Conspiracy Theories

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:

Satan got back.

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.

She turned me into a newt!

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.

NEXT: Steve Chapman on Why He Identifies With Elizabeth Warren

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  1. To the extent any human trafficking exists, it does so only due to restrictive immigration laws. Absent them, there is no reason for anyone to attempt to enter a country through unauthorized portals.

  2. Say what you will – I certainly don’t know any better – but there is a near-limitless market for the product of sex trafficking that dwarfs that for satanism mongers.

    1. If you read Maggie’s blog you would know better. She’s a master-debunker.

    2. I disagree, I think the market for sex slaves is rather limited. First, most of the men I have ever met would never consider hiring a prostitute, or if they ever did it would be a one time thing at some sort of a “get out of jail” event like a bachelor party. Second, if the market were unlimited you would see far more actual prostitution that is occurring, and a lot more women looking to get into the field because demand would be high enough to raise wages enough to encourage them to persue it, there would be no need for “trafficking of slaves” to meet the demand.

      1. First, most of the men I have ever met would never consider hiring a prostitute

        I have two words for you:

        1. Um, I’m only passingly familiar with her, she was a movie critic right? What does she have to do with the topic at hand?

          1. No one she knew voted for Nixon.

            1. Ah that, well there are statistics which would seem to bear out my experience…

              “Fifteen percent of men — and three in 10 single men age 30 and older — have paid for sex.”

              Even assuming the self reporting is low by a factor of two that leaves men who have not paid for sex outnumbering those who have by more than 2 to 1 and says nothing about the frequency with which those who have purchased it do so becuase all of those who did it once in college or at a bachelor party are included in the same sample as those who do it on a regular basis.

              1. Does dinner count?

                1. Only if you tie her up and keep her in your basement after dinner.

    3. but there is a near-limitless market for the product of sex trafficking that dwarfs that for satanism mongers

      Find me a cite that sex trafficking brings in the same amount of money as Christianity and you might have a point.

      The Catholic Church alone grossed $202 billion in 2000. And that’s the Church reporting on itself. The current gross is estimated at 400B, but their books aren’t exactly open. Factor in the money it must take to build 20,000 seat megachurches…

      1. I’ll do that – right after you cite me the number of men in the world vs the number of Christians. Feel free to deduct some large percentage from the former figure, whatever (though by rights you should do the same with the latter.)

        1. Every man wants to have sex with a sex slave? Epic projection. Just epic. Seek help.

          1. Not every man – that’s why I told you to deduct. Not sex slaves – prostitutes and porn actors (as the article states), which industries are not fully populated by “sex slaves” but whose existence account for there being such a thing. Seek reading assistance.

            1. No actually you kinda need writing assistance because you never indicated under what conditions you would need to subtract from the population of all men on earth.

              That said, Christians make up approximately 20% of the worlds population, and iirc Catholcs are a little over 50% of them leaving approximately 700 Million or something like that.

              Men make up a little under half the worlds population and based on the link I posted below around 25% of them might be willing to actually go through with having sex with a prostitute (not fantasize about it or want it in some abstract sense but actually be willing to do something about it) at some point in their lives which would leave you with a population of about 800 Million. However since a large portion of these would only ever engage the services of a prostitute once or twice in their lives wheras “Catholics” are defined that way because they remain so for a large portion of their lives it is pretty clear that the population of Catholics and the market of potential customers for prostitutes is roughly the same size at any give time, to within +/- 15% I’d guess.

              1. The condition of existence – which I thought would be pretty implicit to most and which was your starting point as well in that thing you worked out above. Incidentally, if you want to be remotely realistic about this you need to, as I suggested above, similarly reduce the population of Catholics before you compare the numbers, unless you mean to inaccurately propose that anything close to all Catholics are freaked by satanistic scare-mongering.

  3. In Vermont there’s a hotly contested Democrat primary for Attorney General going on now, one guy is all: DRUGS! PRESCRIPTION DRUGS! And the other guy is INTERNET SEX. KIDS!

    1. Are they pro or con?

  4. Perhaps a slight threadjack, but here in Detroit there’s a different panic being genned up by the Freep and the city of Warren–the evils of K2. Front page articles, outlawing, etc.
    Ya know, if there were a K2 epidemic, and if it were as dangerous as these guys say it is, there would be thousands of incidences of face-chewing.
    But somehow, there’s not.

  5. Maggie’s blog is always worth reading. It’s just mind-boggling to me that the NYT and other dailies continue to give space to the shrill, hysterical, and dishonest Nicholas Kristof. I’d surely hate being one of the women in his life, since in his world all women and girls are potential victims in need of government protection. I don’t understand why so-called progressives are so supportive of a man who seems to be on a crusade to infantalize women and remove choices from them.

    Why is it so hard for these people to believe that for some women prostitution is an occupation that makes economic sense? Or that moving to another country in order to be a prostitute may be a rational decision? Why are they so bent on conflating the categories of autonomous adult women and imprisoned children? And why are they apparently unable to admit that their real agenda is to demonize, and if possible criminalize, male sexuality?

    1. Why is it so hard for these people to believe that for some women prostitution is an occupation that makes economic sense?

      It’s unfortunate, but I find this is a complete non-starter for nearly every single person I’ve ever talked to.

      1. That’s because for more than 2000 years, the people of the West have had Sex + Money = BAD! beat into their heads. The idea of a convergence between sexuality and economics is what’s got anti-sex work people outraged.

        1. The weird part, Heroic one, is that coexisting side-by-side with the Sex + Money = BAD thing is the universally accepted practice of hypergamy, that is, women marrying up and choosing mates on the basis of wealth and status.

          Apparently, making a sexual/economic decision that is a lifetime commitment is fine, but doing the same thing on a much shorter timescale is evil.

          1. I wouldn’t say hypergamy was universally accepted. We do have the negative term “gold-digger”.

          2. Except she doesn’t have to provide sex in the long-term commitment scenario…

      2. It is a non starter for the overwhelming majority of people, but then so are careers in porn, police work, firefighting, the military, professional sports, and accounting yet all of those fields manage to find enough workers to meet demand without resorting to brainwashing and slavery.

        1. There is a small amount of brainwashing involved in the military.

          1. Yes a small amount, and only after you have already agreed to enlist and signed the contract, plus given the number of movies which have been made about Basic Training it’s not like very many go into it not knowing what is in store for them, unlike the stories of sex trafficking where vulnerable girls and immigrants are beaten and drugged to the point of not being able to speak for themselves.

            I’m also not going to claim that stories like that don’t happen in the world of prostitution, they absolutely do, but it is hardly the normal situation for prostitutes.

    2. There is evidence that Kristof’s Cambodian gunsel, Somaly Mam may have ’embellished’ certain elements of her activism of the Cambodian sex trade.

      Having been to Cambodia and having seen children (yes, 8,9, 10-year old children) attempting to sell their bodies still makes me heart-sick to think of those memories. However, I don’t believe Mam’s strong-handed tactics of SWAT raids and abducting sex workers and holding them against their will, like a cult deprogramming, is either moral or effective.

    3. I don’t understand why so-called progressives are so supportive of a man who seems to be on a crusade to infantalize women and remove choices from them.

      You answered it yourself with:

      I’d surely hate being one of the women in his life, since in his world all women and girls are potential victims in need of government protection.

      Progressives like playing the victim card.

  6. 2004 + 20 = 2024 /2017

  7. I like this Maggie Mcneill. It seems that there are many more ‘moral’ panics that need to be added to the list, least of which is Global Warming and more recently, Obesity:

    In the four stories we’ll look at today, the busybodies in the latter three use a very old moral panic (disease as punishment for “sin”)

  8. I’m sure Morris Cerullo spends nearly every waking hour in erotic fantasies about Satan’s backside. I’m sure that book is quite informative.

  9. Well, the Satanic Panic was always rather thinly sourced. There were a handful of cases and a lot of imagination. Sex trafficking, though, is far more common. E.g.:…..-1.1088866

  10. “the Back Side of Satan”
    I would imagine that is one hot hershey highway. butt for some reason I always imagined he/her as being the prober and not the probee…

  11. As another sex workers’ rights advocate, I’ve written about sex trafficking hysteria as it compares to the crack scare of the 1980s:…

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