“Tonight our cameras take you into a dark world you’ve never seen,” intoned John Quinones darkly on last week’s edition of ABC Primetime. “American girls being snatched right off Main Street USA. And they could be your very own daughters.” Shocking! The program went on to tell about two Arizona teens ñ both white and girl-next-door cute, who purportedly were minding their own business before being snatched from home and coerced into prostitution. Or “trafficking,” as Primetime put it. That was the show’s point: We already know that impoverished immigrants from the Eastern Europe and Mexico are enslaved here, but now we’ve got a new problem, the trafficking of our own, middle-class girls. Shocking! The show was full of dire warnings by government officials. Not surprising, since the Bush Administration’s mission to find foreign “sex trafficking” victims has gone belly up since it began in 2001. Almost no victims have been located, but the feds want to keep their law and rhetoric afloat and broaden it to other areas, including the culture wars. For ballast, they’re trolling for a domestic demographic, warning that kids and prostitution is a new “trafficking” problem.
But the claim is specious. To make it, you have to play with language and omit facts ñ or bend them so far that they break. That’s what Primetime did, Thursday, February 9, with two teens, one pseudonymed “Debbie,” and the other called by her real name, Miya.
Miya, according to ABC, was working in an Arizona mall when she was approached by a couple who asked if she’d like to come with them to California and be a model. She agreed, and before she knew it, she was being forcibly pimped through an Internet escort service and terrorized into sex slavery. One morning she managed to escape from the seedy hotel she was imprisoned in. Authorities were notified. Now one of her captors is in jail awaiting trial.
That’s the Primetime version, but the “sex slave” part is a hoax. Police in Mesa, Arizona and Union City, California, say that Miya — who was 19 and thus legally an adult — willingly went to California and willingly had sex, both with the couple she was with and with others. Said Tom Haselton, investigating sergeant for the case in Union City, “I can understand the family might be embarrassed and want to tell a different story. But by the time we were done talking with [Miya] we determined that what she did was consensual. There was no force used on her and she had plenty of opportunities to leave. And when she did leave, who did she call? Not the police, but a friend, just saying she wanted to get home to Arizona.” No charges regarding Miya were filed. The man she’d been with was charged because the female member of the couple was 16 — underage. Creepy, exploitative and illegal, but she wasn’t coerced either. “She seemed to be in love with the pimp,” says Haselton. “It’s an age-old story.”
Primetime’s other example of a “sex trafficked” teen, 15-year-old Debbie, is the alleged victim of some truly horrible assaults, and police don’t contest this. Even so, Primetime left out details of the case, making it seem more novel than it is. Debbie has said she was held at gunpoint in a Phoenix apartment and threatened with death and harm to her family unless she had sex with dozens of men. Often she was stuffed by her captors into a dog carrier and a bed frame. Her ordeal lasted over six weeks until she managed to sneak a call to her mother. Then she was rescued, and returned to what Primetime called her “close-knit” family. She’d been separated from them in the first place, Primetime reported, when she was “snatched” ñ as host John Quinones put it — right off her front lawn. That happened when a girl she knew only casually drove up to Debbie’s suburban house. Debbie stepped out of the house wearing Sponge-Bob pajamas. Suddenly she was pushed into the car and kidnapped.
But Phoenix Police Department press releases describe Debbie as a runaway. Police spokesman Andy Hill told me earlier this week that she was having problems with her family. She left home willingly with a friend, the girlfriend of a pimp, and a few hours later was herself dragooned into prostitution. Debbie’s is a story of gross coercion, but clearly there’s some background here. The vast majority of US kids who get involved with prostitution are runaways; this has been so for a very long time. That fact makes for yet another stale story. So it was left out of Primetime’s because it didn’t fit the boogie-man theme pushed these days when sex trafficking gets discussed — in the media and lately by the feds as well.
In that telling, little children are enslaved right in plain sight. Four-year olds are passed to pedophiles at Disneyland, 11-year-olds in communion dresses are sold to Mexican farmworker perverts. Despite ample evidence that these stories are urban myths, the New York Times Magazine cited them anyway and conjured dozens of child sex slaves in a piece by Peter Landesman that the magazine ran two years ago. Its title? “The Girls Next Door.” And last fall, the Lifetime television network ran a much- publicized drama in which a prepubescent white girl is kidnapped off the streets by a hi-tech trafficking ring that operates all across the globe and plans to sell her to “the Saudis.” This despite the fact that no such rings are known to exist.
Paranoid “white slavery” crusades date back to 19th-century England and America. Back then they promoted anti-immigrant and racist sentiments against Jews and others scapegoated for being kidnappers and panderers. They drove prostitutes who had heretofore worked independently into the hands of pimps. Meanwhile, they did virtually nothing to end prostitution.
Now, white-slave panic is being reincarnated by the federal government. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was launched five years ago with much fanfare from evangelicals in the Bush administration, feminists (many of who earlier worked with conservatives to try to outlaw pornography), and liberals concerned about forced-labor trafficking in general. Proponents predicted that thousands of forcibly sex-trafficked immigrant women would be found. Instead, a couple of hundred have turned up, at most.
But there are plenty of U.S.citizens who spend a little or a lot of time in prostitution. Quite a few are minors — as many as 300,000, estimates the new TVPA, which was enthusiastically rolled out by President Bush at a ceremony in January. Legally speaking, minors are always considered victims, even if they are not coerced. The new TVPA earmarks funds to label them as sex slaves.
No matter that most of these new “trafficking” victims are runaways and throwaways: often minorities, often poor, and often gay. No matter that they are seldom kidnapped or forced into prostitution, rarely fit the image of the girl next door, usually don’t think of themselves as “trafficking victims,” and typically distrust the police. No matter that we lack social services for them so they can live on their own and thrive if home is unbearable. These children are just an old story. They’re not ready for prime time.
But they are ready to fuel a movement most of the public hasn’t heard of yet. The domestic trafficking language of the TVPA was lifted from another piece of legislation, the “End Demand Act.” That bill aims to crack down on all prostitution in the U.S., by defining every bit of it as “domestic sex trafficking,” even when it’s between consenting adults. End Demand is sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX (who recently equated gay marriage with humans copulating with box turtles). The act has bipartisan support but has not yet been passed. End Demand’s wording about minors, however, was imported into the latest TVPA.
The government has not yet turned consensual adult prostitution into a federal crime. But last summer, the feds and other organizations, many of who have supported the End Demand Act and the new TVPA, started working the zeitgeist by pitching to the media about American kiddie slaves on Main Street. Primetime responded. Defending last week’s story, ABC spokeswoman Paige Capossela said that “Our producers found two cases that illustrate what the FBI, other law enforcement and child protection agencies described to us as trafficking.” That’s a nice excuse for some high yellow journalism. And, no doubt, for some high Nielsen ratings as well.
DEBBIE NATHAN is a New York City-based journalist who writes about sexual politics and immigration. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org