I once reported suspected sex trafficking.

I decided to try a massage place in my neighborhood. It was a nice neighborhood in a densely populated Midwest town, just a block away from a middle school. No receptionist was present, so I sat in the waiting room. There was a large sign saying no sexual conduct would be permitted, a warning I’d never seen before in prior massage-parlor waiting rooms. A middle-aged woman walked out of an office wearing a tight dress with the back partially zipped. She did a double take when she saw me in the waiting room, and asked why I was there. When I said I’d like a massage, she pointed to a room and said the masseuse would be available shortly.

Some time later, the door opened to my massage room. A disheveled man with a cracked smile walked out; he may have made eye contact with me if he didn’t look somewhat drunk. The woman in the massage room looked to the middle-aged woman who gestured for her to welcome me in.

In the massage room, I saw the masseuse face to face. She was young and appeared to be of Asian descent, and her eyes had the tired look of trying to smile through exhaustion. Her weary look was combined with autopilot, as she closed the door and asked me to pay her.

“Pay?” I thought curiously. “Before the massage? At the massage table?”

My mind quickly put the pieces together—the strange sign, the strangely dressed woman, the creepy guy, the pay-ahead procedure, and the extraordinarily weary face on the young woman in front of me. I said that I needed to run and get cash.

I drove my car across the street to a convenient store and sat in the parking lot catching my breath. I could still see the massage parlor address from where I parked, so I typed it into my phone’s search engine. The first hits that came up were Backpage.com ads for hot, young, Asians. This was before Backpage had been taken down by the FBI for facilitating sex-trafficking of minors, but I was familiar with the corrupt site.

I thought of the young woman. My heart broke for her tired, autopilot face. Sex trafficking is known to be a problem at massage parlors, but I never had encountered it myself before. Who knows how long this road had been for her, or what lies ahead. I drove away and cried.

The person to whom I reported the incident later mentioned to me other warning signs of sex trafficking. For example, if you see a kid running around hotels, wearing an outfit that seems risque for his or her age, call the trafficking hotline.

My experience came to mind recently as the hashtag “savethechildren” has been causing a social media storm.

Raising awareness and finding the real roots of trafficking

Over the past month, the hashtag “savethechildren” has been gaining traction on social media as a call to action against the human trafficking of children. It is a worthy and urgent cause.

The sex trafficking of young people and adults is a tragic if little understood reality that happens all over the United States and the world. It fuels the sex industry in every way, from pornography production, to prostitution, to stripping.

Often sex trafficking starts when young vulnerable people are lured by sweet-talking pimps into starting a new life for themselves, before abuse and rape take over. In the United States, sex trafficking is defined as any commercial sex act with a minor or any commercial sex act that involves force, fraud, or coercion. Unfortunately, many young people lured into the sex trade have difficulty getting out of abusive cycles, and can stay in long far after their eighteenth birthday, which doesn’t make their participation any more free. A study conducted across nine countries found that 89 percent of prostitutes surveyed say they want to get out now. Many blame themselves for getting into the situation and don’t realize they were trafficked by skilled manipulators—at least, until they connect with sex-trafficking survivor-led organizations that help untangle the mental knots.

Unfortunately, the hashtag has recently been co-opted to signal conspiracy theories claiming to trace child trafficking back to some deep-state cabal. The causes for the blowup that became the hashtag to stop child sex trafficking are complex and numerous. In dark areas of the web like 4chan, extremist groups like Q-anon have hijacked the #savethechildren hashtag, perhaps as a sinister rallying cry for a cause to rival Black Lives Matter.

“Save the children” could also have grown to its high levels of hashtagging out of honest-to-goodness motives from people who have maternal (or paternal) desires to protect children from real harm. Perhaps people with past sexual trauma found the hashtag to be a rallying cry to jump behind before thinking critically about its origins. Many of us already have frayed nerves these days.

Further fuel for this idea could have come from the spotlight that has been shown on powerful and prolific sexual predators like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein in recent years. They demonstrate that abuse is often systemic and aided and abetted by others. The Jeffrey Epstein documentary on Netflix has been highly watched in quarantine, when many people are already more isolated, anxious, and on high alert than normal. It’s not difficult to imagine that hype and fear would thrive in this climate. I can see how conspiracy thinking around child trafficking could develop.

And, finally, I think there is an attractive simplicity to pinning the trafficking crisis to a conspiracy theory. Because if the trafficking crisis is a coordinated event all tied to some powerful ringleader, the solution is simple. If you just strike at the ring-leader, the head honcho, the life source—whatever you want to call it—then the whole sordid industry will fall apart everywhere. Unfortunately, child sex trafficking is not a problem so easily dismantled.

Sometimes authorities will uncover a ring of trafficking, but the scourge cannot always be traced back to a single mysterious puppeteer behind the scenes. To call sex trafficking a “conspiracy” in some centralized and organized sense gives a false picture. Sex trafficking around the United States, and around the globe, is no more a part of a grand conspiracy than is the fact that my house is messy. Each room in my home did not become as cluttered as it is because my husband and I or our children plotted to make it that way. It came about because of many little actions and decisions (or inaction) by many different people. So cleaning up the mess is equally discrete. We pick up one thing, clean one room at a time.

Similarly, domestic minor sex trafficking is a big sprawling mess and requires much federal and state attention to combat and lots of hard work. Each state, each community has to focus on their unique local issues with it.

It also requires concrete action from all of us.

Combating sex trafficking is more local than you might think

I wish combating sex trafficking were as easy as striking at the top of a well-connected conspiratorial network.

If we really want to get at the heart of the problem of trafficking, we can donate money and resources to anti-trafficking organizations like Shared Hope International, Polaris Project, and International Justice Mission. We shouldn’t delude ourselves that we could do better than groups like these who have demonstrated results for decades.

But to get at the root of trafficking, it is also essential that we look at ourselves and what we are responsible for and combat any tendencies in our behavior or thought to treat sexual objectification—or any kind of commodification of other people—as if it were okay. This includes any habits of using people, any neglect to treat people with dignity, or any failure to give them the attention they deserve (as partners, children, employees, or just people you meet). If we gave half as much effort and attention to our interior beliefs, actions, and habits that we have control over, as we spend on far-off challenges that we don’t, we could reduce a lot of the problems of trafficking.

How is this? Because demand for child sex trafficking comes largely from porn-watching, which is what many more people partake in than directly trafficking people themselves. Shrinking our human-objectification carbon footprint will combat this messy problem more than sharing a hashtag. That, along with keeping our eyes open in our communities for real red flags: do you see a child who looks like he or she hasn’t bathed in a while, traveling with an older man? These are actual red flags that what you may be seeing is real trafficking, and they warrant a call to the national human trafficking hotline (1-888-373-7888. Concerned parties can also text “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733).

Bodies for others’ use

In the midst of this furor and illustrating precisely what I mean by taking a good hard look at our own habits of commodification, rapper Cardi B released a music video called “W.A.P.” The Grammy-winning Bronx native directs listeners to bow down to her “wet a** pu**y” (or, in the radio-friendly version, “wet and gushy”). The song, dedicated to bringing public attention to a woman’s private parts, received backlash from some, including particularly loud conservative pundits, while others defended Cardi B’s flaunt of feminine power.

It wasn’t only conservatives who balked. Commenting on the video, fellow Grammy winner Ceelo Green told Far Out magazine, “They are all more or less doing similar salacious gesturing to kinda get into position. . . . I get it, the independent woman and being in control, the divine femininity and sexual expression. I get it all, [but] it comes at what cost?”

Still, there have been moments in Cardi B’s career when I found her work or stance on a question to be refreshingly different from others in her field. For example, Cardi B announced her pregnancy while singing her song“Be Careful” (with me) on Saturday Night Live, and later said in response to questions as to why she chose to keep her baby when she got pregnant at the height of her career, “Why can’t I have both?” So I decided to give the video an unbiased view, to see if it captured any of the unleashed feminine power that I was hearing about.

What disappointed me is how “W.A.P.” showed little of Cardi B’s inimitable sass and more of—you guessed it. The music video begins by welcoming viewers to what looks like a mansion or hotel called “W.A.P,” with fountains of naked women outside and scantily-clad women inside. Cardi B and co-singer Megan Thee Stallion are introduced walking through hallways and peaking in different rooms to see yet another celebrity dancing provocatively, peep-show-esque, and of course the duo gets their own showcase as well.

The result, for me as a viewer, was the feeling that this is some glamorized version of brothel-meets-motel that I would never want to enter. Far from depicting women’s empowerment, “W.A.P.” shows a version of female sexuality that feels less woman-led and more male-directed (in fact, it was). The performers contort their bodies while staring seductively, but the effect is creepy dead-eye expressions at a pornographic circus. They strut in stilettos and skirtless prom dresses, putting on a show, seemingly competing with other women to outdo each other in the grand purpose of arousing men.

Because that is all it truly comes down to: arousing men. Say what you will about empowerment and celebrating women’s sexuality; the emperor does not have clothes just because he says so. One would be hard pressed to find some purpose other than titillating men behind the sexual pageantry in “W.A.P.”; it certainly wasn’t focused on women doing things for women’s sake. When I—or any woman I know—goes to a hotel or resort, I want to throw off my heels and get comfortable. Only in a man’s wildest fantasy would a woman unwind by squeezing herself into a corset and then covering herself in snakes. What struck me about Cardi B’s latest work was how little it had to do with women’s self-determined interests, and how much it had to do with catering to men’s. The song didn’t relate to me, or how I feel empowered as a woman, in the slightest.

But even if we were to grant that “W.A.P.” is a paean to women’s empowerment, the song still does not escape the problem of objectifying and commodifying other human beings—we’ve simply flipped the script. Its lyrics are a laundry list of sexual demands with little concern for the desire of one’s partner; Megan Thee Stallion sings about using sex to acquire cars, clothes, and to pay for school.

I feel sad knowing that whatever Cardi B churns out will reach countless young men and women, including middle-school-age kids or younger.

A dangerous sexual climate

Online fields of hypersexual content, all available at the click of a button on a smartphone or a remote, are creating the perfect storm for the current crisis of sex trafficking. A great number of adults are consuming a large quantity of pornography, then going out to use real people whether in strip clubs or hotels, all parts of the sex industry that depend on the trafficking of minors for supply. And children are being exposed to degrading content at earlier and earlier ages that tells them that they’re empowered if they give up their bodies for others’ consumption.

It’s easier to pollute the ocean than to clean it, right? Well, in our current cultural climate, it’s easier to damage children’s sense of self-possession and self-determination than to fix it. Thankfully it is possible to recover with good therapy and support, but we’re making it harder than it should be on our young people. Similarly, it’s easier for adult porn-viewers and sex-buyers to fall into addictive behavior than to get out of it (although, here, recovery is possible, as well).

We can continue to spread hashtags to increase awareness of human trafficking, but if we’re also sharing Cardi B’s video or consuming and normalizing objectifying content like it in our everyday lives, we’re pouring oil into the ocean while typing #savethewhales. It’s fair to say 2020 has handed us two options: the chance to sit within our four walls and look at the woman in the mirror, or the chance to look out into a screen and point at others. While some social problems can seem so huge and beyond us, we have a lot more autonomy to make a change than at first we might think.