Wide-spread panic about child sex trafficking is luring well-meaning people into a vast web of extreme right-wing conspiracies. They're looking for the signs of child trafficking everywhere--but missing the slavery and exploitation which exists all around us.
Just two weeks ago, news broke of U.S. Marshals in Georgia finding 39 missing children. This tweet went mega-viral:
Except those 39 children were not found in a double-wide trailer. While some charges of sexual trafficking were laid in this investigation, the majority of the recovered children were found with their non-custodial parents (by far, the most common form of child abduction) or were runaways found safe and unharmed.
In early July, a strange conspiracy theory spread across social media. The online furniture store Wayfair (which, unrelatedly, provided furnishings to ICE detention centres) was selling industrial cabinets for more than $15,000, listed with girls’ names, which led to speculation that Wayfair was engaged in child sex trafficking, selling the “cabinets” and sending girls to be abused and exploited.
This was clearly not true and just not how child exploitation works. The self-appointed internet sleuths linked the various cabinets to photos of girls who are very much not missing, and the panic caused already-stretched thin victims’ advocacy organizations to receive thousands more calls.
Where does this obsession with child sex trafficking come from? And why has it become so easy to propagate this alarmist and false information?
Despite the fact that child abduction by a total stranger is exceedingly rare (in fact, in 2011, 25 of the 46,718 reported missing children were abducted by strangers – that is 0.053%), panic about child abduction and human trafficking is nothing new. 'Stranger danger' panic emerged in the 1980s as a mass hysteria that children were being abducted and murdered at epidemic rates. This was the era of the (always white and middle class) missing kids on the milk carton – a program with an almost-zero success rate in locating the missing kids. Copaganda shows throughout the 80s and 90s like To Catch A Predator and America’s Most Wanted furthered the feeling that no one, anywhere, was ever safe.
#SaveTheChildren and QAnon
Earlier this summer #SaveTheChildren began trending all over social media. The campaign purports to advocate for the very sympathetic goal of raising awareness of child abuse and exploitation. The hashtag quickly moved from online into the real world, with dozens of rallies taking place all over the world, including ones here in Western Canada.
Twitter user @iosegun shared this video of the semi-regularly occurring #SaveTheChildren rallies in Calgary, this one with an estimated 500 people in attendance:
Another such rally took place in Lloydminster on August 24th. Check out this photo from the reported account from a local paper.
This reference to “The Cabal” reveals #SavetheChildren (and this particular local rally’s) true ideological foundation – QAnon.
What is QAnon? QAnon is a sprawling and labyrinthine conspiracy wherein Donald Trump, who is ordained by God, is fighting a secret war against the Deep State – a cabal of evil liberal elites--namely Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama--who control the world and are trafficking children for both sexual exploitation and to harvest their adrenochrome, a pheromone produced only when young children are terrified, tortured, and brutally murdered. According to the conspiracy theory, the elites use adrenochrome to stay young.
Q himself is allegedly a high-level government insider with “Q clearance” who posts information “drops” on internet hellhole 8chan (now 8kun)--infamous also as the publisher of choice for many a mass shooter’s manifesto. The Q drops are then interpreted by “bakers” who follow the crumbs of vague references to decode Q’s almost-prophetic meaning in pursuit of a sort of Great Awakening where the secret war will be revealed to the masses and the demonic liberal elite will be marched to Guantanamo Bay for televised execution.
It’s easy to dismiss QAnon as fringe lunatics but the movement is rapidly gaining influence. A recent poll showed that a majority of self-described Republicans in the United States believe in some or all of the conspiracy. QAnon proponents are winning Republican primaries and may soon join Congress. And given how the pandemic has pushed so many more people into being permanently online, QAnon is constantly worming its way into more people’s heads. The release of well-documented sex trafficking stories such as the Jeffrey Epstein case, more fuel is added to the fire every day to confirm the Anons’ worldview.
Some Anons have become violent and even the FBI believes that QAnon poses a dometic terrorism threat. An engineer intentionally derailed a train in California to destroy a US Navy ship which was docked to help the overburdened hospitals to care for non-COVID patients, believing the docked ship was an indicator of a covert Deep State takeover. A paranoid QAnon believer murdered a Gambino mob boss who he believed to be part of the Deep State. A woman was arrested in Manhattan carrying 18 knives and other blunt objects with the intent to kill Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.
While the vast majority of Anons are non-violent, it does encourage a sort of cult-like behaviour of cutting people out of your life who don’t support your views. The subreddit QAnon Casualties details families and friendships torn apart as people fall down the rabbit-hole into total conspiracy brain.
Symbols will be their downfall
A primary belief in QAnon is contained in one of its many slogans--“Symbols will be their downfall”. This is the idea that the elites communicate to each other in public using symbols and codes and that evil is hiding in plain sight. Every logo with a triangle in it becomes suspect (triangles = “cheese pizza” = child pornography).
This is not unique to QAnon. A cornerstone of conspiracy thinking is that evil is everywhere and hidden in plain sight if you just know where to look and how to interpret the signs. Think the Illuminati symbols all over conspiracy theory hot-spot, the Denver airport. (I was in there in March and dismayed to find out they had painted over the disturbing mural depicting death and mass suffering, said to be a representation of the NWO plot to put us all into FEMA camps, which I was VERY excited to see.)
But why would the elites need to use symbols to communicate? Why would they need to use a public-facing website like Wayfair to traffic children? They operate outside of any law. They own everything and everyone.
We know that confirmed child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein specifically sought out young girls who were poor and struggling, leveraging his almost-endless wealth to ensnare them into a “sexual pyramid scheme” where victimized girls would refer other low-income girls to him. It just doesn’t make sense to purchase children listed as furniture from a website directly when there are other more insidious methods of control and coercion already baked into the capitalist system.
Concern for the exploitation of children is well-founded. Outside of well-publicized and lurid stories like Epstein’s, the sexual exploitation of minors is pervasive and worsening under the pandemic, as are all forms of domestic violence under the escalating pressures of financial precarity and increased isolation. But addressing this problem isn’t done by playing online detective.
All of us, regardless of our political ideologies or affiliations, want to save children from harm. But the #SaveTheChildren hashtag and rallies are a trojan horse to redpill the well-meaning into the world of Q by weaponizing the long history of misplaced and misdirected paranoia of human trafficking.
White women in peril
When we think of the words “human trafficking,” this is generally what we think of:
A young white girl or woman abducted and forced into sexual slavery for a (usually Black or Brown) man.
This fear has deep historical roots--white women and children being abused, raped, and enslaved by a dangerous Other--and has been used to justify lynchings, discriminatory immigration policies, and the expansion of the roles of policing and incarceration.
The image of the Black man as a omnipresent threat to white feminity was deeply embedded in the rationalizing logic the institution of chattel slavery and brutal treatment of enslaved Africans. This extended far beyond abolition, reinforcing popular support for Jim Crow laws and typified by the murder of the fourteen-year-old Emmet Till, lynched for allegedly sexually harassing a white woman (the woman in question now says this was false). Turn of the century immigration of Chinese men to North America sparked wide-spread fears of white women lured into opium dens and enslaved in sexual slavery by the Chinese, in part justifying racist immigration policy like the Head Tax. Infamous member of the Famous 5 Emily Murphy made a whole career out of this both as a writer for Maclean’s and as a magistrate.
The Stranger Danger panic of the 80s influenced the “tough on crime” rhetoric that gave rise to the modern state of mass incarceration (though the actual goal is the elimination of state responsibility for solving the problems of inequality, creating a plentiful source of slave labour, and enriching shareholders in the for-profit prison industry.)
The “white women in peril” idea has been around for a long time, and contemporary human trafficking discussions still employ this long-standing trope of young girls lured into lives of prostitution.
How useful is the term “human trafficking”?
The podcast “You’re Wrong About” has a great episode about the general lack of usefulness around the term “human trafficking.” They present the case that statistics around what is called human trafficking are nebulous, misleading, and not generally all that useful, nor is there a common definition about what constitutes trafficking altogether.
Uncritical reporting on what constitutes human trafficking pervades. This report out of Lethbrdge quoted an “anti-trafficking” protestor in Lethbridge (I do not know if this rally was connected to QAnon, but I have my suspicions) as saying, “Every 30 seconds a child is trafficked either for sex, for slavery, or even organ harvesting.” Where does this figure come from? Is this in Canada? I did the math and that’s 1,051,200 children.
The facts and figures in the rhetoric of anti-trafficking advocates just don't add up.
The narrow view and definition of human trafficking sidesteps the whole issue of coerced labour in North America arising from the temporary foreign worker program where employers hold undue amounts of power over workers who cannot leave under threat of deportation. We see cases like women working in abject conditions in nail salons, undocumented workers on farms and construction sites, and in domestic labour, exploited, passports held, threatened with deportation and unable to refuse unsafe work. The lack of protections for these workers or pathways to permanent residencies creates a situation in which a cheap and disposable labour supply is always available.
Saving The Girl Next Door
The United Conservative Party campaigned on their “Saving the Girl Next Door Act” as their solution to human trafficking. It was modelled after legislation from Ontario and allows victims to sue their traffickers. But the name of that bill may have just been a bit too on the nose and was changed to the “Protecting Survivors of Human Trafficking Act” when it was tabled in April of 2020. A little over a month later Premier Kenney announced the formation of the Human Trafficking Task Force led by country music singer Paul Brandt.
The bill (which is not yet law) and whatever comes out of the task force will likely not face significant opposition, because who wants to critique saving girls? It’s almost funny how unsubtly the original bill was named--the suburban girl as prey. Does this act include anything to protect the Filipino and Mexican men on construction sites or farms? No, of course not, because in the popular imagination and those of our policy-makers, the only form of labour trafficking is sexual trafficking..
I have no doubt that this act will serve the same purpose the adoption of other legislation allegedly aimed at ending the “scourge of modern slavery,” that is, sexual labour: the further funding and expansion of the racist criminal justice system, policing, and border protection.
Discussions around sex work get thorny. We have two extremes--the happy hooker narrative of sex work as an empowering and lucrative career or sex work as an abject form of slavery and rape. I don’t subscribe to either of these views. This is, fundamentally, a class-based issue which interacts with racism, colonialism, patriarchy and transmisogyny. Workers like escorts or dominatrixes able to charge high amounts and work in condominiums with high levels of security do not have the same needs and support requirements as workers who do highly visible and dangerous street-based, survival sex work.
In 2014, Canada adopted Bill C-36, the "Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act." it was modeled on the Nordic approach to sex work and prostitution which criminalizes the “demand side,” that is the men purchasing sex, while the act of selling sex is decriminalized. The problems with the approach are numerous, from widening the definition of “living off the avails of prostitution” (pimping) to anyone who is helping a sex worker remain safe, to interfering with the ability to solicit for clients online which enabled workers to avoid street-based solicitation, to removing workers’ ability to screen clients and ask for references from other sex workers. This is why front-line sex worker organizations, and the World Health Organization recommend the total decriminalization of both purchasing and selling sex.
Shortly after C-36 was enacted, a massage parlour in Ottawa was raided. No charges were laid against the men purchasing services, but all 11 women were deported. Saving the girl, indeed. Time after time, policing and border protection are ramped up under the cover of anti-trafficking. You can listen to the personal narratives of what happens to the “saved” women at advocacy organizations such as Butterfly, Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Network.
There are solutions to all forms of labour exploitation, including sexual. It is ending income inequality, a properly-funded social safety net of universal public services, accessible housing, harm-reduction approaches to drugs, and pathways to citizenship for undocumented workers.
The end points of a movement like #SaveTheChildren and QAnon are increased policing and border security. The alarmist rhetoric that anti-trafficking organizations, and QAnon alike sensationalize the issue of trafficking, and focuses us on the fear of secret conspiracies and demonic evil, rather than the more banal truth: that in reality, trafficking is symptom of capitalism and the unchecked power of the ruling class, where undocumented and poor people are exploited for their labour.
Human trafficking hysteria does not protect exploited people. In fact, it does the opposite--it creates a fantasy version of the human misery, suffering and exploitation embedded into our daily lives. While scores of people are losing touch with reality and alienating their family, 64 webpages deep on a forum interpreting a Q Drop, Burger King managers have TFWs sleeping on mattresses in their basement, and the asparagus in your fridge was picked by a Jamaican labourer for horrible pay living in horrific and cramped workcamps, and California wildfires are put out by the slave labour of incarcerated people (if the prisoners aren’t dying from COVID-19). You don’t need to scour the internet for hours looking for weirdly expensive pillows named “Rachel” for signs of exploitation, because the Q people are right about one thing: evil is lurking around every corner. You just need to know where to look.
The Red String is an ongoing series about conspiracy, collusion, and collaboration by truth-seeker Laura Kruse, who has never met a tinfoil hat she didn’t try on for size. You can follow her on Twitter @_SaturnReturn.