The War on Sex Trafficking: a Culture-Wars’ Racket

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On April 21, 2018, the New York Daily News ran a story that originally appeared on the website under the headline, “Former sex trafficking victim speaks out on 7 years of violence, captivity as warning to youth”; the original story ran under the far less sensational headline, “Escaping prostitution: One woman’s story.”

The story describes the painful experiences of Jasmine Marino-Fiandaca, an 18-year-old from “a big working-class family” in Revere, MA, who she was seduced into the sex trade. As she recalls, she was targeted by a man whom she thought was her boyfriend. He groomed me,” she said. “He bought me fancy clothes and shoes, spent money on me. He drove a Mercedes. I felt very special. He said, ‘You could make a ton of money if you just worked in these massage parlors.’”

A few days earlier, over the four-day period of April 16-19, the New York Post, a Murdoch tabloid, ran a series of ten articles decrying sex trafficking. Under bold headlines like “Inside New York’s silent sex trafficking epidemic,” “Brooklyn pimp who sold girls for sex hit with trafficking charges” and “The sick tactics sex traffickers used to find victims,” the series describes the horrors suffered by many young women caught up in sex trafficking. In addition, the series profiles a number of the “pimps” who exploit the girls and points an accusing finger at the New York City and State legal systems for allegedly failing to successfully combat sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking is a horrendous form of human exploitation, a form of non-consensual sex, often forced, and against the victim’s will. It is a form of slavery under which females (often very young) and some males (boys) are held as captives and rented out for their sexual value. They are plundered.

Sex trafficking is rampant throughout the world, frequently identified in war zones and among undocumented migrants, often the most vulnerable victims of traffickers. It takes place in the US, but to what extent is much debated. More troubling, the current “war on sex trafficking” is questionably effective and – like the “war on drugs” and the “war on terrorism” – a political racket.


The Post and News stories were published a week or so after President Trump signed, on April 11th, an act that reconciled the Senate’s Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)and the House’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). His action was aimed at containing sex trafficking and furthering the religious right’s culture wars.

While ostensibly targeted at sex trafficking, the Act’s principle purpose is to revise the Communication Decency Act (DCA). The Act was adopted in 1996 and section 230 protected website operators from liability for user-generated content. It immunized site owners from civil and criminal charges from sex trafficking or “promoting or facilitating prostitution.

The House and Senate bills were promoted to revisesection 230 in response to a 2017 California court ruling, Doe v Backpage, that found that the DCA’s section 230 protected Backpage against criminal prosecution under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008. The law applies to anyone who “knowingly benefits, financially or by receiving anything of value from” human trafficking or prostitution. The rulingradically extended immunity to websites hosting third-party content.The new anti-trafficking lawamends the DCA to ban those “knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating” sex trafficking. State prosecutors have the right to bring civil sex trafficking claims when websites promote or facilitate prostitution. The Act applies retroactively to sites, and those convicted of violation of the Actcould be fined and/or sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

A host of groups opposed the legislation, including Google and the Electronic Freedom Foundation. They warned that the Congressional bills would force websites to police user speech. Smaller sites would be obliged to screen every post and failure to effectively censor a user’s post could allow the site to be sued and/or closed down. Some warn the Act may signal the Trump administration’s long-term strategy to impose censorship.

Five days before Trump signed the FOSTA-SESTA bill, on April 6th, the FBI, the Postal Inspection Service and the IRS engaged in a form of political theatre, shutting down the Backpage website. The US formally seized, disabled, and replaced the landing page of the classified ads website. On the 9th,a grand jury in Phoenix indicted seven Backpage officials on 93 counts alleging conspiracy, facilitating prostitution and money laundering.

Backpage was one of the leading worldwide online companies promoting commercial sex. As of 2016, it operated in 97 countries and 943 locations; it is reportedly worth more than half a billion dollars. On January 10, 2016, the US Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a 50-page report (along with an 800-page appendix) on The report accused the website of concealing evidence of criminal activity by systematically editing its “adult” ads to remove terms that facilitated the sex trafficking of underage youths and children.

Trump has made the war on sex trafficking one of his administration’s cornerstone issues, along with seeking to end a woman’s right to a legal abortion or a teenager’s right to sex education and contraceptives. In the campaign against sex traffickers, he is strongly supported by the religious right, some feminists and most members of Congress. However, the “war” against sex trafficking may ultimately be Trump’s greatest failure.


InJanuary 2017, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in aDoJ report, “National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking,” cautioned Americans, “This is not intended to be a comprehensive assessment of human trafficking, given the diverse nature of the crime and the number of federal agencies involved in combating it. Furthermore, there is no reliable estimate of the number of trafficking victims in the United States.”

In her report, Lynch sought to reassure Americans by quoting the following statistics: “In 2016, the joint investigative efforts of FBI’s human trafficking programs resulted in the initiation of over 1,800 human trafficking investigations and the arrests of nearly 2,600 individuals for sex and labor trafficking offenses…” Most importantly, she adds: “approximately 6,000 juvenile victims have been recovered from child sex trafficking throughout the duration of the program.”


In a 2015 study, “Human Trafficking,” the FBI sheds light on Lynch’s bureaucratic dirge. It collects data on trafficking through the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program’s Summary Reporting System (SRS) and National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). In a remarkably revealing table, “Human Trafficking Arrests by Age by State, 2015,” the FBI finds that 747 people were arrested in 2015 for engaging in “commercial sex” and “involuntary servitude.” Of these, 89 percent involved adults (663) and 12 percent involved juveniles (84). Going further, it breaks down the arrests in terms of males and females. Two-thirds (68%) consisted of males and one-third (32%) females. Of the 84 juveniles arrested, the FBI reports that they consisted of 10 males and 74 females. More revealing, with regard to juveniles, male arrests were evenly split (5 of 10) between commercial sex and involuntary servitude; however, among females, one-quarter (19) were arrested for involuntary servitude.

The US is at war with sex traffickers and, if history is to be the judge, this war will be yet another failure in the religious right’s culture wars. Today’s war on sex recalls the battles of the 1970s when the religious right defeated the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), took up the battle against Roe v. Wade and sought to deny the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) reclassification of homosexuality. It also recalls the blunders of the war on drugs launched in 1986 by Nancy Reagan’s call to “Just Say No” that continues to define current drug policy.

Often forgotten, today’s moral outrage over sex trafficking embodies the early-20thcentury campaign against “white slavery,” an effort by religious moralists to end interstate prostitution. Their campaign led to the passage of the Mann Act in 1910 and, in 1913, the conviction of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson; in 1962, Chuck Berry was imprisoned for violating the Act for driving a car accompanied by an employee, a white woman. Most consequential, religious fervor culminated in the passage of the 18thAmendment launching Prohibition and the 19thAmendment giving women the right to vote.

Further insight into the new war on trafficking is provided by a 2016 DoJ report, “Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of US Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons Fiscal Year 2015.” The study makes clear that the anti-trafficking crusade has become a 21stcentury version of what President Eisenhower identified a half-century ago as the “military-industrial complex.” The war on sex trafficking is a Congressionally-mandated racket.

Nearly every federal agency is actively involved in the campaign to end sex trafficking, including domestic and foreign affairs agencies as well as those involving immigrants. Among the federal departments engaging in anti-sex trafficking efforts are: the DoJ (e.g., FBI), Dept of Health & Human Services, Dept.Homeland Security (e.g., ICE), Dept. of Labor and Dept. of State. The institutionalization of anti-sex trafficking is an example of the tendency among well-intentioned movements, like national security and fighting drugs, to become bureaucratic nightmares with vested interests squeezing federal dollars to further their private interests.

What makes the war on sex trafficking so appealing is that under US law, sex trafficking takes innumerable forms, including: peonage (8 U.S.C. §§ 1581); enticement for slavery (§§ 1583); sale into involuntary servitude (§§ 1584); forced labor (§§ 1589); trafficking with respect to peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor (§§ 1590); sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud or coercion (§§ 1591); unlawful conduct with respect to documents in furtherance of trafficking (§§ 1592); and “general provisions” (§§ 1594).

While AG Lynch never mentioned it, the 2015 AG’s report makes clear that a lot of federal dollars are being spent subsidizing the war on sex trafficking. Federal agencies are funding a host of media and other campaigns implemented internally, as well as providing grants and sponsorships to a significant number of local organizations. One example is revealing. The DHHS distributed over 883,000 pieces of original, branded “Rescue & Restore Victims of Human Trafficking” campaign materialsto enhance public awareness.

A second example involves monies awarded as grants to victim-services organizations and law enforcement agencies. AG Lynch’s report does not provide comprehensive data on total spending by all federal agencies to fight sex trafficking. However, the 2015 AG’s report does itemize federal spending. The DoJ’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) awarded over $22.7 million – $11.3 million to 70 victim services groups and $11.4 million to police groups. OVC claimed “grantees report enrolling 2,180 new victims into their programs and providing them with direct services.” In addition, the DoJ awarded over $8 million through the Comprehensive Services for Victims of All Forms of Human Trafficking Program. The FBI Victim Assistance Program (VAP) includes 153 full-time victim specialists within its 56 field offices. Its Office of Victim Assistance (OVA) awarded over $12,000 in Federal Emergency Victim Assistance Funds (FEVAF) to assist victims of human trafficking. The DoL awarded $11.5 million for a project to support global and national efforts against trafficking. The DoSTrafficking in Persons (TIP) office distributed $94 million in funding. Sadly, neither the 2017 nor 2015 reports provide a simple table accounting for all federal monies allocated in the war against sex trafficking.

One of the most revealing – and confusing – sections of the 2015 report is entitled, “Investigations, Prosecutions, Sentences, and Restitution Orders.” It details the results of these four key aspects of sex trafficking enforcement by units of the FBI and ICE. The FBI Civil Rights Unit (CRU) reports that itopened approximately 264 new human trafficking cases. Civil rights human trafficking cases resulted in 419 arrests, approximately 108 indictments, and 90 convictions. A second FBI program, the Violent Crimes Against Children Program (VCAC), opened approximately 538 new cases that resulted in 2,253 arrests, 316 indictments, and 363 convictions. (The FBI’s Victim Notification System (VNS) identified “approximately 672 [adults and children] victims” of human trafficking in 421 cases.) ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) initiated 1,034 human trafficking investigations and recorded 1,437 arrests, 752 indictments, and 587 convictions.

For all the data provided in the 2015 AG report, like the 2017 AG report, there is no comprehensive summary of the total dollars awarded and/or spent, nor the total number of criminal arrests and prosecutions by all federal agencies. More revealing, the arrest data in the 2015 AG doesn’t align with the FBI’s table, “Human Trafficking Arrestsby Age by State, 2015,” that reports that 747 people were arrested in 2015 for engaging in “commercial sex” and “involuntary servitude.”

In her January 2017 report, AG Lynch asserted, “Approximately 6,000 juvenile victims have been recovered from child sex trafficking.…” She does not offer a source for her claim. However, in February 2016, the actor Ashton Kutcher, representing Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, claimed that their software program, “Spotlight,” led to 6,000 juvenile victims being saved from sex slavery. “It’s working. In six months, with 25% of our users reporting, we’ve identified over 6,000 trafficking victims, 2,000 of whom are minors. This tool has enhanced 4,000 law enforcement officials in 900 agencies. And we’re reducing the investigation time by 60%.” Neither the FBI nor the DoJ corroborated Kutcher’s claim, now enshrined as a public policy fiction.


Trump’s inauguration relaunched the culture wars. One of his first actions upon taking office was to sign an executive order reinstating the global ban on the discussion of abortion by individuals and organizations receiving federal funding for overseas medical projects. He followed with the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, a conservative Appellate Court Justice from Denver, CO, to the Supreme Court. He moved to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment– named after former Sen. (and later President) Lyndon Johnson – that restricts religious leaders from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit by the threat of losing their tax-exempt status but has failed to do so.

Still other of Trump’s targets have been attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, restrict birth control and sex education for young people, limit the rights of gay and transgender people, end Internet “neutrality,” and impose censorship on online porn. He’s also sought to bar transsexual Americans from serving in the armed forces.

In July 2017, he signed three bills targeted at sex trafficking. They are:

H.R. 2664 – the Enhancing Detection of Human Trafficking Act; it directs the Secretary of Labor to train DoL personnel how to “effectively detect and assist law enforcement in preventing human trafficking…”

H.R. 2480 – the Empowering Law Enforcement to Fight Sex Trafficking Demand Act that “will assist law enforcement in combating these heinous crimes against humanity.”

H.R. 2200 – the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2017 authorizes programs to combat trafficking at DOJ, HHS, DHS, Labor and State, and the U.S Agency for International Development.

In January 2018, the Congress adopted H.R. 3814/S.1532, the bipartisan No Human Trafficking on Our Roads Act. Sponsored by Rep. John Katko (R-NY), it requires the DoT to ban professional drivers who’ve been busted using commercial motor vehicles for trafficking. “Too often, human traffickers take advantage of our nation’s transportation network to transport their victims from one location to the next,” Katko said.

These legislative actions set the stage for Trump’s signing of the FOSTA/SESTA anti-trafficking bill.


Many well-intentioned Americans are deeply concerned about sex trafficking, especially of young people. It’s a horrible practice that needs to end. Unfortunately, government efforts, whether federal, state or local, seem to have little effect. Media reports regularly profile victims of sex trafficking operations, traffickers, and prosecutors of such immoral crimes. They capture a lot of public interest and advertiser dollars, fostering a sense that such crimes are omnipresent in daily life.

Compounding this situation, federal data is inconclusive – and self-serving. While nearly all federal agencies (and innumerable offices therein) deal with the issue, the AG’s 2017 and 2015 reports do not present a “cost-benefit” analysis of its sex trafficking efforts. For example, there is no simple table that compares all federal dollars spent and such possible variable as (i) the total number of arrests, (ii) total convictions, (iii) total federal spending, and (iv) total number of traffickers saved.

Sadly, today’s war on sex traffickers seems to be a repeat of yesterday’s various political “wars” whether foreign “enemies” or drugs. First established with the “military-industrial complex” that underwrote the American Dream, a “war” against an ostensible enemy – e.g., the Soviet Union – become institutionalized as the permanent war economy. As the war on drugs became integrated into government bureaucracies, law enforcement agencies (including police, prosecutors, and prisons) turned fighting drugs into a very profitable operation. The war on sex trafficking, following the earlier patterns, is becoming another “culture-wars” racket.

Thanks to Brian Stegner.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out