By Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason.com
“Sex Trafficking of Americans: The Girls Next Door.”
“Sex-trafficking sweep nets arrests near Phoenix truck stops.”
“Man becomes 1st jailed under new human trafficking law.”
Conduct a Google news search for the word trafficking in 2015 and you’ll find pages of stories about the commercial sex trade, in which hundreds of thousands of U.S. women and children are supposedly trapped by coercion or force.
A few decades prior, a survey of “trafficking” headlines would have yielded much different results. Back then, newspapers recounted tales of “contemporary Al Capones trafficking illegal drugs to the smallest villages and towns in our heartland,” and of organized “motorcycle gangs” trafficking LSD and hashish. “Many young black men in the ghetto see the drug trade as the Gold Rush of the 1980s,” the Philadelphia Inquirer told readers in 1988. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) warned of a “nationwide phenomenon” of drug lords abducting young people to force them into the drug trade. Crack kingpins were rumored to target runaways, beating them if they didn’t make drug sales quotas.
Such articles offered a breathless sense that the drug trade was booming, irresistible to criminals, and in desperate need of child foot soldiers. Lawmakers touted harsher penalties for drug offenses. The war on drugs raged. New task forces were created. Civilians were trained how to “spot” drug traffickers in the wild, and students instructed how to rat out drug-using parents. Politicians spoke of a drug “epidemic” overtaking America, its urgency obviously grounds for anything we could throw its way.
We know now how that all worked out.
The tactics employed to “get tough” on drugs ended up entangling millions in the criminal justice system, sanctioning increasingly intrusive and violent policing practices, worsening tensions between law enforcement and marginalized communities, and degrading the constitutional rights of all Americans. Yet even as the drug war’s failures and costs become more apparent, the Land of the Free is enthusiastically repeating the same mistakes when it comes to sex trafficking. This new “epidemic” inspires the same panicked rhetoric and punitive policies the war on drugs did—often for activity that’s every bit as victimless.