I first learned about Sherri Papini, the 34-year-old California woman who went missing for 22 days in November, from a Today Show headline asking: "Was Sherri Papini kidnapping linked to sex trafficking?" In People magazine's December 9 issue, John Kelly, "a noted serial killer profiler," said Papini's abduction had all the hallmarks of human trafficking, with her mistreatment typical of the "shaming and degrading" of victims that traffickers deploy. Other wide-reaching media outlets—NBC News, ABC News, Us Weekly, the Sacramento Bee—have likewise floated the idea that the mysterious duo of Hispanic women Papini fingered may have been part of a sex-trafficking ring.
Yet there is almost nothing to support the idea that Papini's disappearance was related to sex or prostitution. The whole theory hinges on the fact that Papini was "branded," as her husband Keith initially put it. Police later confirmed that Sherri did have something burnt into her skin, specifying only that it was not a "symbol" but a "message." But even accepting the premise that sex-traffickers frequently "brand" their victims—a common claim also utterly lacking in evidence—Papini's burns could just as easily have been an act of torture or a way to relay a message to Papini, police, or the public. And the latter explanations certainly make more sense than the former when taken with the facts that nothing else about the abduction belied an intent to force Papini into commercial sex and, in fact, Papini's assailants eventually just let her go, according to what she told police.
Who is Sherri Papini?
For those unfamiliar with the case, Papini—a stay-at-home mother of two living with her husband in Shasta County, California—disappeared on November 2 while Keith was at work and the kids were in daycare. The case came to a happy ending on Thanksgiving day, when Papini was found on the side of a rural road a few hours from her home, malnourished and knocked around but not severely injured. She has since been reunited with her family, the Shasta County Sheriff's Department is investigating, and the Papinis are taking some time away from the spotlight in an undisclosed location.
Papini's disappearance, and subsequent return, earned ample national attention. The story seemed to have legs both because of the mystery surrounding Papini's disappearance and because of who Papini is: a pretty, young, white woman with a photogenic family and a Pinterest-perfect collection of hobbies: crafting, baking, exercise, home decorating, party-planning, and prayer. She was quickly dubbed a "supermom" in headlines.
California State Police found Papini roadside in Yolo County, near Sacramento, with one hand chained behind her waist. She was "taken to an area hospital, and treated for non-life threatening conditions," according to Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosekno. Keith Papini has said that his wife's captors beat her, cut off her hair, and "barely fed" her. When she was discovered, Keith said, Sherri was bruised, had lost 15 percent of her body weight, and had a broken nose, "severe burns, red rashes, and chain markings." Police, however, have been less forthcoming with details about Sherri Papini's condition. Whatever injuries she suffered, overnight hospitalization was not required, and by Thanksgiving night she was back at home with her family.
Sherri told police that her abductors had been two Hispanic women driving a dark SUV. She said they wore masks over their faces and spoke almost exclusively in Spanish. Upon first questioning, she provided police with little detail, which Bosenko attributed to her still recovering from the experience. But if she has since provided more information, Shasta County authorities aren't admitting to it. And they say they've yet to determine a possible motive. Authorities have "no reason not to believe" Papini, Bosekno told People magazine. But "abductions are rare in themselves, especially adult abductions." And abductions by women are "even more unique, so there remains a number of concerns that we have."
Red flags, white pride, and Pinterest
The implausible circumstances of the kidnapping have provoked predictable chatter about it being a hoax, perhaps designed to draw in donations (the Papini family raised $49,195 on GoFundMe while she was missing). There are a lot of things about the case that simply don't add up as of yet, namely: why go through all the trouble and risk of abducting and holding Papini for three weeks, only to let her go free? And why target this random suburban mother?
Then there's Cameron Gamble. On November 18 Gamble, an Air Force veteran, self-described "kidnap and ransom consultant," and active participant in church-led "high-risk ministries involved with human trafficking"—posted a video offering $50,000 to Papini's captors if they would return her safely by November 23. Gamble said the reward money was coming from an anonymous stranger who had taken an interest in the case, and directed people to a website, sherripapini.com, where they could provide tips. But police were clear that Gamble was not associated with their efforts, and discouraged his vigilante undertaking. Sherri's family, too, said they were not associated with Gamble, the money, or the now deleted website.
Also raising amateur web-sleuths' suspicions: some archived posts on a now-defunct white-nationalist website, Skinheadz.com, written by a "Sherri Graeff"—Papini's maiden name. The posts, from 2003, discuss how proper "skinhead girls" should look and act (feminine) and detail Graeff's alleged history of high-school skirmishes with Hispanic classmates, whom she believes targeted her because she was was "drug-free, white and proud of my blood and heritage." In one encounter, Graeff supposedly slammed a woman's head into the bleachers, "broke her nose and split her eyebrow." The post concluded:
Being white is more than just being aware of my skin, but of standing behind Skinheads…and having pride for my country. Being white is my family, my roots, my way of life. It's always there. There's no denying it. It's nobility. It's strength. It will be there to lift me up when I really need my pride, when I need to 'keep walking.'
The Papini family has not commented publicly about the Skinheadz posts. But Sherri's ex-husband David Dreyfus, whom she divorced in 2007, told the Sacramento Bee "that was not her. There was someone who made a malicious post. That is entirely uncharacteristic of her and not her at all."
OK, so who is Sherri Papini? Besides a cipher for America's hopes about supermoms and fears of stranger danger and immigrants and sex trafficking?
Most of Sherri's social-media accounts have been deleted since her return, but what's left, or archived, paints an interesting picture. Sherri got married to to Keith, whom she had known since high-school, in 2009, two years after divorcing her first husband. Her blog posts on their wedding website reveal someone highly excited ("I LOVE BEING A BRIDE!") and a bit demanding about wedding planning. On Pinterest—one of Sherri's few social-media accounts not hidden or deleted (though the username was changed recently)—Papini's posts suggest someone equally enthusiastic, creative, and detail-oriented when it came to planning everything from children's parties to home decor to Halloween costumes.
Papini apparently tried to capitalize on these skills—a business called "Start From Scraps" is registered to her and her husband, and an archived version of StartFromScraps.com shows Sherri offering to teach scrapbooking classes. Papini also attempted to sell her handiwork via online craft emporiums. It's unclear how successful any of these ventures were, and the scrapbooking business seems to have been abandoned sometime around 2012. (Sherri is also listed as one of three owners of a Butte County, California, business called Living Interiors, along with Francisco A. Santoyo and Eric Joseph Zapf.)
Much has been made of one of Papini's Pinterest boards, named "Cultural Differences," which allegedly featured memes concerned with illegal immigration and Muslims (here's one screenshot). That board has since been deleted. But the boards that remain still show some glimpses of someone tougher than your typical mommy-blogger, and with some right-leaning or unusal interests. One board, which Papini named "One Tough Mama," is devoted to guns and memes about guns, including one (captioned "Amen!") announcing "I will defend my rights against all enemies foreign & Obama." There are other boards devoted to "homesteading," canning and preserving food, and "the end of the world?"—a board featuring fall-out shelters, concealable knives, and tips on wilderness survival skills, emergency preparedness, foraging wild foods, and living "off the grid."
Signs of sex trafficking?
The bizarre nature of Papini's story certainly doesn't disprove it. Occasionally the inexplicable and unthinkable really does happen. Or perhaps Papini's assailants were strangers to her but were acting at the behest of someone with a more personal motive for wanting to scare and hurt her. Maybe Sherri Papini faithfully related most of what happened to her but does actually know who abducted her and is afraid or hesitant to reveal that info. Maybe police and the Papini family know more than they're telling the public and media.
Some red flags aren't reason enough to write the whole thing off as a hoax or scam. Yet whatever Papini may have endured, evidence that the abduction was motivated by sex-trafficking is flimsy to nonexistent, and Papini fits the typical sex-trafficking victim profile about as well as much as she is a typical kidnapping victim (not at all).
Much of mass culture would have Americans believe that sex traffickers snatch up random kids from school playgrounds, abduct suburban moms from Hobby Lobby parking lots, and spend years "grooming" good teen girls to run away from home and pimp them out. Or that traffickers are all part of some highly organized, multi-person operation that ships sex slaves around the country or globe. But in the U.S., sex trafficking—defined under federal law as forcing or coercing someone into prostitution or aiding in the prostitution of someone under 18 years old—is almost entirely comprised of cases involving just one to a few perpetrators and one to a few victims, according to both studies of the underground sex economy and the kinds of cases that officials prosecute. And while violence, threats, and—to an extraordinarily lesser degree—physical restraint or abduction are sometimes elements, most cases fall somewhere between mutual benefit and outright abuse or exploitation, with victims concentrated among teen runaways, people already involved in sex work, and women with vulnerabilities such as homelessness, mental illness, undocumented status, drug addiction, or extreme poverty.
Members of these marginalized groups make up the vast majority of strangers targeted by kidnappers, sexual predators, abusive pimps, and others with unsavory sexual agendas. Why? Because the authorities and the American public are much less likely to pay attention with such victims, to trust them, to turn them into People magazine phenomenons. To devote ample public resources to their recovery, assume good faith, and punish their perpetrators harshly. Sometimes these victims aren't even noticed.
It's also easier for perpetrators to find, coerce, and target those in their own general peer group, as there's more opportunity. And with the internet, a would-be sex trafficker can easily find an untold number of girls and women with at least some degree of willingness to participate in prostitution, and they can make just as much money off these individuals as they would someone like Sherri Papini—all without the difficulty and cost of monitoring or restraining someone 24 hours per day, or the added risk and potential penalties that this entails. Plus, most prostitution customers value (at least some degree of) agency and sexual desire in those they patronize, meaning there's not really as big a market for literal sex slaves as pop culture conjures. It just makes no sense from any angle for your average sex-trafficker to—without any personal motive—add in all this kidnapping, effort, and intrigue.
It's somewhat surreal that major network TV programs and national news outlets looked at the facts of this case and felt comfortable crying sex trafficking. A white woman tells a possibly true but statistically implausible story of kidnapping at the hands of two Spanish-speaking strangers, her husband—not the police—says she was "branded," a mysterious anti-trafficking missionary and YouTuber with a cash reward suggests sex-trafficking is afoot, and that's good enough to run with it? People were (rightfully) appalled when Donald Trump suggested many Mexicans sneak over our border for the express purpose of raping American women, but when morning news anchors leap to link the disappearance of a pretty blonde mom at the hands of Hispanic ladies to sex trafficking, despite an utter lack of evidence to support the claim, everyone shares the story on Twitter.
A tale of two 'trafficking' panics
It's hard not to compare the reaction to Sherri Papini sex-trafficking rumors to those surrounding another recent story involving trafficking: PizzaGate.
A far-fetched conspiracy theory fomented on fringe-right message boards and blogs, PizzaGate claims that John Podesta, Hillary Clinton, and a slew of other high-ranking U.S. officials are involved in a global child sex-trafficking ring that is somehow brokered through a family-friendly D.C. pizza joint called Comet. But what started as speculative paranoia, or possibly trolling, resulted this week in a North Carolina man shooting up Comet in order to free the child sex slaves he believed were inside. No one was hurt, and he was taken into police custody without incident, but the melee still serves as a troubling reminder of how online misinformation can produce dangerous real-world results.
For almost anyone to the left of the fringe right, the Comet pizza conspiracy—with its convoluted trail of circumstantial "evidence," its aptness to see symbols and meaning in everything, and its production of a deluded vigilante gunman out to save the children—has served as a simple source of mockery, incredulity, and condemnation, a "predictable" outcome of right-wing fearmongering. But while the particulars of the PizzaGate story might be especially outlandish, it's not a narrative that sprung up in an alt-right vacuum.
For more than a decade, U.S. officials and an ever-expanding rescue industry have promulgated false statistics and ideas about the scope and nature of prostitution, both voluntary and forced, in America. It's these same basic (and false) claims—that there are hundreds of thousands of missing and sex-trafficked children in the U.S., that the sex trafficking of minors is a highly profitable and coordinated enterprise—on which Pizzagate truthers staked their story. Their ideas about slick, sociopathic, and pedophilic sex traffickers echo those on the websites of so many nonprofits, newspapers, and government anti-human-trafficking campaigns. Their vigilante tactics are even celebrated in slightly different contexts.
And you know who else has entered private businesses with guns drawn in order to free non-existent (minor) sex slaves? American cops and federal agents, all the time. They regularly raid homes and massage parlors and strip clubs and casinos and all sorts of places where they suspect prostitution is taking place, under the mantle—sometimes earnest, sometimes not so much—of rescuing minors from sexual exploitation. They build cases by perusing internet evidence (message-board postings, emails) for secret symbols and coded meaning. Yet the public mostly shrugs when cops, Christian missionaries, A&E TV series, and FBI agents do these things, because we've heard for years from the press, President Obama, and a huge and incredibly high-powered group of politicians, celebrities, foundations, activists, and academics, that—contra all evidence—there are hundreds of thousands of sexually exploited children "in our own backyards," that this sort of "modern slavery" has reached epidemic proportions, and that every high-profile child or adult disappearance is probably linked to sex trafficking.
As coverage of the Sherri Papini case illustrates, the gap between PizzaGate believers and regular consumers of sex-trafficking stories put forth by law enforcement, legislators, and most of the media is probably much smaller than a lot of people realize.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.