Human Trafficking

The Satanic Panic Is Back, and It's Bipartisan

Plus: Criminal sentencing before the Supreme Court, TikTok pushes back against security threat claims, and more...


A new poll looking at Americans' belief in conspiracy theories finds high levels of support for loony-tunes ideas about sex, Satan, and U.S. institutions. In addition, more than half of those surveyed believed child sex-trafficking myths.

The situation echoes fears prevalent during the 1980s and '90s, a mass hysteria that has in retrospect been dubbed the Satanic Panic. This vintage worry about ritual murders, sexual abuse inspired by devil worship, and Satanists in child care centers, the entertainment industry, and elsewhere was unfounded—but still ruined lives. (You can read much more about the Satanic Panic in Reason Books Editor Jesse Walker's The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory.)

For a few decades, the moral panic around these topics seemed to subside—which is not to say people didn't displace these fears into other overblown villains, such as sex trafficking cabals. Now it seems to be in full swing again, blended with ongoing panic about sex trafficking and retro myths about queer people being pedophiles and perverts.

"Accusations involving ritual sex abuse and the sexualization of children have surged into the mainstream of American politics over the past year," University of Miami political science professors Joseph E. Uscinski and Casey Klofstad note on the London School of Economics' U.S. politics and policy blog. "In particular, conservative politicians and opinion leaders have increasingly expressed concerns about Satan, Satanists, sex "grooming", and the supposed "agenda" by public schools and entertainment companies to indoctrinate children into sexualized lifestyles or to turn them gay or trans."

To gauge support for such views, Uscinski and Klofstad conducted a nationwide poll, garnering 2,001 (nationally representative) respondents between May 26 and June 30, 2022. They found not only high levels of nouveau Satanic Panic but also high levels of belief in conspiracy theories about child sex trafficking and Disney:

• 25 percent agree that "Satanic ritual sex abuse is widespread in this country."

• 33 percent agreed that "members of Satanic cults secretly abuse thousands of children every year."

• 26 percent agreed that "the Disney Corporation 'grooms' children into sexualized lifestyles."

• 28 percent agreed that "there is a secret 'gay agenda' aimed at converting young people into gay and trans lifestyles."

• 30 percent agreed that "elites, from government and Hollywood, are engaged in a massive child sex trafficking racket."

• 60 percent agree that there are at least 300,000 kids being sex trafficked in the U.S.

The child sex-trafficking myth: Only 10.3 percent of those surveyed said there are somewhat fewer or far fewer than 300,000 kids being trafficked. Around 30 percent said they didn't know.

We've tackled this last myth at Reason a number of times. It's a statistic based on a bad study that assigned risk factors based on broad situations—like being the child of immigrants, being in foster care, or living in public housing—and then used these factors to arrive at the conclusion that 326,000 kids were "at risk for commercial sexual exploitation." The research never said this many kids were or would be trafficked, and even the method used to calculate risk is dubious. Nonetheless, the study is still cited frequently by people in government and law enforcement, and often morphs from children at risk of trafficking to children who are being trafficked.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children drew from this study and a 2002 Justice Department study (the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children, or NISMART) to suggest that the number actually being trafficked is 100,000.

Years ago, Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler did a thorough debunking of both myths. Kessler notes that the NISMART survey "showed nearly 1.7 million kids had a runaway episode a year," but "only 1,700 kids — less than one percent — reported having engaged in sexual activity in exchange for money, drugs, food, or shelter during the episode."

Bipartisan lunacy: Many have blamed former President Donald Trump and other Republicans for myths about sex trafficking, given the right-wing bent of believers in the sex-trafficking panic that is QAnon. But myths and misinformation about sex trafficking have been spread for decades by both Republicans and Democrats.

And if Uscinski and Klofstad's poll is accurate, both Republicans and Democrats are strong believers in child sex-trafficking myths as well as Satanic Panic hoopla. In the poll, Republicans were more likely to agree that Disney is "grooming" children and that there's a secret "gay agenda." But Democrats were as or more likely to believe other conspiracy theories.

For instance, on the question of whether Satanic ritual sex abuse is widespread, 29 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of Republicans said yes.

Thirty-two percent of both Republicans and Democrats said Hollywood and government elites are sex-trafficking children.

And 61 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans agreed that 300,000 or more children are being trafficked in the U.S.

Surveys like this one get at why curbing misinformation on social media—something politicians are constantly harping on tech companies to do—is so difficult. Wild myths are not merely fringe beliefs in many cases. They're shared by a number of Americans and, all too often, rooted in rhetoric from mainstream politicians.

You can find the full poll results here.


Judges shouldn't be able to sentence people based on crime accusations they've been cleared of, right? That seems like it only makes sense. Alas, it's not so clear to some, apparently. A case involving this question is before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Due Process Institute lays out the stakes in a new friend-of-the-court brief:


TikTok is pushing back on claims that it poses a national security threat. In a letter obtained by Politico and sent to Catherine Szpindor, chief administrative officer of the U.S. House of Representatives, the company challenged a "TikTok Cyber Advisory" issued by Szpindor's office. The company is urging Szpindor's office to rescind the advisory.

"Allegations that TikTok stores U.S. user data in China are inaccurate," states the letter, noting that U.S. user data is currently stored in Virginia and backed up on a server in Singapore. "Moreover, as we recently announced, 100% of U.S. user traffic is being routed to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. We still use our U.S. and Singapore data centers for backup, but we expect to delete U.S. users' personal information from our own data centers and fully pivot to Oracle cloud servers located in the U.S."

TikTok also noted that contrary to the House report, it does not use facial recognition technology or collect face or voice data and "does not automatically collect precise GPS location information in the U.S. Our privacy policy is quite clear that in the event we were to request precise location data, users would have to approve it for each request." 

The letter is the latest in an ongoing saga involving attempts to ban or further regulate the popular video app since it is owned by a Chinese company.


• Arizona is punishing a mom for letting her 7-year-old kid and his friend play at the park without adult supervision.

• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should get back to its roots, writes Reason's Ron Bailey.

• "Two former Pennsylvania judges who orchestrated a scheme to send children to for-profit jails in exchange for kickbacks were ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of people they victimized," reports the Associated Press.

• Monkeypox may be spreading specifically through sex, rather than through simple skin-to-skin transmission as previously believed.

• Oklahoma's governor issued a two-month stay of execution for Richard Glossip, a man on death row for a 1997 murder he did not (by anyone's account) commit and may have had nothing to do with.

• Sex workers say they're increasingly being restricted on Reddit—one of the few social media sites to still allow nudity and explicit sexual content.

• PEN America looks at censorship in American schools and finds that "this year, proposed educational gag orders have increased 250 percent compared to 2021. Thirty-six different states have introduced 137 gag order bills in 2022, compared to 22 states introducing 54 bills in 2021," though "there has been a decline in new gag order laws passed from 12 last year to 7 this year."

• What could go wrong?