are available, and then if you still don’t have an answer, consider the odds—if they are a minor there is about a 1.6% chance that they were forced into the industry. Just because they aren’t doing the work involuntarily, though, does not mean they aren’t a victim of sex trafficking under federal or state law.
So, what’s a journalist to do? Here are some suggestions:
- Find out what your state and federal sex trafficking laws actually are.
- Get the charging documents from a few sex trafficking cases that have been charged in your jurisdiction to familiarize yourself with how (and to whom) these laws are applied locally. Do you live in a place where children are actually regularly trafficked? Or do you live in a place where independent adult sex workers are regularly charged with trafficking themselves?
- If you are writing about a particular case, explain what has actually happened or been alleged.
- Quote sources who also talk about events that actually happened or were alleged. Do not quote sources who talk about things which are completely unrelated to the case you’re reporting on.
- Do not conflate prostitution and sex trafficking, or sex trafficking and involuntary sexual servitude. Do not use the word “slavery”—slavery is a real thing that actually happened to hundreds of thousands of Black people, it is not a metaphor.
- Fact check and do not contribute to baseless moral panics.