by Furry Girl


Last night, I was doing some reading about the most popular political panic of the mid-80s, and stopped to tweet, "Sex work activists should read about the political manufacturing of the crack 'epidemic.' 25 years ago, it was crack; now it's trafficking."  I'm no expert on drug issues, but I feel like I should explain my comment in more detail, so here is a (non-exhaustive) list of parallels between the crack epidemic and the sex trafficking epidemic.  I think it would benefit sex workers' rights supporters to look at how another moral panic was whipped up and profited from by those with special agendas.

Medicalized diagnoses, criminalized cures

First, I have to start out with an important note on how language is used as a tool to frame an issue in one's favor.  Proponents of both the crack craze and the idea of sex trafficking as a vast and ubiquitous problem (and inseparable from consensual sex work) use language of health problems like epidemic, plague, disease, and addiction, but their proposed solutions to both are arrest, shaming, further marginalization, and punishment.  Imagine if police responded to the health problem of people having the flu this winter by conducting taxpayer-funded raids, kicking in the doors of homes where people were suspected of staying home sick - arresting them, subjecting them to fines and imprisonment, and even keeping a public registry of the dangerous monsters who have been convicted of carrying the flu, preventing people who ever had the flu to be able to lead a non-flu-tainted life.  But we don't do that to flu sufferers for that "epidemic."

Causes and effects

Continuing on with of the topic of medical euphemism is the issue of confusing symptoms with causes of social ills.  The crack "epidemic" was framed by politicians on both sides of the political spectrum as not a symptom of poverty, inequality, and larger social disparities, but as the cause of social problems in the first place.  Urban ghettos weren't getting worse because of the lack of social services, educational opportunities, affordable healthcare, and quality jobs, they were simply suffering from crack cocaine.  Sex trafficking is also seen not as a response to social forces such as some countries having more wealth than others, the desire to go abroad to earn better money, few employment options for undocumented migrant workers, or the difficulties in legally entering a Western country if you're poor.  No, sex trafficking is the social ill to be eliminated, and all that complex stuff about class, race, immigration, and gender gets neatly swept under the rug in favor of an explanation that lets people scapegoat manufactured omnipresent boogeymen while failing to address real social problems.

At last, an issue everyone can support!

As mentioned above, the crack panic wasn't just a right-wing pet project, but a topic around which both liberals and conservatives could battle to see which party could take the loudest and harshest stance.  No more worrying about pesky minor problems like the economy and joblessness, let's give everyone a chance to come together and agree: the real issue plaguing the country is crack/sex trafficking.  There are few topics around which both Democrats and Republicans will battle over who supports/condemns it more, and when such is the case, you have to consider the idea that such an issue is being used as a shiny distraction.  (See also: hysteria around terrorism being successfully deployed by all politicians to keep people from thinking about eroding civil liberties and a tanking economy.)

Both panics exploded in popularity during major economic downtowns

The crack epidemic could be said to have peaked in the late 1980s, the same time as the US was experiencing a recession.  Our current recession and financial meltdown dovetails perfectly with the rise of interest in and coverage of sex trafficking.

The solution to both problems is not harm reduction, but arrest and locking people up

Billions of dollars were spent on stateside law enforcement as a means to curb the "epidemic" of crack addiction, but where did that get us, as a country, aside from having the world's highest rate of incarceration?  Likewise, does anyone really feel safer in when their tax money is used on costly police stings that arrest and jail prostitutes in hopes of being able to fin even one "trafficking victim"?  Lots of money is wasted on "cures" that do nothing to help real victims, do everything to drive both victims and criminals further underground, and ultimately only achieve good PR and further funding for police, politicians, and other people with a stake in selling the moral panic.  The solution is never to provide services to people at risk of exploitation, but to use arrests and imprisonment to try and cover up things that cause discomfort among members of the middle and upper classes.

Who needs evidence when you have hysteria?

Question the anti-crack rhetoric, and a public figure would be attacked as "soft on crime," and detractors could obtusely ask how one could be in support of the crack plague taking over the country.  Similarly, if you question any part of the agenda of those selling and profiting from the sex trafficking scare, you are painted as being in favor of raping children and the sexual enslavement of millions.  The topic is framed and such over-the-top hysterical ways, it leaves no room for reasonable discussion of the facts.  Anyone who questions anything is a monster.

Emotional-tinged "statistics" trump real data

Parents were told that young people around the country were falling victim to crack addiction, and that "an entire generation" was hooked on the substance.  However, even according to government surveys, cocaine use/experimentation of any kind had peaked among young people in 1982, and in 1986, while the media was touting the coming crackpocalypse, daily cocaine use of any variety among high school seniors was a mere 0.4%.  (How many of them were crack users in particular is unknown.)  Less than 4 out of every 1000 seniors is obviously not "an entire generation" addicted to crack, but boring facts like that have no place in a moral panic.  (Just like boring facts rarely get any play in discussions about sex trafficking, where people prefer to fantasize about how millions of children are being captured and raped at every turn.)

The "epidemic" is portrayed as a personal threat to all Americans and their children

Those with something to gain have managed to hype both crack and sex trafficking as attacks upon the fabric of our culture over which everyone must worry, painting pictures of crack dealers hiding behind every corner, ready to get Johnny Quarterback hooked on drugs, or kidnap little Betsy Countryclub from her ballet lessons and sell her into a child sexual slavery ring.  Everyone is a target, and the evil people are poised at this very moment to ensnare your children.  There's no time to think, only to worry hysterically.

It's not about race and class, except when it is

With both the crack and sex trafficking panic, there is this pervasive undercurrent of fear of the other, fear of nonwhite and poor people, fear of them infiltrating us and ruining everything "we" built.  The crack epidemic was about fear of poor, urban Blacks and Latinos, mostly young men who might be in scary gangs.  The sex trafficking epidemic, when not about stealing your children for sexual slavery, has the more subtle racial component of a fear of migrant workers sneaking into "our" country and doing morally distasteful things with our husbands, our dads, our brothers, corrupting us, tearing at our family values, and making us impure by association.

Extreme cases are way more exciting than our routine problems

Alcohol, car crashes, and tobacco kill tons of people, but that's not very exciting, and such "mundane" deaths hardly every make the news.  But comparatively-rare crack-related deaths and injuries became a top political issue for both parties.  Likewise, spousal abuse, domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault are accepted as facts of life, only making the news when there's some bizarre, celebrity, or "funny" angle to the story.  Yet, when occasional cases of barbaric forced sex trafficking or the pimping of an underage girl are uncovered, it's held up by proponents as a major problem that is happening to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the country.  The focus is always on exploiting extreme cases for political gain and financial contributions, and insisting that extreme cases are the norm.

The issues play well on TV and make for dramatic publicity stunts

In 1989, George Bush Senior held a famous press conference to hype the crack problem where he showed bag of the substance and declared that it had been seized in a drug deal in the park across the street from the White House.  A photo of Bush holding the bag was printed in newspapers around the country, proving that crack was everywhere now, even in "good" neighborhoods, and thus, warranted the panic of all Americans.  However, the backstory to that photo-op is much more interesting.  Since no drugs, let alone crack, were available for purchase in Lafayette Park, the government needed to manufacture a situation that would make for good televison.  An 18-year-old African American high schooler was cajoled to come to the park to sell the crack, a young man who famously asked the undercover DEA entrapping him, "Where the fuck is the White House?"  I can't recall the last time a week went by that I didn't read about an anti-trafficking publicity push, carefully coordinated and framed for maximize sensationalism.

Now, the "war on drugs" is largely recognized as a failure

I can only hope the war on sex workers, framed as the "war on trafficking," will meet the same fate.  I'd love to hear how anti-drug war activists were able to shift public perceptions from the early 90s onward, because we should really emulate whatever they've been doing.  (Or how to play up everything the government and moral crusaders are doing incorrectly.)


If you have more interest in this topic, the most awesome and in-depth thing I read was The Construction of America's Crack Crisis by Craig Reinarman and Harry Levine.  Hat tip to their research for providing a bunch of the information in this blog post.


  1. Excellent writing, excellent exposition.

    Comment by elduque — November 11, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

  2. Great work. I've often thought of sex trafficking as the new Satanic child abuse (anyone around in 1980s USA will remember that particular panic), the parallels with the "crack epidemic" never occurred to me.

    Comment by Wendy — November 12, 2011 @ 1:08 am

  3. Thanks for the positive comments!

    Wendy: There are a bunch of things that have parallels to the sex trafficking panic. I was doing one of my mutli-hour "wanders" around the internet reading all sorts of things, and got in a vein about the crack "epidemic," and it was amazing how similar the two issues are promoted. That lengthy article I linked is a great history.

    Comment by Furry Girl — November 12, 2011 @ 1:10 am

  4. "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." - H. L. Mencken

    Alas, nothing's really changed in the past century, except for the specific means of spreading the hobgoblin panic. :-(

    Comment by Maggie McNeill — November 12, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

  5. Totally off topic but wanted to pester you into watching this great vid of an It Gets Better message for sex workers:

    Comment by FeministWhore — November 13, 2011 @ 3:08 am

  6. I found myself writing a Facebook rant not long ago about this subject. Being a guy and uninformed on the subject I found myself constrained as to how I could talk about the subject, so I used the moral outrage card and directed it at those who continue to drive prostitution underground, thus fueling the evil criminal organizations that exploit and traffic women. I really know nothing about human trafficking, but it seemed right to say and I got a number of positive responses from women/family. After reading this, I'm less certain about using the human trafficking card to promote legalization of prostitution. Anyway, I should get back to sleep, but I'd like to hear more from you on the subject.

    Comment by Steve — December 5, 2011 @ 2:33 am

  7. Steve: I don't write a lot about trafficking and the rescue industry on my blog, because I try to stick to subjects with which I have direct personal experience, but I wrote a post a while about about how to research the topic: I have other posts under this tag:

    Comment by Furry Girl — December 5, 2011 @ 2:38 am

  8. Comment by Trackbacks — December 17, 2017 @ 2:11 am

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