My dissertation research hits on some of the cultural uses of fear and shame tropes to police gender, race, and sexuality for purposes of social control and nationalism. The trope of “Trafficked Women and Children” was particularly popular at the beginning of the 20th century in British, US, and Canadian media. The term “trafficked” was a replacement for the earlier term “White Slave Trade,” and it channeled — or stoked — paranoia about citizenship status, immigration, the increasing political and economic presence of (white, middle classs) women, as well as the visibility of Black men moving from rural southern regions to industrial northern and western regions in the U.S. during the Great Migration. (I recently stumbled upon a publication from 1912 called “Black Traffic in White Girls,” which I believe may very well be the 1912 version of QAnon — but I will share that in a different post).
In other words, the current obsession and sensationalism about “trafficked children” we see distributed across various online and offline channels, including information influenced by the QAnon conspiracy phenomenon, is a long established cultural trope. But what purposes do these narratives serve? In general, like other disinformation campaigns, these stories distract the public from more insidious crimes and human abuse committed by the state, the exploitative economic systems, and the expectations and restrictions of family structures. These sensational stories are designed to shock and corral consensus feelings around specific kinds of perceived violations of the codes of society.
But they’re often made up, exaggerated, and, of course, they are targeted for racist, sexist manipulation of social feelings.
For example, earlier this fall a sensational feel-good story swept through social media channels about a successful law enforcement operation that “rescued 39 kids from a trailer in Georgia.”
Some version of this claim, with the appended question “How is this not the biggest story in America right now?” was shared by thousands of social media users. Besides the fact that the claims/details of the operation were just wrong, the added question adds an element of shame/shock to the misinformation. The rhetorical question does two things to serve an agenda: it calls into question the reliability of mainstream news sources (a priority for organizations that promote extremist positions), and it asserts peer pressure to coerce a particular response: You should be shocked and concerned about this issue.
Michael Hobbes’s reporting for HuffPost provides some helpful context for the claims of the shared story, however. From the details of the operation (no, there was no trailer, for example) to the legal meanings of the terms “trafficking” and “children” and “missing,” the reality of this operation and the conditions of the missing children turns out to be much more nuanced.
The operation netted only one new charge of sex trafficking against a perpetrator. — Hobbes for HuffPost, Sept 7, 2020
It’s important to point out that some of the “missing children” were being targeted for arrest. Let’s say that again: some of these missing individuals were not being sought for rescue but for arrest. As this article goes on to report, the majority of child trafficking cases raise issues of agency (did the teenager leave home and seek sex work voluntarily?) and other sources of abuse (was the teenager abused by their parent or guardian? how does the underage person’s sexuality factor into the situation?):
In the majority of underage sex trafficking cases, Albright said, the child is homeless, has run away from foster care or has been kicked out by their parents, often due to being queer or transgender. Many of these kids end up trading sex for money, drugs or a place to sleep because it’s their only way to survive. Under the legal definition, their “trafficker” could be a pimp but could also be a customer. — Hobbes for HuffPost, Sept 7, 2020
The irony is that the sensationalism of the story — the trope of “child trafficking” which involves (white) children with no agency being rescued by “good guys” — obscures the real tragedies of our social systems. There is something to be concerned about. But these framing stories prevent us from seeing and understanding the desperation, harm, and danger caused by the very systems and structures that we are meant to trust.
Seeing stories like these pop up in my social media feeds reminds me that the power of narrative tropes is not only culturally mobile — capable of moving across national and geographic borders as well as across narrative forms — but also long-lasting. It also reminds me that cultural studies not only helps us understand how and why specific objects or discourses from the past were circulated but how to contextualize the cultural objects and discourses around us every day.