Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Great (Fake) Child-Sex-Trafficking Epidemic

By Kaitlyn Tiffany The Atlantic

A poster in the window of Cahoots Corner Cafe—great potatoes, good coffee—advertised a family event at the Oakdale, California, rodeo grounds. There would be food trucks, carnival games, live music, a raffle, and the opportunity to support the cause of “freeing child sex slaves.”

The event, called the Festival of Hope, was a fundraiser for the anti-child-sex-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad, which was founded in Utah in 2013 and has achieved immense popularity on social media in the past year and a half, attracting an outsize share of attention during a new wave of concern about imperiled children. It is beloved by parenting groups on Facebook, lifestyle influencers on Instagram, and fitness guys on YouTube, who are impressed by its muscular approach to rescuing the innocent. (The nonprofit group is known for taking part in overseas sting operations in which it ensnares alleged child sex traffickers; it also operates a CrossFit gym in Utah.) Supporters commit to “shine OUR light”—the middle word a reference to the group’s acronym—and to “break the chain,” which refers to human bondage and to cycles of exploitation.

Oakdale, a small city near Modesto, is set among ever-dwindling cattle ranches and ever-expanding almond farms. By 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday in late summer, more than 100 booths lined the perimeter of the rodeo arena. Vendors sold crepes and jerky and quilts and princess makeovers and Cutco knives. (They paid a fee to participate, a portion of which went to OUR, as did the proceeds from raffle tickets.) Miniature horses with purple dye on their tails were said to be unicorns. A man with a guitar played “Free Fallin’ ” and then a twangier song referring to alcohol as “heartache medication,” which was notable only because it was so incongruously depressing; everyone else was enjoying a beautiful day in the Central Valley. The air was filled with the perfect scent of hot dogs, and with much less wildfire smoke than there had been the day before.

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