New ‘Sex Trafficking’ Bill Takes Moral Panic Into Banking System

Since the end of World War II, Americans have been swept into at least six significant waves of what sociologists call “moral panic,” which is defined by Stanley Cohen in his classic 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics as when a “condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” Cohen also noted that a key characteristic of moral panic is that the perceived “threat” may actually be real thing, but in the public mind, its danger has been greatly exaggerated.

In addition to dozens of smaller-scale moral panics, the six major “threats,” as enumerated in a study at Grinnell College, have been, in the 1950s, comic books, followed by teen rebellion as in the British “mods and rockers” of the early he 1960s.

The 1970s saw moral panic in the form of the War on Drugs while the 1980s scare du jour was the “Satanic Panic” that saw a wide range of pop culture phenomenon from heavy metal music to the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons as literal products of the devil. In the 1990s, “sex offenders” took center stage as the object of American moral panic.

But in the new millennium, “human trafficking” and “sex trafficking” have taken over as leading generators of moral panic in the United States. Sex trafficking, of course, is a real problem. In 2016, according to FBI statistics, there were a total of 879 arrests for human trafficking involving “commercial sex acts” in the United States, 52 of them involving juveniles. More than half of those arrests, 471, took place in Texas.

But the perceived threat of “sex trafficking” appears to far outweigh the actual number of instances of that crime — and has led to such legislation as the FOSTA/SESTA bill, passed by Congress and signed into law by Donald Trump on April 11. 

But while FOSTA/SESTA targets supposed sex trafficking online, leading to the immediate shutdowns of such services as, the Craigslist personal ads and Reddit’s “dark net” discussion forum, a bill passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives the day before Trump signed FOSTA aims to strike at the banking system.

The End Banking for Human Traffickers Act of 2018, passed on April 10 by a vote of 408-2, with only two House members—Justin Amash of Michigan, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, both Republicans—casting “no” votes. 

The bill is now in the Senate, but no date for when Senators might take up the bill has been announced.

The bill would amend the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 to add the Treasury Department to the current President’s  Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking. But the bill appears largely toothless, merely requiring the Secretary of the Treasury to “report” on federal efforts to curtail money laundering activities by alleged sex traffickers.

Even an Associated Press report on the bill’s passage through the House described the new legislation, authored by California Republican Ed Royce, as taking only “modest steps toward hindering money laundering by human traffickers.”

The bill also requires the task force to offer recommendations to Congress about how to stop the flow of laundered money from sex trafficking operations, and also requires the U.S. State Department, which already monitors sex trafficking around the world, to add money laundering to the list of factors it watches for when evaluating how friendly a country is toward sex trafficking criminals.

So why bother with this new bill, if it takes no real meaningful measures to stop real sex trafficking activities, or stem the flow of cash that results from trafficking operations? The bill appears motivated not by a genuine desire to do anything that may be effective in combatting the problem, but instead by moral panic.

The bill could simply be a new effort to bring pressure on the adult industry, which in the public mind is all-too-often seen as dominated by sex traffickers. In fact, the group Human Trafficking Search claims on its website that the porn industry and the criminal sex trafficking business are one and the same.

“Pornography is in and of itself a form of sex trafficking,” the site says. “There are multiple organizations, such as the Salvation Army that believe due to the exploitative nature of the industry, pornography is also a form of sex trafficking.”

Legislation such as the End Banking for Human Traffickers Act of 2018 could be seen less as an effort to serve actual victims and stop criminals than as an effort to tighten political and legal controls on sexual activities—such as the adult industry.

Money laundering for sex trafficking or anything else is already illegal. The new bill adds another layer of bureaucracy by adding the Treasury Department to the lengthy list of government agencies already involved in anti-trafficking efforts .

Many large banks currently refuse to engage in financial transactions with adult industry businesses, and they are legally allowed to do so. The new legislation, if it passes the Senate as expected, will allow the Treasury Department to place additional pressure in banks to refuse loans and accounts for adult businesses.

The current moral panic about “sex trafficking,” if the new bill is any indication, is actually a moral panic not about a particularly brutal form of sexual abuse, but a panic about sexual expression itself, of any kind, but particularly in the form of commercial adult entertainment

Photo by Sebastian Wallroth / Wikimedia Commons