In the Sonoran Desert, a group of men with holstered guns―QAnon followers―approached exhausted migrant children who had just spent weeks crossing into the United States from Central America. They offered them hamburgers, Bibles, and T-shirts emblazoned with “Let’s Go Brandon.” They encircled the children in a prayer huddle before they called Border Patrol. They explained that they were “rescuing” them from potential “sex traffickers.”
While the border vigilantes waved their own guns, some self-proclaimed anti-sex trafficking organizations hire mercenaries to do so. In a grotesque video of white saviorism run amok, the founder of one such organization creepily winked at the camera during a “sting” in the Dominican Republic. While he pretended to be interested in buying sex from the young women who the organization’s staff had invited―and bused―to a house party, the cameras rolled. As the mercenaries ran into the house with their guns drawn, funders who had bankrolled the raid watched from their homes over a live stream. These “rescue tourists” sometimes even participate in these sham raids, just like the paying guests who live out their fantasies in the TV series Westworld.
Claims of “sex trafficking” provide a morally laden imperative to enact a rescue logic animated by a mix of racialized misogyny, religious zeal, and self-promotion. Alleging sex trafficking―especially of minors―can lead to a stampede of so-called rescue activities that can end in arrest and deportation. While writing a book on actual trafficking, I learned of many such raids that ended in the deportation of undocumented women who had chosen to work in the sex sector. Their labor wasn’t coerced; their supposed rescue was. These “coercive rescues” are rooted hierarchies of harm which posit “sex trafficking” as an exceptional harm. This sex exceptionalism offers a potent and dangerous pretext for any and all actions. This fury to do something has resulted in the deliberate mislabeling of migrant children at the border, Dominican women in a tourist town, and undocumented migrant sex workers in the United States as victims of “sex trafficking.”
The prayer huddle in the desert reminded me of a spectacle I witnessed at a national conference and fundraising event for a large Christian anti-trafficking organization in Washington, DC. There, the president of the organization asked a woman who they claimed had been “sex trafficked” in her home country of the Philippines to come forward and tell her “trauma story.” The president then asked members of a “porn recovery” group―all men―to put their hands on the woman and pray. She disappeared, engulfed in the center of this prayer circus. Like tent revivals of years past run by charlatan preachers, the weekend-long conference was profitable. The organization’s staff were spread out across the hotel’s conference rooms, where they explained their different fundraising needs. While some were divided up by region of the world, others were thematic. I walked into an IT room where I was greeted by staff who explained they needed funding to buy computers for their missions around the world.
A staff member at a large “rescue” organization sought my counsel on their planned missions in the Dominican Republic. The obsessive interest in producing trafficked bodies―and profiting off them―led this organization to hire what he called “mercenaries.” He boasted that they were “trained” in ascertaining “girls’ ages in cultures where girls can appear older,” a clear reference to the hypersexualization of women of African descent to justify raping enslaved women.
When the director of an anti-trafficking organization in the United States introduced a film on “sex trafficking,” he dwelled on salacious details that tipped into a prurient voyeurism and conflated all forms of sex work with trafficking. There was no mention of sex workers’ solidarity and safety strategies, nor of their leadership in racial justice, abolition, and workers’ and trans rights movements.
An anti-trafficking organization that focuses on trafficking in the sex sector held an “exhibit” and fundraiser in a hotel room in Washington, DC. Women’s clothes, high heels, and condom wrappers were strewn about the room. The walls were plastered with printouts of women’s unobscured faces in ads for sexual services.
A fellow panelist at an anti-trafficking conference at an Ivy League law school included police “mug shots” of women whose faces were visibly bruised in her slide presentation. She claimed they were “prostitutes” and that this is what happens when women are “sex trafficked.”
What happens after rescue missions or events during which sex workers are paraded in person or in photos (the veracity of which is impossible to prove)? Not only are rescues and raids a pipeline to incarceration and deportation (or both), but in some locales police custody can lead to rape, require monetary bribes for release, and result in a police record that will impinge on future opportunities.
Carceral solutions also terrorize. At the United States–Mexico border, vigilantes have asked unaccompanied minors for names and phone numbers of their US-based sponsors waiting for them. As a self-appointed anti-trafficking swat team, they sometimes contact these relatives, they explain, to determine if they are “sex traffickers.” In an episode of the podcast Red Pill 78, called “Save the Children,” a leader of one of these far-right militias boasted, “First off, we grab them, we pray for them, we love on them. In that process of having them here, we have them call their sponsors. And we start that intel, that research. Once we get that information, sometimes we trick them. We tell them we’re sending a care package. We get the address and we tear it up, man.” The Southern Poverty Law Center described that one vigilante group handed out Spanish questionnaires to facilitate “the data collection process.” Imagine receiving a phone call while waiting for news of your child’s safe crossing? Since calls like these resemble extortion threats from smugglers, family members might worry that they will be asked to pay ransom to release their children. Even once they are reunited, they live with the knowledge that armed men know where they live.
Official law enforcement agents and their proxies like these militias act as state-sponsored surveillance workers. Desert towns long have attracted a variety of far-right vigilantes who are motivated by white nationalism, racial animus, and notions of personal freedom. They also know that in out-of-the-way desert border towns there is, as the Southern Poverty Law Center describes, a “lack of oversight” that leads to vigilantes not only terrorizing migrants but also intimidating humanitarian groups. While volunteers traverse desert terrain to leave water jugs for migrants, it is not uncommon to run into men with guns. On a water drop at the height of the summer heat in the Sonoran Desert, I was in a jeep with two male Vietnam veterans when we stumbled into a shooting range that a white man in camo gear had set up. The two vets rattled off the names of the multiple guns the desert shooter had stacked on a folding table and how he had not properly set up safety precautions. On another water drop with a group of retired women, they told how they had run into different vigilantes on “patrol” in the desert. They joked, “They bring guns and we come to the desert heavily armed with water.”
During the phony raid that was filmed in the Dominican Republic, a housekeeper who opened the front door was visibly terrified as men with guns ran into the house. So too were the Dominican women who were used as bait for alleged traffickers as well as to keep donations rolling in. What happened to the women after the cameras were turned off? Just months after the raid, peer outreach workers in the Dominican Republic and a medical doctor who has worked with women involved in sex work for over 30 years told me they had heard nothing about the raid. Nor had they heard about any aftercare, in which they would have been involved since the raid was in the town where they lived and worked (and about which I wrote in What’s Love Got to Do with It? Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic). To be clear, any trauma-informed care would have been necessary to address the harms from their “coercive rescue,” not from their alleged trafficking.
Deliberate misapplication of the legal category trafficking can solve political problems. Crisscrossing the Dominican Republic with a social worker whose organization was in charge of the aftercare for adult trafficking survivors who were “repatriated” by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) from Argentina, we located only half of the 30 or so repatriated women. The Dominican government and the social service agency overseeing their aftercare had “lost” the others. Critically, not all the women had been in situations of forced labor. Instead, a number of the women we visited insisted that they were never trafficked (into any labor sector), but rather had lost a steady income when the Argentine economy took a downward spiral. Unable to pay for airfare to return to the Dominican Republic, they were happy to be cast as “trafficked” and given a plane ticket through the IOM. While the Argentine government exploited the Dominican women to show its anti-trafficking credentials, the women savvily jumped at the benefits that accompany being categorized as “trafficked.” They leveraged trafficking “creep” to their advantage.
When survivors take the lead
Survivors of actual trafficking have been pushing back on phony and spectacularized claims of trafficking (most often “sex trafficking”) that conceal the systems, such as racialized border policies and a lack of labor protections in low-wage labor sectors, that allow situations of trafficking to unfold. For example, former President Trump weaponized panics over “sex trafficking” to justify building his “big, beautiful” wall. In his telling, human trafficking is “grabbing women, in particular―and children, but women―taping them up, wrapping tape around their mouths so they can’t shout or scream, tying up their hands behind their back and even their legs and putting them in a back seat of a car or a van―three, four, five, six, seven at a time.” Actual trafficking survivors refused to be pawns in his political machinations and lurid fantasies. Nor anyone else’s. Instead, survivor leaders demand a seat at tables that determine anti-trafficking policies and post-trafficking assistance programs. So, when Ivanka Trump presided over a “trafficking summit” in the White House, a number of nationally-known survivor leaders turned down their invitations. They would not be reduced to her father’s nonsensical tape talk and be treated as props in his border wall fever dream.
When survivors take the lead, they make clear that the sex panics fueling carceral anti-trafficking activities, such as having police who are members of vice squads conduct raids of sex sector establishments, harms actual survivors as well as others caught as “collateral damage.” When survivors take the lead, they refuse to be treated primarily as witnesses in a legal system that prioritizes prosecutions and in which survivors “become little more than a tool for that purpose.” When survivors take they lead, such as on the US Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, they are emphatic that their recommendations on anti-trafficking policies are rooted in their expertise and not “just our trauma stories.”
Mixing panics about sex trafficking, undocumented migration, and border security are a particularly combustible combination. Handing migrants over to Border Patrol to “save” them from alleged sex traffickers grows out of white supremacist calls to further militarize the southern border. The vigilantes in the Sonoran Desert were more intent, for example, on finding undocumented migrants than in apprehending their alleged traffickers. The desire to limit migrants’ freedom of movement, along with people’s sexual agency (particularly women’s), fuel rescues that pay political and financial dividends. In so doing, multiple harms are set in motion as vulnerable people become props in political stunts and fundraising cons.