Two weeks ago, actor Ashton Kutcher resigned as board chairman of Thorn, an organization he helped launch to combat child sex trafficking. The decision came after the revelation that Kutcher — and his wife, actor Mila Kunis — had written glowing letters of support for convicted rapist Danny Masterson, an actor who worked with them on “That ’70s Show.”
“I cannot allow my error in judgment to distract from our efforts and the children we serve,” Kutcher wrote in his resignation letter. Thorn added that his decision was “rooted in the recognition of recent events and ensuring Thorn remains focused on its mission.”
The developments give us an opening to discuss an issue that’s been on my mind for a few years now: the dubious foundations of a particular strain of activism (or purported activism) against sex trafficking.
Let’s start with a simple statement of fact. Sex trafficking is a horrific crime and one that is underreported; it’s a legitimate problem. I’m grateful for folks who earnestly, sensitively and carefully engage in efforts to end it.
But here’s another statement of fact: The discourse around trafficking has become tinged with a bit of political conspiracism. By which I mean, portions of the discourse have been infected with “Pizzagate”-esque crackpot theories that serve political goals; embrace harmful mythologies about the source of most sexual violence; and/or, perhaps most disturbingly, can serve as veils that shroud actual instances of sexual violence.
In a post for The New Republic headlined “How the Anti-Trafficking Movement Gave Cover to Opportunistic Men,” staff writer Melissa Gira Grant explores the phenomenon of what she calls the “anti-trafficking charity-celebrity complex.” She focuses on Kutcher and also on Tim Ballard, whose anti-trafficking organization inspired “Sound of Freedom,” a controversial film popular on the right.
In the anti-trafficking sector, and the anti-child trafficking and anti-sex trafficking sectors in particular, there are no shortage of organizations purporting to rescue children—or at least to raise awareness of the need to rescue children—yet whose founders appear to spend more time doing photo ops than actually changing the lives of victims and survivors of trafficking. Perhaps the most spectacularly self-imploding of these organizations is Operation Underground Railroad, or OUR, whose Trump-approved, QAnon-adjacent founder Tim Ballard left the group dramatically in recent months. Last week, Ballard was denounced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for his “morally unacceptable” behavior, as Vice News reported, in his efforts to use the Mormon church to advance OUR and its ventures. This week, Vice confirmed reports from Utah journalist Lynn Packer that Ballard’s departure was after an investigation into seven allegations of sexual misconduct made by support staff on the group’s self-styled “rescue” missions.
(In a statement last week, Ballard denied the allegations of sexual misconduct, calling them “baseless inventions designed to destroy me and the movement we have built to end the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable children.” Operation Underground Railroad told The New Republic that it is “dedicated to combatting sexual abuse and does not tolerate sexual harassment or discrimination by anyone in its organization” and that it has retained an outside law firm to look into the Ballard allegations.)
Two months ago, when a Black woman named Carlee Russell mysteriously disappeared in Alabama, baseless conspiracy theories spread far and wide claiming that she was a trafficking victim. Russell soon confessed that it had been a kidnapping hoax.
When it comes to those who spread conspiracy theories online, it can be hard to differentiate the malicious from the simply misinformed. But in my view, it’s undeniable that references to sex trafficking now come with a bit of pop culture currency. Speaking out against it can allow someone to signal their purported virtue by focusing on — if not obsessing over — sensational tales rather than looking closer to home.
By fighting against sex trafficking while advocating for a friend convicted of sexual assault, Ashton Kutcher showed us what hypocrisy on this issue can look like. But there are plenty more examples to go around.