She’s Not There

I’ve been following the Village Voice v. Ashton Kutcher story for a while and I remain deeply unsettled by it. Not because I think child prostitution is yippy-skippy, but because, you know, I think child molestation sucks and I think anyone who would ritually abuse children at a daycare really sucks and yet… you know, we sent people to prison and ruined their lives for ritually molesting children at daycares when, as you know, there never was any Satanic ritual abuse.

Which is not to say that kids aren’t sometimes molested at daycare.

That’s, I suspect, kind of the situation here. Are there young girls being trafficked? Yeah, I think so. But hundreds of thousands of them? I think that’s a number we should back away from very carefully, not just because it seems highly inflated, but because, as we know because we know American history, once you have a problem that large, we must find perpetrators. And in order to find those perpetrators, we must have details from the victims. And if we don’t have victims, we have “victims.”

I’m a feminist so when someone tells me that he or she has been the victim of a sexually-based crime, I believe them. But I’m very leery about believing friend of a friend reporting. The difference between “this happened to me” and “she told me this happened to a bunch of friends of hers” is pretty enormous. Which, again, is not to say that, if authorities are getting stories from kids about stuff happening to their friends, they shouldn’t look into it. Of course they should.

But, like, take this story I learned about over at Radley Balko‘s today. The TBI says Coffee County here in Tennessee is one of four major hubs of child-sex-trafficking in the state. Let that sink in. “The TBI report released in June suggests that Coffee, Davidson, Shelby and Knox counties each have more than 100 cases of human sex trafficking during the past two years.”

Listen, I know what I’m about to tell you and my visceral reaction to reading that sentence is still to kind of feel sick to my stomach. You know what I’m saying? I am about to tell you that that sentence is bullshit. I know it’s bullshit. I read the story earlier today and have known for hours that it’s bullshit. And yet, I read it and I think about some kid my nephew’s age being forced to give some dude a blowjob and I want a gun.

Sentences like that make people feel like a little vigilante justice is okay. Sentences like that make me feel like a little vigilante justice is okay and I know that sentence is false. That’s how powerful and primal the emotions that get stirred up when people talk about this stuff are.

Okay, the sentence before that reads, “However, not a single report from the Tullahoma Police Department completed during the past two years indicates any human sex trafficking incidents.” A few sentences later, it reads, “Although the Tullahoma Police Department and Coffee County Sheriff’s Department were listed as survey participants, officials aren’t sure who – if anyone – received the e-mailed survey.”

So, somehow, Coffee County has had over 50 cases of underage-sex-trafficking a year and yet there’s not a single report from the Tullahoma Police Department that would indicate any incidents? The Tullahoma Police Department is listed as a survey participant, but nobody knows who, if anyone, from the department participated? I’m prepared to believe a lot bad of any police department in this state, but I’m having a hard time believing the Tullahoma police would lie about a problem that, if they had it, would mean tons of money getting thrown in their direction. I mean, look at how the War on Drugs got towns throughout America SWAT teams whether they actually need them or not. Police departments don’t usually lie in a direction that would mean they didn’t get resources they would otherwise seem to be in line for.

So, if there are fifty underage kids a year being trafficked in Coffee County, where are they? We have mandatory reporting. If you know a kid is being sexually abused, under state law you have a legal obligation to report it. So, who are these people who know 50 kids a year are being trafficked in Coffee County and who are answering that on a survey and yet aren’t telling the police? Because we need to put their asses in jail.

Unless there are no kids.

Yeah, it’s disturbing. There are kids. There are. But in Coffee County? Maybe not. Definitely not 50 a year. I mean, my god, Coffee County, according to their own website only has two towns. Twenty-five kids a year brought to each town?! Every other week someone is shipping a kid into each of these towns in order to facilitate their rape? I mean, just even at a county level, in a county with two acknowledged towns (Wikipedia generously gives them four), we’re supposed to nod along with and believe that once a week someone is bringing a different kid into that county so that someone else can rape him or her? And someone in that county who is high enough up that they can fill out a TBI survey knows about it but never mentioned it to the police?

I assume you can see why this bothers me. If kids need help, we need to try to help them. But it’s not unproblematic to just make up numbers. Money that Tennessee might send to Coffee County would not go to, say, Shelby County, where there are underage prostitutes. Or, worse, what if the state were to say to Coffee County, “Okay, now that you have this money, we’d better see results.” Would pressure to find perpetrators result in witch-hunts?

I think we all know the answer is yes.

Can we have a discussion about child prostitution as a country without it devolving into a witch-hunt? I think so, but I worry, you know?

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8 thoughts on “She’s Not There

  1. Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. –Voltaire

  2. If we go by the mass market paperbacks–which is where the majority of Americans seem to glean their ‘facts’ about prurient goings on–this sex trafficking takes place largely on isolated farms where immigrant children are warehoused for a period of time before being shipped in ‘nondiscript windowless vans’ to the next isolated farmhouse. Nevermind that if these vans are indeed windowless they would be a bitch to drive.

    So largely rural counties, according to popular mystery novelists, are hubs of activity for sex slaves. Ignoring the main fact that businesses both legit and seamy require not only Supply but Demand as well. The books do have those same windowless vans ferrying sex slaves to wild debauches in the Big City but that stretches the bounds of credulity for me.

    Yes, there is sex trafficking ‘for reals’ but I suspect that, like terrorism, it is exaggerated for the purposes of gaining control.

  3. I’m not saying that the numbers aren’t exaggerated, but a) I wouldn’t rely on police numbers in coming to that conclusion, since the vast majority of sex crimes go unreported, and b) don’t forget that Village Voice Media has a direct interest in downplaying sex trafficking:

    http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2011/07/14/tim-burgess-links-village-voice-media-to-child-prostitution

    http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/09/village-voice-sex-ads/

    http://gawker.com/5642182/%7CcommentLink%7C

  4. Then what numbers can we rely on? Guessing based on what age the women in the photos in the back of the Village Voice might look like and then multiplying that by 50? Going by what the TBI says, even though the people they claim responded to the survey don’t remember responding to the survey and multiplying that by 50?

    Listen, SOMEONE responded to that TBI survey from Coffee County–and I think we can reasonably say that the kinds of people the TBI would have surveyed are law enforcement, social workers, non-profits, ministers, and teachers. Every single one of those professions is not only legally obligated to report to the police any instances of sexual abuse of a child, they are regularly reminded of that.

    So, either the problem in Coffee County is that there is trafficking, AND people are breaking the law by not reporting it to police or the police are fucking up by not properly recording those reports. Or there’s no need to report anything to the police, because nothing is happening, but for some reason, someone inflated numbers to the TBI.

    That doesn’t have anything to do with the Village Voice. Our numbers are wrong.

    Does it matter? Like I said, it sure does if the state decides to spend money on it at counties that don’t need it get that money and counties that do, don’t.

    So, okay, VVM is underestimating when they give a number of about 1,000. And obviously people are overestimating when they give a number of hundreds of thousands.

    So, what is it? Which side should we err on? And how do we move forward in an honest way without starting a witch hunt? I mean, shouldn’t we try to find those kids? Shouldn’t we try to stop those johns?

  5. That’s exactly it though–people don’t report it even when they’re obligated to, and even when they do, the police don’t do anything a lot of the time. That’s the real issue here. Someone (higher up than the TBI) needs to investigate just what the hell is going on in Coffee County, and if the numbers are that high, then figure out just how the system failed so horribly. And if not, redirect the money.

    Also, do we know for sure that when they say 50 cases, they mean 50 different kids? Or 50 instances, possibly involving the same kids more than once? That seems more likely. Legally, it’s a separate charge every time.

    And yes, VVM DOES matter. They’re the ones who have actively profited from sex trafficking, and now want to turn around and deride the people who are trying to fight it. They want to use a debate about numbers to deflect their own responsibility.

    By the way, I know Nashville Scene isn’t part of VVM, but they still use Backpage for their classifieds, don’t they?

  6. Here’s a concern: how are we defining sex trafficking?

    I know someone whose parent essentially pimped her out for drugs when she was a child. Some of the men that raped her were the parent’s “friends” in the partner-but-not-committed sense. Some of them just had drugs or cash. She was never transported anywhere, she was never taken across state lines, but I can’t, in my head, accept that she was not child-sex-trafficked, whatever the Mann Act has to say about it. But she has never reported it, because the statute of limitations had expired by the time she was grown and came to terms with what had happened to her.

    Now, that doesn’t change shit about the problems with the Coffee County numbers, or anything else, but it occurs to me that the number may be closer to the high than the low, because of things like what happened to my friend.

    And it also makes me want to use a gun in a way I don’t use guns, somewhere in my brain that is more reptile and monkey than human and thinks law and order can go hang if it means certain no-count pieces of shit get removed from this planet in short order. Which is why I don’t work with my bosses on cases that involve child molestation when I can possibly avoid it, because I get an angry that does not go away.

  7. Well, that would be another nice thing to know about, say, the TBI survey or these national numbers. What definition are we using of trafficking? To me, there’s an element of transporting you to or keeping you in a place where you have no support system of people who know you or where you are off the radar of potential support systems.

    You see what I’m saying? In your friend’s case, if she was allowed to go to school and no one recognized that she was in trouble, that’s one set of problems. If she was kept home from school so that her trouble would not be recognized, that’s another set of problems.

    If we’re just focusing on child sexual exploitation in general, that’s fine and great. Let’s just say so. If we’re focusing on any child sold for sex, that’s also fine and great. But I think some people, like me, think “trafficked” means that they are being deliberately held in some way that keeps them from coming to the attention of people who can help them, either because they are kept out of school or held in a town far from where they live or whatever.

    If that’s not the case, again fine, but we need some definition of terms.

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