John Stossel and Elizabeth Nolan Brown Use Robert Kraft Case to Demolish the Sex Trafficking Myth

Photo of Elizabeth Nolan Brown smiling.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown helps Reason correspondent John Stossel blast a gaping hole in the sex trafficking panic. (Screenshot via John Stossel's video at Reason.com)
In a brilliant video from Reason commentator John Stossel, Stossel and Reason scribe Elizabeth Nolan Brown use the Robert Kraft case to dismantle the pernicious myth of sex trafficking.

If all reporters and politicians could be bound to a chair, their eyelids pinned back, a la Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, and repeatedly forced to watch John Stossel‘s recent video for Reason on the “Moral Panic over Sex Work,” the world would be a more rational place.

With the assistance of Reason associate editor Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Stossel addresses the media frenzy over New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s legal woes resulting from a massive bust of Florida massage parlors in February. Using that case as an example, Brown and Stossel lay siege to the insidious myth that the U.S. is currently locked in the grip of a sex trafficking epidemic.

As Brown observes, the headlines surrounding the Kraft case followed a predictable pattern: First, the media regurgitated law enforcement’s narrative that a sinister human trafficking enterprise had been uncovered and dismantled. Cops said the traffickers treated the women as slaves, forcing them to perform sex acts for money on hundreds of alleged johns, who, along with Kraft, are now charged with soliciting prostitution.

“They had all these big announcements at first saying they had busted up an international sex trafficking ring, implying these women weren’t allowed to leave,” Brown says in the video.

But as almost always happens, authorities ended up conceding that they basically busted 10 “rub-and-tug” operations, wherein consensual commercial sex between adults, aka, prostitution, took place.

That’s opposed to sex trafficking, which is defined by federal statute as involving children in the sex trade or adults through force, fraud or coercion.  FYI: the term “human trafficking” encompasses both sex and labor trafficking. The latter is more common, but sex trafficking garners all the media coverage.

Kraft, 77, is alleged to have received illicit oral and manual stimulation from two women at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida, for which prosecutors claim Kraft tipped the women $100 each. The widowed sports titan has pleaded not guilty to the single misdemeanor charge.

A photo of Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Kraft may be a billionaire, but we should all applaud his fight against prosecutors gone wild. (Kraft Sports Productions via Flickr; photo cropped from original.)

What’s happened to the women — the “victims,” according to the police? They, along with many of their coworkers have been arrested and charged with various counts related to, you guessed it, prostitution.

Despite a multi-agency investigation that included assistance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and took place over several months, just one person has been charged with human trafficking, according to newspaper accounts, an Orlando woman who allegedly managed a Vero Beach spa.

That’s lean pickins for an investigation that involved investigators’ rooting around in the spas’ trash cans, placing tracking devices on the women’s vehicles, and, as Brown explains, “following these women around in the grocery stores, watching them buy condoms.”

As part of this ridiculous overkill, police obtained so-called “sneak and peak” warrants to plant video cameras in the massage parlors and capture wank jobs in action. Such warrants exist under the auspices of the USA Patriot Act, and are supposed to be used to take down terrorists, though arresting sex workers is a helluva lot easier.

Which is no doubt why sneak and peek warrants are a common tool for Florida cops when it comes to staking out massage parlors. In most cases, the alleged customers do not have the resources to challenge the charges against them, much less question the legality of the warrants. But Kraft is a billionaire several times over and has assembled a legal dream team to battle the prosecution.

As a result, Kraft seems to have the prosecutors on the ropes. Judges in the case have ordered all video and audio recordings sealed and ruled that they cannot be used as evidence.

But even if Kraft prevails, the war on sex workers, which Brown has reported on extensively over the years, seems likely to continue.

Brown points out in the video that the press and police persist in conflating prostitution with sex trafficking, and that politicians and celebrities routinely spout debunked stats claiming that hundreds of thousands of minors are at risk of being trafficked.

“If that was the case, cops would be able to find this all the time,” Brown tells Stossel. “Cops wouldn’t have to go through these elaborate stings.”

And yet, the hysteria persists, apparently impervious to the reality that, yes, sex trafficking exists, but according to the FBI’s numbers, it remains rare relative to other crimes.

One culprit responsible for the misinformation and fear, as Brown notes, is all the filthy lucre local cop shops get from the feds.

“There’s a lot of federal money coming out of this,”  Brown tells Stossel. “These human trafficking task forces is where the federal government funds these local cops to do these stings, and if they call them human trafficking stings, they get this money.”

In addition to the cash, cracking down on sex trafficking is popular, even if most people couldn’t tell you what it is.

Stossel speaks to a couple of sex workers for his mini-documentary. One of them, Kaytlin Bailey, a sex workers’ rights advocate with the campaign Decriminalize Sex Work, comments on the bipartisan nature of this moral panic.

Both the political left and right have embraced the sex trafficking hoax as their cause, Bailey says, albeit for different reasons.

She explains, “So much of the anti-prostitution laws that are being pushed is a combination of the conservative fetish for going after people for doing sex stuff and the liberal instinct to help a group of people that they can’t be bothered to understand.”

And ICYMI, read about the time Reason’s merry band of scribes put on a forum in Phoenix:
At Reason Foundation Event in Phoenix, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin Denounce Government Overreach in Backpage Case

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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