Sex trafficking and scandal

Authored by: Gretchen Soderlund

The routledge companion to media and scandal

Print publication date:  April  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN: 9780815387596
eBook ISBN: 9781351173001
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781351173001-37

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Abstract

In this chapter I consider the concept of scandal as it relates to sex trafficking. I have argued elsewhere that sex trafficking scandals constitute a subset of sex scandals which has its own logic (Soderlund 2013). A century ago, the issue of sex trafficking had the capacity to generate what I call “surplus scandal.” That is, sex trafficking controversies, played out in the print media, were marked by such extremes of belief and skepticism that they turned on and transformed the messenger itself. But what about today’s sex trafficking scandals? The media are accustomed to discussing sexuality and prostitution. Earlier allegations of sex trafficking were scandalous in part because a handful of English and American journalists and editors insisted that sex and gender were legitimate areas of public discourse. In this chapter I consider the present day and ask the following questions. At what point does an issue of public concern like sex trafficking rise to the status of full-blown scandal? Which institutions, public actors, or social movements stand to lose or gain by these scandals? And how does a sex trafficking scandal differ from a moral panic? I use two recent attempts to initiate sex trafficking scandals in the United States, the 2009 ACORN scandal and the 2016 Pizzagate conspiracy theory, to make the case that scandal is an important, if under-utilized, framework for understanding sex trafficking claims, particularly in the United States. I argue that sex trafficking’s power to scandalize is rooted in the space between fact and fiction. It is a framework imposed on two already misunderstood and often demonized practices, prostitution and immigration; sex trafficking’s association with sex and the underworld of organized crime make it a prime vehicle for scandal and conspiratorial thought. Before turning to the issue of sex trafficking, however, I discuss the importance of scandal to political communication more generally.

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