Anti-trafficking advocates acknowledge the goof but say the celebrities' point is still accurate: Far too many young girls are sold for sex in the US. The Department of Justice numbers, they say, reflect a fraction of the real victims.
But the misstep, say critics, is a prime example of the problem with how American activists have started to tackle the real problem of trafficking. Hype over such high and inaccurate numbers of "child sex slaves" leads to a misguided response at best, they say. At worst, it siphons financial resources away from preventing other sorts of human trafficking. These critics worry that the growing – alarmist – focus on sex trafficking in America, bolstered by this sort of sensationalism, undermines solutions to problems, such as poverty and homelessness, that lead to exploited youth in the first place.
One such critic – Ann Jordan, director of the program on trafficking and forced labor at American University's law school in Washington, D.C. – has watched the US anti-sex-trafficking campaign with dismay.
A longtime advocate against human rights violations associated with various types of forced labor globally – such as indentured servitude, debt bondage, and slavery – Ms. Jordan says the anti-domestic-sex-trafficking movement "just took off and created its own industry," in part because it touched upon a conservative social nerve.
"Everybody wants to save the virgins, right?" she states. The hype, she says, ends up sidelining other concerns – such as the broader categories of human trafficking or even forced labor, which do not have to involve sex. "You need to tailor your response to the reality. You should not tailor your response to the hype."
What exactly is 'sex trafficking'?
When nonprofits and celebrities and even sex-worker advocates throw around the term "sex trafficking," what do they mean?