The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Trump signed a new law that aims to fight online sex trafficking. Here’s why that’s bad.

Moral panics have long led to legislation and government action that seems noble, but hurts marginalized populations.

President Trump signs the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online SexTrafficking Act of 2017″ as victim’s family members, lawmakers and sex trafficking victims look on in the Oval Office at the White House on April 11 in Washington. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

On Wednesday, President Trump signed a bipartisan bill that aims to eliminate Internet advertisements for commercial sex by holding website operators liable for all user content.

This legislation is part of a larger effort that brings together politicians, major media figures and anti-prostitution groups across the ideological spectrum to eradicate what some believe is a crisis of child sexual slavery in the United States. Those supporting the cause include liberal celebrities, such as Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers, and conservative organizations such as the National Decency Coalition. Anti-trafficking advocates use the rhetoric of “child rape,” “wicked men,” “filthy criminals” and “modern-day slavery” to garner public attention. PSAs, billboards, CNN specials and Netflix documentaries warn of pimps “selling” children online.

But this anti-trafficking campaign may not be the noble no-brainer cause it appears to be. Several critics have pointed out the lack of both nuance and empirical data involved in this crusade. Others have noted that it punishes consensual adult sex-work, despite being sold as a bill to protect children. Understanding the effort in historical context reveals that the issue may represent a case of classic moral panic rather than the massive epidemic that sex-trade abolitionists claim.

America has a long history of episodic moral panics in which self-styled experts, sensationalistic journalists and public officials used emotionally charged language and a barrage of (often distorted) statistics to portray a particular social problem as widespread and urgent. Moral panics are marked by hyperbole, scare tactics, oversimplification and a discrepancy between fears and reality, producing a response dramatically out of proportion to the actual threat. Public anger fuels overreaching “solutions” that disproportionately target marginalized populations and do far more harm than good.

Most moral panics revolve around the volatile combination of youth and sex. They tend to emerge as reactions to periods of cultural change and unrest.

In the Progressive era, for example, many young women got jobs outside of the home for the first time, socialized with immigrants in newly urban spaces and experimented with more risqué dating behaviors. In response, a coalition of moral reformers, muckrakers and vice commissioners generated a panic over “white slavery,” the supposed kidnapping and forced prostitution of white teenage girls by swarthy foreigners.

Lurid (and largely fabricated) stories about organized cartels of immigrants drugging, smuggling and selling young hostages prompted the Mann Act of 1910, which criminalized the transportation of women across state lines for “immoral purposes,” even with their consent. The Mann Act dramatically expanded federal power over private sexuality — and broad interpretation of it by the courts allowed husbands to use it to locate adulterous wives, abusive fathers to track down runaway daughters and anyone who objected to unmarried or interracial relationships to get their neighbors in trouble. The white-slavery scare ultimately limited the mobility of young, primarily working-class women.

Two overlapping moral panics took hold in the tempestuous late 1940s and 1950s, thanks in large part to fears brought about by shifting family and gender roles that produced concern about the well-being of children. The climate of the Cold War, which put an emphasis on containing all possible threats to the American way of life, both foreign and domestic, and put any nonconformist behaviors under a microscope, also fueled these panics. The first of them involved the supposed suburban “sexual psychopath.” Although there was no actual increase in the number or intensity of serious sex crimes during this period, half of all states enacted special “sex offender” legislation at the urging of medical experts and alarmist media.

These policies failed to differentiate between minor acts such as exposure and voyeurism and more severe ones like rape and murder. With no set of precise, objective criteria, all alternative expressions of sexuality, even harmless ones, were wrapped up in the vague, elastic concept of sexual psychopathy.

The press painted a picture of neighborhoods overrun with sex predators by selectively reporting the grisliest incidents of crime. Special government conferences met to investigate the issue and appropriated funds for increased police surveillance of sexual psychopaths. Like the earlier moral panic, the scare ended up turning a powerless minority group — this time gay men — into victims of the new laws. For them, increased surveillance meant arrests for “public indecency,” potential imprisonment and coercive medical “treatment.”

The need to preserve the innocence of children also led to hysteria over the newly prolific genre of smut magazines and “sex comics.” Senate subcommittees were established to study the problem, and the panic spread via newspaper exposés and watchdog groups such as Citizens for Decent Literature, which claimed that “sex mad magazines are creating criminals faster than we can build jails to house them.” The coalition driving the panic included notables as diverse as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who imparted a veneer of scientific legitimacy to the campaign, advocating censorship on behalf of impressionable kids.

The result? New ordinances in 50 U.S. cities that banned the sales of “nudie magazines,” 18 states outlawing comic books, vice squads raiding bookstores and the government ordering librarians to remove objectionable literature from the shelves. Swept up by the hysteria, police blocked the sale of work by Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger, and public bonfires set piles of comic books ablaze. Like other moral panics, this one was characterized by an excessive response to a perceived sexual threat against children. This time, free expression for everyone was the casualty.

The 1980s brought yet another moral panic precipitated by unease about double-income families and the supervision of children by strangers at day-care centers. Triggered by a best-selling (yet unsubstantiated) memoir “Michelle Remembers,” the fear of secret child sex rings — complete with devil-worship ceremonies, pornography, animal sacrifice, orgies and cannibalism — produced a national paranoia.

The most notable case, the McMartin preschool scandal in Southern California, sparked a raft of ill-conceived actions: coercive interrogation tactics by prosecutors that produced victim testimonies that have since been discredited; books meant to shock, like “Unspeakable Acts” and “Nursery Crimes”; police seminars on how to recognize ritual abusers; funding for a variety of parental watch organizations that fanned the flames; and new therapeutic methodologies to access “recovered memories,” a phenomenon now understood to be false.

Hundreds of people — mostly caretakers and babysitters — were investigated for vicious sex crimes. Around 200 were formally charged, and at least 83 were convicted. By the mid-1990s, scores of family relationships and reputations had been destroyed, and the panic functioned to guilt-trip working mothers who thought they could keep children safe in day care.

All these scares produced unexpected political alliances. Conservatives concerned with moral purity, law-and-order and Christian values joined forces with feminists worried about victims of sexual trauma and liberals in favor of strong government regulation. When forces from the right and left converge in a moral panic, their causes possess greater appeal to the public. We see this today as women’s rights advocates join the sex-trafficking fight along with the religious right. The result is a runaway train with no real political force left in opposition.

Moral panics are repetitive and predictable. Whether they inaccurately appraise real problems or manufacture myths, these moments of cultural paranoia have the harmful consequence of scapegoating marginalized citizens, if not legally revoking their rights. Ultimately, casting such a wide net to catch the “bad guys” means subjecting everyone to increased state control.

The current anti-trafficking campaign, by conflating heinous human rights violations with the free choices of independent adult sex workers, falls into a familiar trap. The Americans who make their living in the sex industry (a maligned population composed largely of women) have been effectively forced offline, as at least a dozen websites have shuttered and others are cracking down on all adult content to comply with the law. As always, the encroachment on civil liberties is overlooked because nobody wants to appear soft on the sexual exploitation of children.

Once again, the specter of the sexual monster has surfaced. Throughout the course of the 20th century, he has migrated from the city to the suburbs to the preschool to the Internet. Our particular social fears may have changed — rapidly evolving, unregulated online technology now represents the great unknown — but the rest is a tale as old as time, one without a happy ending.