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What’s Trafficking Got To Do With It: The Media and the Cleveland Kidnappings

(Photo by the Edinburgh Eye)
(Photo by the Edinburgh Eye)

Last week in Cleveland, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and Amanda Berry escaped from Ariel Castro’s “house of horrors”  where he imprisoned the women in a nightmare of rape and torture for almost a decade. Castro has been arraigned on four charges of kidnapping and three charges of rape. The courageous women escaped with the help of Charles Ramsey, a neighbor who broke into the home after hearing Berry’s screams. A charismatic man, Ramsey became an instant celebrity after declaring he knew “something was wrong” when he saw that a “pretty little white girl ran into the arms of a black man.”

Everything about the Cleveland kidnapping case—from Ramsey’s critique of race to the captive women’s histories of abuse—has stirred important conversations about domestic abuse, sexual abuse, police incompetence, and race. Unsurprisingly, for those of us who follow trafficking hysteria,  it’s also inspired a lot of talk about sex trafficking.

As with any seemingly unprecedented tragedy, the question on everyone’s mind seems to be, “How could this happen?” Neighbors allegedly spotted the women several times and called the police, though the investigations that followed were clearly less than enthusiastic. Both neighbors and the police seem to have dismissed the situation as a series of domestic disputes. As many have already articulated, the normalization of domestic violence certainly contributed to the prolonged imprisonment of DeJesus, Knight, and Berry. Apathy towards domestic violence promotes what Jaclyn Friedman calls a culture of “toxic masculinity”—a specifically violent construction of masculinity. And there seem to be countless theories on how to purge our culture of such toxins.

Sadly, some activists have also touted anti-prostitution measures as a means of ostensibly preventing copycat kidnappings. Some blame the “pornification” of American culture for Castro’s sadistic treatment of the women. Many also blame the commodification of sexuality and the objectification of women.

Cindy LaCom on the opinion page in the New York Times, for example, argues that pornography dehumanizes women and allows men like Castro to justify their abusive behavior. The age-old logic is that sexually explicit objectification engenders violence against women because women are so often portrayed as tools of male gratification. LaCom argues that pornography and sadistic literature like the Fifty Shades trilogy “present male dominance over women as ‘erotic.’ ”

Similarly, Jennifer Hemmingsen claims in the Gazette that implementing harsher penalties for “sex traffickers” will mitigate the violent effects of pornification.  She assumes that sex trafficking is one dramatic effect of cultural pornification and that Castro is akin to a sex trafficker. Her assumption fails to take into account the bleak economic situations that drive people into human trafficking, either as perpetrators or victims, which makes understanding and preventing sex trafficking—as well as kidnapping—much more difficult. Linking sexual objectification to the violence of the “house of horrors” is also simplistic and misguided. It assumes that eradicating sexual objectification—commercial or otherwise—will stop human rights abuses like kidnapping. Again, this puts the onus of eradicating gendered violence on sex workers rather than on the real perpetrators.

For years, dominant voices in media have successfully conflated sex trafficking and sex work. They are now actively working on conflating sex trafficking and kidnapping.  Gender inequity and toxic masculinity definitely contribute to environments favorable to oppression. However, letting sensationalism reign over truth merely serves to disrupt the allocation of resources. Conflating sex trafficking with kidnapping allows for inflated statistics of alleged sex trafficking victims, which then pumps money and support into anti-trafficking legislation. As we’ve seen, legislation like this is often unconstitutional and funded by prohibitionist organizations that would rather plump up the prison industrial complex than search for real solutions to social problems.  Expanding the “sex trafficking” narrative, which is already nebulous, to include aspects of abuse that have nothing to do with the sex industry allows oppressive policing under the guise of protection. Castro was neither a “pimp” nor a financial beneficiary of the captive women. Ergo, no amount of harsher penalties for people in the sex industry and no amount of sexual shaming would have prevented the ten-year captivity of DeJesus, Knight, and Berry.

Blaming the Cleveland kidnappings on the “pornification” of culture is dangerous because it lets an awful lot of people off the hook. Painting Castro as an evil man enthralled by the normalization of sadism, the objectification of women, and/or the commodification of intimacy is harmful for two reasons. First, it assumes people like Castro exist in a vacuum when in fact we all hold responsibility for the attitudes responsible for human rights abuses incurred worldwide. The construction of toxic masculinity has been a joint effort and it’s time we all worked at dismantling it.

Second, blaming the Cleveland kidnapping on “pornification” conflates sex work, sex trafficking and gendered violence, which then informs bad policy like misguided anti-trafficking legislation that merely serves to incarcerate more sex workers and migrants. Implementing anti-trafficking legislation only ends up sending innocent, marginalized people to prison. And invalidating the voices of marginalized people like sex workers is itself an act of violence.

Pornification is indicative of culture, not the other way around. If we want better porn, we better start changing our culture. Attacking sex workers will not assuage the ten years of hell endured by DeJesus, Knight, and Berry. But taking a thoughtful look at our culture of violence and misogyny might be a good place to start.


  1. Thank you for a phenomenally rational article. Sex trafficking is sex trafficking is sex trafficking, not kidnapping and not sex work. Just another example of mainstream culture conflating all crime in an attempt to distance themselves from it.

    “However, letting sensationalism reign over truth merely serves to disrupt the allocation of resources.” The next thing I tell myself when I want to buy booze instead of pay off my student loans.

  2. I was totally in support of this until the very last paragraph: “Pornification is indicative of culture, not the other way around. If we want better porn, we better start changing our culture.” I don’t think the cause and effect are so neat either way. Porn is part of culture– it shapes culture and is shaped by culture. You can’t change our culture without changing porn, and vice versa. Since ‘porn’ is more concrete than ‘culture’ it would actually make more sense to start there, but cultural change is never a single-front battle anyway.

  3. @LoriAdorable Point well taken and I totally agree. I was trying to address–and maybe too simplistically– how antis portray porn and “pornification” as THE reason for gender based violence. I think that argument often has tinges of victim blaming (“victim” in the sense that antis also often claim people in porn are victims). I tend to view oppression as structural, which isn’t always welcome in pro-sex work debates. I don’t think my structural approach is necessarily antithetical to arguments about sex workers’ agency, though. Yes, micro and macro-level *things* in society work in tandem. But changing the alleged impacts of cultural “pornification” will not happen by eradicating porn. It must happen in larger, structural ways, I believe.

  4. Thanks, Jenny. This is a powerful example of how sexual slavery can happen outside of the sex industry too. Yet, so many people seem to ignore that and not surprisingly, the women were held captive for about a decade while all this focus on conflating all prostitution with sexual slavery was going on. To the best of my knowledge, this case had nothing to do with the sex industry, but rather with some guy kidnapping young women and teenagers, and holding them captive. These women weren’t saved by anti-trafficking policies that conflate prostitution with trafficking, but by a woman getting away and getting the attention of a neighbor.

  5. The horrors endured by those strong women are devastating. Conversations like these–and many of the conversations on TAS–are important stepping stones for creating safe spaces in a culture largely dominated by violence.

    Thanks for reading.


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