4 min read

The Mann Act is back (and so are we)

it is for once accurate to call the vibes Victorian

A bouquet of stargazer lilies, Los Angeles, 2007

THANK YOU, DEAR READERS who have been with this newsletter in all its iterations, and especially in this latest, when it has been (unavoidably) shaped by adjusting to chronic illness. Being sick is one of the last things I want to write about with the time I have to write, and so I won't. But know that your ongoing support is appreciated, and allows me to continue experimenting, changing up how I write with and through this.

IN REPORTING ON THE ABORTION LANDSCAPE post-Dobbs, I have begun following a disturbing revival of Victorian-era laws. (As if the Comstock Act of 1873 was not bad enough!)

Now, with anti-abortion activists proclaiming there is yet more to punish people for should they dare have an abortion, the Mann Act is back:

These laws are premised on stopping a new, vague offense that anti-abortion activists have dubbed “abortion trafficking.” The language evokes an unwilling participant—someone being forced by someone else to terminate a pregnancy—but is intended instead to bar people who do want an abortion from accessing care. The idea is fairly new—and entirely the invention of anti-abortion activists and legislators...

These new “abortion trafficking” ordinances have gotten a lot of attention in various national outlets over the past month. But less notice was given to how [anti-abortion activist Mark Dickson] pointed to a different old law to justify this new wave of bills: the Mann Act, officially the “White Slave Traffic Act of 1910,” a law once used fairly indiscriminately to prosecute nonmarital sex...

Perhaps most importantly, invoking the Mann Act like Dickson is doing offers yet more evidence of how anti-abortion activists, even after ending Roe, continue to push on the limits of the law. They enjoy more influence than ever in judiciaries and legislatures across the country, and they are getting bolder in taking up yet more creative ways to restrict bodily autonomy—as if confirming to the rest of us that it’s their moral goodness alone that can determine what a law means.

I'm fortunate to have to got to talk with the woman who literally wrote the book on Mann Act enforcement, Jessica Pliley. In Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI, she tells a story we are still living through.

As she told me, “All of these movements … all these types of fascism, it’s gender at the heart of it. This kind of traditional patriarchal family, restoring it, whether that’s using the law, or the media. And I see this is as yet another attempt.”

It's especially disconcerting to consider that this resurrection of the Mann Act is going down just as two prominent anti-sex trafficking organizations are perhaps at last in ruins, as their respective leaders have exited or were ousted in the last few months.

I've followed them both for nearly their entire lifespans: Operation Underground Railroad and founder Tim Ballard, Thorn and its co-founder Ashton Kutcher. But it was only this week when I took a moment to look back that I discovered an anti-trafficking PSA made by Kutcher's group around the time of their launch, starring Donald Trump. That nearly says it all: "fighting sex trafficking" is an enormously useful cover for men who are engaged in sexual exploitation themselves.

So—what do their departures portend?

Thorn and OUR, their founders publicly shamed and now in quasi-voluntary exile from the anti-trafficking movement, each served as vehicles for a specific kind of guy. That guy found Trump useful, either to launch himself (Kutcher) or crown himself (Ballard). That guy, while posing as a brave fighter defending the vulnerable from sexual abuse, excused rapists (Kutcher) and allegedly engaged in sexually exploiting women (Ballard). The heroic claim of helping to fight sex trafficking served to cover up these men’s misbehavior as well as launder their public image. Whatever self-serving, near- or actually fraudulent, or even criminal activity types like Kutcher or Ballard may indulge in, at the end of the day, hey, those guys were out there saving children, right?

As for what it means for the future, I don't expect for my reporting to depart the 19th century anytime soon.

This letter from me to you

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READERS MAY HAVE ALSO NOTICED that I have almost completely abandoned the website formerly known as Twitter for Bluesky.

It feels a little unfair to talk about what's talked about on Blueksy, but last night kicked off an unexpectedly sprawling discussion about the demographic now shorthanded "liberal wine moms." I made some comments inspired by the moms I met in Texas in 2021 who were defending trans kids, which was really about me meeting people who were in a fight I was once in as a teenager but themselves are now in at my own age. It was honestly a delight to be in a conversation on the internet again, with people I knew and people I did not know.

Bluesky is still in private beta, but I have two invites to share with subscribers—email me at melissa@melissagira.com and if I still have one, I'll hook you up. And you can find my Bluesky profile here:

From my desk, 2023-09-22

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