I was struck yesterday by a sort of cruel irony, and an example of the law of unintended consequences in action.

Here’s how it went down. Filling an idle moment with TV punditry, I came upon a United Nations bureaucrat attempting to describe the plight of women and girls captured by ISIS. She told a horrifying tale: whole populations of captured towns stripped of their sexually-desirable women and girls, who are then, she claimed, sorted, ranked by attractiveness, and sold in a state of nakedness in local markets, as sex slaves; excepting only the youngest and most attractive, who are routinely saved for the enjoyment of the ISIS sheik (her word) and his close associates.

It’s horrifying. But, is it true?

She offered no evidence; she didn’t even state where her information came from. She just said that this was the routine sequence of events whenever ISIS captures a town or village. Her credulous interviewer asked her no hard questions of any kind.

And then I got to thinking: what evidence could she possibly offer? What evidence would be universally believed? What evidence would convince me?

Eye-witness accounts, if she had them, are difficult, especially after filtered through barriers of language, culture, and lack of trust. Who saw it? How many people say they saw it? Do we believe them when they say they did? Do we even understand them? If we don’t understand them, do we trust the person who translated their words? Who brought these stories to us? What is their angle? Tales of atrocity are often trotted out by those who want more war somewhere; could that be happening here? I still remember the Maine. (Nor have I forgotten the highly unlikely story of Uday Hussein’s pony girls.)

What’s more, those of us in the sex-positive community have been heavily primed toward skepticism whenever conversations turn to questions of sex slavery and the trafficking of women against their will. There’s currently a huge memetic war underway in which the entire industry of consensual sex work in the US and some other wealthy nations is under siege by the usual blue-noses, and one of their tallest siege engines is a propaganda effort that seeks to conflate consensual sex work with involuntary sex trafficking and sexual slavery. Truth was the first casualty in that memetic war, which is a nice way of saying that the anti-sex-work advocates have been telling routine lies of astonishing scale and breath-taking scope. The result? Nobody who is aware of that propaganda effort believes anything that the gullible or complicit television media has to say right now about sex slaves and sex trafficking. It has become a reflex: hear the word “slave” or “trafficked” on television, think “bullshit!” and change the channel. Cool story, bro. Citation needed. This thread is worthless without pictures.

Which is a tragic reaction — if the story might actually be true. Which one supposes, in this case, it might be. We’re no longer talking talking about invisible imported sex workers at the Super Bowl, nor about trafficked U.S. children in their mythical never-seen millions. Instead we are talking about distant lands ruled by brutal and barbaric warlords who burn people alive and proudly upload the incineration video. (We know that last part is true because the videos are, or were, all over the internet; you could avoid seeing them, but you had to work at not seeing them.)

Wait a minute! Is it likely — is it even possible? — that the aforementioned warlords are proud of their propagandistic murders, but not so proud of providing “wives for the soldiers” or however they might justify their ill-usages of enemy women? Would they upload pictures of the one, but not of the other?

That seems odd. This thread is indeed worthless without pictures. Where are the pictures of the naked women and girls being sold in their thousands in the public markets of ISIS-controlled Syria and Iraq? Where are the furtively-shot seven-second phone-movies? You would think that shit would be all over social media!

Here’s the cruel irony: In the United States, at least, we have a criminal prohibition against the possession and distribution of child pornography. It’s a felony, for the noble purpose of utterly disrupting whatever market for child pornography might exist. It’s a felony, quite literally and without sarcasm, to protect the children.

Thus are we gored by the horns of the dilemma. That United Nations official? She wants a U.S. audience to learn and believe that women and girls are being stripped and sold at public auction by ISIS. Presumably the spread of this knowledge and belief would be useful to the official’s agenda, which (we at least hope) has something to do with helping those poor unfortunates. She, too, wants to protect the children (and their sisters and mothers).

Sadly, her U.S. audience has little reason to trust her story. Her thread is useless without pictures. Her thread is useless without pictures that, if she even has them, she can’t legally possess in the United States (although she may be fine while inside the UN building). She can’t share them with the news media because they too can’t possess them, and she can’t show them via digital means without making felons of everyone in the U.S. who might thus come into possession of those digital files (which is hard to avoid while viewing them). A reader of this post cannot even safely Google to see if such pictures exist, because there’s damned little legal space between that successful Google search and the commission of a felony. I know I didn’t dare do a search to find out if that U.N. official was spewing bullshit. Neither, probably, should you.

The law of unintended consequences. To protect the children, we’ve outlawed the most likely form of credible evidence that might convince anyone.

Would it be possible to craft some sort of journalist’s exemption to the child porn laws? Of course it would be possible, but there’s no political will to vote “in favor of child porn” as it would be described by your opponent in the next election. And what would a journalist’s exception even mean, in a world where everybody with a smartphone is sometimes a journalist for thirty seconds?

Nope, we’re just horned. It turns out that “protecting the children” means giving their abusers, too, an enormous measure of protection from international scrutiny and outrage.

Update: A few months on, careful reporting by the New York Times makes it much clearer which portions of the sexual slavery horror stories were true and which were not. A genuine trade in slave women appears to have been documented, but the “naked slave auctions” part appears to have been breathless exaggeration: Isis Enshrines A Theology Of Rape

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