US: The lies about sex trafficking that brought down Backpage

The nightmare of human sex trafficking was famously exposed in the 2012 film Eden, wherein a Korean-American high school student is kidnapped and forced into a life of sexual slavery along with dozens, or even hundreds, of other young women. The based-on-a-true-story narrative uncovered and explored a "horrible underworld" according to reviews, raising awareness about a scourge of exploitation targeting the innocent.

There was only one problem: The film was a lie.

There was not, in fact, a massive kidnapping ring dragooning New Mexico teens into sexual slavery. The person on whom the film was supposedly based, Chong Kim, did not commit multiple murders in the course of a daring escape because it never occurred. Trafficking in real life has about as much to do with Eden as a real-life infectious disease has to do with The Walking Dead. The government does not base epidemic response policy on zombie films. But, unfortunately, it does often base sex work policy on narratives like Eden.

As a result, anti-trafficking legislation and law enforcement focus on saving people who don't exist, and harms people who do in the process.

In the rush to save fictional sex trafficking victims, authorities put at risk the livelihood, and even the lives, of real consensual sex workers, and real trafficking victims. The government's attack on sex workers has ramped up ominously this year, culminating this week in President Donald Trump signing the recently passed Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which effectively makes it possible for law enforcement to prosecute people for advertising sexual services online.

The online advertising platform Backpage was shuttered last week on charges of money laundering and aiding prostitution. The rationale for these actions is the same — to stop trafficking. As California senator and former prosecutor Kamala Harris argues, "Victims of sex trafficking should be protected and have the ability to seek justice. That’s why, from my earliest days as a prosecutor, I’ve led the fight against Backpage and other sex trafficking platforms."

In labeling Backpage a "sex trafficking platform," Harris suggests the website is abetting some sort of Eden-like conspiracy, in which innocent kidnapped victims, often underage, are being advertised online with the knowing collusion of website operators. But the reality of trafficking is very different, according to Alexandra Lutnick, a Senior Research Scientist at RTI International and the author of Domestic Minor Sex-Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains. Lutnick points out that trafficking "is far more common outside of the sex industry" than inside it.

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