The Iowa Legislature in January 2022. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
At a meeting this month, the Fairfield City Council considered a resolution in support of diversity.
It’s just about the most anodyne statement you can imagine, a non-binding string of platitudes about equity and inclusion. It was put forth by the city’s diversity committee, the kind of document city councils often get from community groups and pass without much discussion.
Or maybe the resolution is actually a cog in a secretive sex trafficking machine designed to groom children for a lifetime of abuse. That’s how one city council member made it out in her tirade against the diversity statement. After debating for more than half an hour at a Jan. 10 meeting, the council opted to table the agenda item for future discussion.
It was a striking example of how a misguided moral panic can upend otherwise mundane civic proceedings.
Trafficking is real but it is rarer and takes a different form than the most fervent advocates portray.
Fairfield City Council member Judy Ham said the proposed resolution amounted to grooming, the process of predators building relationships with minors for later exploitation.
“This is called grooming, if you don’t know what sex trafficking is. They are getting kids ready to be groomed, and are grooming them on a daily basis, and it’s very perverted,” Ham said, as reported by Southeast Iowa Union journalist Andy Hallman.
It’s a snapshot of 2022 America: Anything that makes you slightly uncomfortable might be sex trafficking.
Ham and her ally on the council, Doug Flournoy, never pointed to specific language they thought could be associated with child sex abuse. It seemed like maybe they hadn’t read the resolution at all. Perhaps they were concerned with the statement that the city condemns discrimination based on sexual orientation — along with faith, age, ability and several other identities.
A few reasonable adults in the room tried to temper the animosity, but even they seemed to lend credence to the sex trafficking hubbub.
“I firmly believe Judy [Ham] is probably right on some of those things she says but I don’t know if it’s something the city has the ability to say more than we want to be as tolerant as we can be,” Fairfield City Attorney John Morrissey said.
Sex trafficking is an especially heinous crime so it’s difficult to explain to someone that they might be misdirecting their outrage. Trafficking is real but it is rarer and takes a different form than the most fervent advocates portray. By focusing on the wrong things, we risk overlooking the real and preventable tragedies.
The theory warns of a vast conspiracy to imprison millions of sex slaves around the globe, targeting children and vulnerable immigrants. The stories often involve politicians, celebrities, the media and educators. The movement is an inviting place for anyone looking to be mad and horrified, to believe the world is an increasingly dangerous place.
The subject seems to be popping up everywhere in Iowa politics. Parents at school board meetings say library books are grooming kids. The president of the Iowa Senate says teachers and journalists are engaged in a “sinister agenda.” The Iowa Secretary of State’s Office has a new campaign to tackle the issue.
The idea of a grand sex trafficking cabal has gained increasing prominence since 2016 through the “Pizzagate” and “QAnon” conspiracy theories and Jeffery Epstein’s prosecution but it didn’t come out of nowhere in the Trump era and didn’t stem only from right-wing politics. The ill-informed case against sex trafficking has been building for many years.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 2000 and later reauthorized by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, established sex trafficking as a federal priority and gave law enforcement many of the same powers they use to combat drugs and terrorism — surveillance tools, new mandatory minimums, shared resources with state and local agencies.
There has been an effort the past two decades or so to reframe all sex work as trafficking. It’s the product of a peculiar political coalition made up of social conservatives on the right and anti-sex work feminists on the left.
Often, the people swept up in these overzealous enforcement projects are consenting adult sex workers, not trafficking victims. In some cases, police claim to have rescued victims but also charge those victims with crimes.
Misinformation thrives on our emotional responses, in this case the very human instinct to protect kids. “Think of the children,” the purveyors plead.
But resources spent on policing library books and prostitution are resources that don’t go toward supporting actual trafficking victims, like emergency shelters for runaways and vulnerable teens. It’s similar to the way drug busts fail to address the causes of problematic substance use.
From the moral panic to the outsized police response, the war on trafficking is basically copied and pasted from the war on drugs. On this path, it will be another abysmal failure.
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