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Pizzagate and the Long Legacy of the Fabricated Sex Slave

Long before Pizzagate, fabricated stories of sex slavery grabbed headlines and launched amateur rescue attempts.
The site of the latest sex trafficking conspiracy theory. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The site of the latest sex trafficking conspiracy theory. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Sex Slave Story Revealed to Be Fabricated.” This headline could have run in a recent Washington Post, atop any number of stories breaking down the conspiracy theory fandom now tagged “Pizzagate.” But years before journalists were dispatched to explain how a man chasing Internet clues came to open fire in a Washington, D.C., restaurant, there were journalists chasing the tales of a purported sex slavery rescue organization from Cambodia to the Department of State.

In 2012, the Cambodia Daily began a series of stories on a local charity purporting to aid victims of sex trafficking, one that had developed an international reputation. But the victims, reporters said, weren’t what the charity claimed. To raise their own stature and gain the attention of donors, the charity had allowed documentary crews and journalists to meet the women. They later told reporters they had been coached by the charity to tell the media scripted stories of abuse. This investigative series, helmed by freelance journalist Simon Marks along with Khmer reporters like Bopha Phorn, also alleged that the charity, the Somaly Mam Foundation, told those who came forward to stop talking to the press.

Despite the weight of the allegations and firsthand testimony from the women the charity represented as sex slaves, it took quite some time for the story to make its way back to the people who had consumed those scripted stories in the first place. After Newsweek ran a story by Marks putting the fraud carried out by the organization’s head, Somaly Mam, alongside the bold-faced names of those among her supporters — actress Susan Sarandon, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — the organization came under wider public scrutiny, from donors, from other charities, and from advocates for victims. This also included some overdue scrutiny aimed at American journalists like Nick Kristof of the New York Times, who, for years, had written down Mam’s stories and published them in his columns as rallying cries to rescue women and girls from brothels. When Mam’s organization raided a brothel, it was Kristof who was there to livetweet it to his then-1.3 million followers.

Nearly two years passed between the first reporting on the fabrication of the sex slave stories and anything resembling public accountability. “NYT’s Nicholas Kristof should drop everything, audit his Cambodia work,” the Post’s Erik Wemple implored — to no avail. The Times’ own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, made the same request. Two years on from this, and Kristof has still failed to explain how his column became a pulpit for fabricated stories, stories that not only undermined his credibility but became the inspiration and justification for disastrous American interventions in Cambodia and other countries in the name of finding children in sex slavery. As I wrote then, in the New York Times, Mam was celebrated by the Department of State — to whom she had introduced the women she says she rescued — even after there was ample evidence that the “rescues” she led could be more properly described as police raids, and that they were more useful at generating headlines than aiding victims of trafficking.

As the Pizzagate brethren have illustrated in our time, the fantasy sex slave is a very useful piece of content.

As the Pizzagate brethren have illustrated in our time, the fantasy sex slave is a very useful piece of content. Before “fake news,” before establishment media organizations like the Post and the Times immersed themselves in social media, before the Internet, these stories have been irresistible to the public. A century ago, notes researcher Jo Doezema, journalists like William T. Stead sold salacious stories of their descent into the “white slave trade” underworld, taking their readers along as they heroically rescued girls.

It is tempting to liken the profitable venture in sex slave stories as a kind of fake news, especially after Pizzagate. But already “fake news” itself has become a meme, another social media shorthand circulating in the mix of post-election fear and panic. It also did not take long for Donald Trump to claim the media itself was pushing fake news, drawing on longstanding right-wing complaints that the entire media is built on lies. (It’s not.) Even Pizzagate was something quite different from fake news; it was a classic sex panic, one that’s even been granted credibility before, in the 1980s “Satanic Panic” over childcare workers.

What makes fake news or a sex panic irresistible — the somewhat perverse feeling of belonging to an in-group, the one who has discovered the truth — isn’t dependent on any particular technology or political moment. With a newspaper and a telegraph, Stead’s white slave panic stories encouraged American prosecutors, who, in turn, pushed Congress to outlaw “transporting women” for “immoral purposes.” The Satanic Panic was passed by VHS tape of recorded interrogations — some of those charged have only just been exonerated this year. And today’s sex slave panic, wrapped in fake news and post-Trump witch-hunting, might be most known by the sinister-seeming screenshot.

The premise of such a conspiracy and its attendant cult is that you can trace a “sex ring” through Internet sleuthing, breaking codewords. That’s also the kind of thing charities in the vein of the Somaly Mam Foundation promise they can do. It’s the cornerstone, too, of so-called trafficking investigations, where vice police trawl escort advertisements. Their claims about victims and rescues (more accurately, arrests) pass through to the public, rarely challenged by the journalists who print them, until those journalists — like Kristof — are themselves challenged.

Kristof’s wildly popular Half the Skyempire — two books, a video series, a game, and the requisite website-slash-movement — update a narrative device as old Stead’s reporting. But how many readers will follow the trail back to Sullivan’s unanswered request that he open his notebook? How many will read the Cambodia Daily debunking?

Despite some reporters’ efforts, the press continues to harbor the sex slave fantasy. Perhaps they are just in too deep. Or, more pragmatically, it has become impossible for them turn away from its lucrative potential. What’s certain is they cannot be rescued by facts alone.