Did You Hear About the Sex Traffickers Abducting Grown Women From Hobby Lobby?

The police "said that this is a common thing," stated the Facebook post gone viral. And yet...


Maggie McNeill

Lest you need any further indication that sex trafficking has become a genuine Moral Panic, I bring you the tale of Emily Stringer. In late May, Stringer was shopping at her hometown Hobby Lobby in Oklahoma City when she noticed "a middle aged lady" following her around the craft store. Stringer "stuck with (her) instinct" and left abruptly, calling local police afterward to report the incident. "The policeman said that this is unfortunately a common thing," Stringer posted in a subsequent Facebook warning. "They are abducting people for sex trafficking." 

Except…. of course not. There have been no cases of anyone, of any age, being stalked and abducted by sex traffickers at Hobby Lobby or any other Oklahoma City chain store. Outlets from Snopes to The Washington Post tore holes in Stringer's story, and the Oklahoma City police even distanced themselves from the apocryphal anecdote—but not before the post was shared by tens of thousands of people on social media. Within a few days, Stringer's sex-trafficking warning had received 147,000 shares. The police rebuttal, meanwhile, was shared less than 500 times.


This is, unfortunately, the kind of thing that fuels public perception of a sex trafficking "epidemic" in America. (Stringer is not alone in her belief that grown women are being snatched up by sex traffickers while running errands.) And public belief in this epidemic is what fuels lawmakers to pass really bad laws to address the problem—laws such as the "Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act" (JVTA), which President Obama signed into law on May 29. 

In a piece for Politico Magazine last week, I highlighted some of the "tough on crime" tactics baked into the JVTA and similar state laws, including mandatory minimum sentences of the variety that are on the way out when it comes to drug sentencing. Even strong opponents of mandatory minimums, such as President Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ken.), were silent about their inclusion in the trafficking law. In the end, only three members of Congress (all in the House) voted against the JVTA.

One such dissenter was Rep. Bobby Scott, co-chair of Congressional Human Trafficking Caucus, and his objection centered on the new mandatory minimum the JVTA establishes. From my Politico piece: 

Scott is wary of the "the possible scope of defendants who could be prosecuted" under this provision. Known as the SAVE Amendment, it prohibits not just placing an "escort" ad for a minor or someone forced into it but also benefiting financially in any way from the ad—meaning that classified-ad hosting sites could be held criminally accountable as sex traffickers. And the penalty for this trafficking? Mandatory minimum imprisonment of 10 to 15 years.

While this may be justifiable in some cases, those prosecutable could include "all of the employees of the ad company, including the receptionist or the computer guy," said Scott. "The judge should have the discretion to consider all the facts and the culpability of the particular defendant."

The JVTA's approach to the issue of human trafficking is also ascendant in the states, which have each passed a few (if not a few dozen) trafficking laws in the past five years. In Georgia, human trafficking now comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, or 20 if the victim is under 18. … In Montana, sex trafficking anyone under 18 comes with a mandatory 100-year prison sentence, albeit eligible for parole or probation after 25 years.

"The alleged increase in domestic human trafficking fuels the sense that these laws are proportionate," I note. "Yet there's no credible research showing that human trafficking has been increasing the U.S." (Read the whole thing here.)

The price of this miscalculation isn't just "a little extra money or time going toward fighting a heinous crime." It's willing sex workers, their associates, and low-level offenders being arrested and locked up when cops can't actually find these alleged trafficking rings (and you can bet the drug war's race and class biases will be repeated). It's civil liberties infringements of all sorts. It's less time and money going to other crime-fighting, and less resources going to programs that might actually help people coerced or forced into prostitution or labor. As Brian Bates at JohnTV writes:

Is human trafficking very real? Yes. … Does any of that give credibility to Cindy's story? Absolutely not. Stop the madness folks. The tactic of fear mongering in the absence of reality ultimately hurts the longterm effort to raise sustained awareness and move the social conscious.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people with reasons to perpetuate the madness. In response to my Politico piece, for instance, seven women wrote an op-ed ("The Truth About Sex Trafficking") countering my assertion that the JVTA is bad policy. They do this mostly by misrepresenting what I wrote and offering the same statistical distortions I'd tried to expose, with a healthy dose of vague and indignant huffing and puffing. Of the op-ed's seven authors, two hold leadership positions with Rights4Girls, two are with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), one is with ECPAT-USA, and two co-founded the Advisory Council on Child Trafficking—all organizations with a vested interest in promoting a certain narrative about sex trafficking and certain legislative responses to it.

Rights4Girls worked closely with the authors of the JVTA and similar legislation, and is active in lobbying for increased federal funding to fight sex trafficking. (Its founder was also instrumental in getting Craigslist's adult services section shut down.) CATW describes itself as "the world's leading abolitionist organization," states that the best way to end human trafficking is to prosecute men who pay for sex, calls all sex workers "prostituted women," and helped launch "the first federally funded human trafficking task force that became the model for federally funded human trafficking task forces across the country." ACCT is run by volunteers, including several former White House and congressional staffers, D.C.-based political consultants, and the wife of Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei. ECPAT lobbies for anti-trafficking legislation, runs training programs to teach people how to spot trafficking victims, and takes people on sex-trafficking awareness tours of Thailand