From Satanic Panic to Sex-Traffic Panic


Last week I posted a vintage piece of anti-Satanist scare-mongering that aired on 20/20 in 1985. Maggie McNeill, a prominent advocate for prostitutes' rights, suggested in the ensuing comment thread that the Satanic panic of the '80s and early '90s resembled the current hysteria over sex trafficking, and she linked to a post on her blog that made her case. The whole thing is worth a read; here's an excerpt:

Both [moral panics] revolve around gigantic international conspiracies which supposedly abduct children into a netherworld of sexual abuse; both are conflated with adult sex work, especially prostitution and porn; both make fantastic claims of vast numbers which are not remotely substantiated by anything like actual figures from "law enforcement" agencies or any other investigative body; both rely on circular logic, claiming the lack of evidence as "proof" of the size of the conspiracy and the lengths to which its participants will go to "hide" their nefarious doings; both encourage paranoia and foment distrust of strangers, especially male strangers; etc, etc, etc….

There are a few obvious differences between the Satanic Panic and sex trafficking hysteria, the three most important being:

A) The Satanic Panic had a very specific focus, so it wasn't as easy to force unrelated events into the model as it is to force consensual migration and sex work into the "trafficking" model.

B) The Satanic Panic was driven by a relatively small number of therapists, authors and cops out to make a profit and a name for themselves, with the support of religious fundamentalists; sex trafficking hysteria is driven by a very large number of NGOs, religious fundamentalists, neofeminists, cops and wealthy prohibitionists out to make a profit and a name for themselves and to advance a busybody agenda.

C) Most people probably find criminal conspiracies more believable than devil cults, so sex trafficking hysteria has an innate feel of verisimilitude that the Satanic Panic lacked.

However, it is the nature of moral panics, no matter what their subject, to die off in roughly the time it takes a generation to come of age, about twenty years; as I pointed out in "Crystal Ball," even local witch panics of the 15th-18th centuries fell inside this time limit, and there's no reason to suspect this one will be any different. The hysteria began in earnest in January of 2004, and with the exception of sex work writers, skeptics and experts in migration went largely unquestioned in the media until 2007, when isolated criticisms started popping up in the Washington Post, the Guardian and other large newspapers. Then in the last few months, we've started to see the skepticism spreading even more widely, with a number of prominent "trafficking" hysteria profiteers such as Nicholas Kristof, Somaly Mam and The Grey Man caught in outrageous lies. All things being equal I'd say we were on track for a TV movie about the trafficking hysteria by the beginning of 2016, but given the big-money interests who will work very hard to extend the panic past the end of its natural life, I prefer to err on the side of caution and keep to my original estimate of panic's end by 2017 and critical docudramas by 2019.