People love a rescue story, which is why Sound of Freedom is doing so well at the box office. But our obsession with stories about good guys with guns rescuing innocent victims has fueled policies that hurt the very people we claim to be trying to help. What makes for a compelling story often also makes for terrible public policy and even worse law enforcement practices.
Sound of Freedom is a fictionalized account of real-life Tim Ballard, who left his job as an undercover agent in the Department of Homeland Security to start his religiously funded nonprofit Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), where he orchestrated “operations” to entrap, film, and arrest people for trafficking children. As depicted in the film, Ballard did this by recruiting donors to set up situation rooms in their homes. He sent groups of volunteers with hidden cameras, microphones, and guns to pose as sex tourists visiting from the United States. OUR then staged elaborate raids where children are rescued.
OUR’s claims have raised suspicions from anti-trafficking experts. Vice and Rolling Stone report that it overstates its success and that many anti-trafficking organizations have criticized OUR’s lack of interest in providing sustained aftercare to children once they’ve been rescued. This concern was shared by one of the volunteers who participated in an OUR raid and who wrote about her misgivings for Slate. These stunts make the donors, the people playing the hero, and movie audiences feel good—but they don’t solve the real problems.
The reality of child exploitation is much more complicated, and law enforcement often causes more problems than it solves. For example, the migrant children who were forcibly separated from their families by Border Patrol agents or private security services were neglected, exploited, or simply disappeared.
Horrible things are happening to vulnerable people, but we cannot help them by sending groups of vigilantes or law enforcement officers to hunt them. Child exploitation is real; children are being forced to work in slaughterhouses, mines, and on farms. Children are often sexually abused by youth ministers, priests, and their own family members. When someone needs food, shelter, or medical attention, sending in a SWAT team to create a dramatic moment doesn’t help.
The real villain in the overwhelming majority of these cases is poverty, which is a problem we cannot arrest our way out of. The solution to child sexual exploitation is sex education and access to services, shelters, and community support for people running away from abusive homes. Instead of doing those things, we keep investing in criminalization, suppression, and incarceration, despite overwhelming evidence that these policies don’t help victims.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ office on trafficking, nearly 90 percent of the federal government’s $24 million “trafficking prevention” budget was used to arrest consensual adult sex workers rather than to detect traffickers or assist victims. No one is more committed to ending violence and exploitation in the sex industry than adult consensual sex workers, which is why we advocate for the decriminalization of sex work.
When indoor sex work was decriminalized in Rhode Island, reported rapes dropped 30 percent. A study on the impact of Craigslist erotic services, which made it easier for sex workers to schedule and screen their clients, found that the female homicide rate dropped an average of 17 percent when the service became available in different cities at different times. And after New Zealand decriminalized sex work, a study conducted in 2015 found that sex workers reported having more rights and better access to services and that they were more likely to report crimes committed against them. We know that the criminalization of prostitution has made it more difficult to find victims of trafficking because we know what prohibition does to markets, and it doesn’t make them safer.
Sex workers want to report crimes committed against us but can’t because when we do, we risk arrest. We can make our communities safer, and we can identify real predators within our communities—but only if we are willing to let go of the simple story and actually listen to sex workers.
While Sound of Freedom, like Taken, or The Searchers, or the hundreds of white slave panic films that came before them lionize vigilante justice, the decriminalization of sex work is a better way to actually reduce violence.