The Price of Neverland Part 2: The Political Economy of Child Abuse

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This is Part 2 of a series titled “The Price of Neverland.” Part 1 can be read here.

There is not only a moral or abstract philosophical dimension to the tolerance and encouragement of child abuse in Western culture. Indeed, the more ephemeral elements of it are rooted firmly in a political economy of child abuse which assits in reproducing the larger political economy of the global capitalist system. A 2001 study by Richard J. Estes and Neil Alan Weiner for the University of Pennsylvania explains that, “The benefits of economic globalization, internationalization, and free trade have brought with them an unanticipated set of social problems…Among them is what appears to be a dramatic rise worldwide in the incidence of child exploitation. Among the most virulent forms of this exploitation is child sexual exploitation…including the commercial sexual exploitation of children.” 

At the turn of the century, with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia laid to waste,the number of  humans, including children, trafficked from these regions grew exponentially. “Organized crime groups also appear to be involved in child pornography and child prostitution in the U.S., but especially crime organizations with ties to Russia, the Ukraine, and other countries of the Former Soviet Union” (Estes and Weiner, 2001). The Executive Summary of Estes and Weiner’s report states: 

• “About 20% of children we encountered in this study were being trafficked nationally by organized criminal units using well established prostitution tracks.”

• “Children are trafficked into, and within, the U.S. by a variety of private and public means—e.g., cars, buses, vans, trucks, planes.”

• “Most trafficked children have available to them a variety of false identity papers for use in case of arrest.”

• “The majority of nationally trafficked children both use drugs and engage in drug sales.”

• “[A]bout 10% of the children we encountered are trafficked internationally.”

• “Most internationally trafficked children are the citizens of developing countries located in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, and Central and Eastern Europe.”

• “International trafficking in children is highly lucrative—a single trafficked child can earn a trafficker as much as $30,000 or more in trafficking fees.”

• “In many cases, trafficked children also are required to serve as ‘mules’ in transporting illicit drugs either into or across the U.S., or both.”

Much like no federal law existed on the books in the United States to combat child abuse until the late 70s, it wasn’t until October 2000 that congress enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. According to a 2011 study, “Prior to this, no comprehensive federal law existed to protect victims of trafficking or to prosecute their traffickers.” 

Dyncorp, the War on Terror, and the Political Economy of Child Abuse

In July of 2001, just two months before the Twin Towers and Pentagon were destroyed and America was thrown into a War on Terror frenzy by the government and media, the State Department found that “some of America’s closest allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea” along with Sudan and Burma, were among 23 countries that hadn’t made “serious efforts” to “eliminate their role as a source, transit point or destination for human trafficking.” The report was required by Congress and featured a threat to cut off all non-humanitarian aid to those countries which failed to show significant improvement in their efforts to combat trafficking. Its cut off date for non-humanitarian aid to those countries was 2003, the year the US government and military ultimately decided to invade Iraq. 

Colin Powell, before giving his infamous performance at the UN to justify the imperialist invasion and occupation of Iraq, said, “Our report should make clear that trafficking is going on all over the world in both developed and developing countries, even within the United States.” The State Department report found that some women trafficked into Israel from the former Soviet Union accused police officers throughout the country of complicity with brothel owners and traffickers. Saudi Arabia, “denies the problem exists and sometimes detains and deports servants who try to flee their workplaces.” South Korea’s “young women” were found to mostly be trafficked to the United States as prostitutes. “NATO allies Greece and Turkey” were placed in the lowest category by the State Department. 

In 2003, Henry Giroux wrote, “As political debate on the national level becomes increasingly absorbed around matters of war, domestic repression, and imperious foreign policy, there is an increasing refusal on the part of those critical of such matters to address how these issues affect children.” (Giroux, Politics, War, & the Disappearance of Children) Giroux notes that, “The consequences of corporate globalization can be seen not only in growing inequalities worldwide in income, wealth, basic services, and healthcare but also in substantial increases in the exploitation and suffering of millions of children around the globe.” 

“Within the last decade,” Giroux notes (from the first Iraq War in 1993 to the second in 2003), “two million children have died in military conflicts. Another four million have been disabled, twelve million have been left homeless, and millions more have been orphaned.” Giroux also points out, “The search for cheap labor, the powerlessness of children, and the one hundred and twenty million children who are born poor each year creates fertile conditions for multinational corporations to gain significant profits through the hiring of children, largely in developing countries.” At the time of Giroux’s essay, the International Labor Office, a UN agency, estimated that 120 million children aged 5-14 were compelled to work full time. According to
World Vision, that number is now around 160 million.

Giroux notes that not all children are exploited in the form of low-wage labor; many are simply made into slaves. “…particularly alarming is the growing market of children as sexual commodities fueled by the globalization of child pornography rings largely circulated through the Internet and other global circuits of power such as organized sex tours.” By some estimates, one to three thousand children are exploited through prostitution annually in the US alone. Others speculate the numbers could be much higher, in the millions. However, it is difficult to get an accurate measurement for a multitude of reasons, including underreporting. But as we have seen, the general culture of silence and tolerance regarding child abuse in Western society would seem to justify even the higher estimates, particularly with regard to children exploited outside the West by those within it. 

One company in particular is something of a poster child for the overlapping of the “official” global market as it is protected with military might and the “informal” market which depends upon the trafficking of children. This company, formerly known as DynCorp (now existing under the Amentum umbrella) was given $2.5 billion of the $4 billion the State Department paid private contractors for the “reconstruction” of Afghanistan between 2002 and 2013. That is 69% of all money awarded by the State Department over almost the entirety of the war in Afghanistan.

To put this into perspective, 87% of all contracts awarded by the State Department in Afghanistan went to only five companies, with DynCorp being the biggest of the five. The remaining 13% of contracts were split between another 766 recipients, who received on average less than a million dollars each. As the linked Daily TImes article puts it, DynCorp was, “basically a private subsidiary of Uncle Sam.” 

DynCorp was owned by Cerberus Capital Management, co-founded and run by Steve Feinberg in 1992. Feinberg, a major donor to conservative politics for decades, once told Cerberus shareholders, “If anyone at Cerberus has his picture in the paper and a picture of his apartment, we will do more than fire that person. We will kill him. The jail sentence will be worth it.” In 2009, US embassy cables leaked by WikiLeaks described a “May 2009 meeting” in which Hanif Atmar, an interior minister in the US-supported Karzai administration, expressed “deep concerns that lives could be in danger if news leaked that foreign police trainers working for US commercial contractor DynCorp hired ‘dancing boys’ to perform for them.” By “dancing boys” Atmar meant child prostitutes

This wasn’t the first time DynCorp’s name was tied to child prostitution and trafficking. In the aftermath of the NATO-backed annihilation of Yugoslavia, DynCorp was implicated in child trafficking and sex abuse by one of their own employees, Kathryn Bolkovac. Bolkovac was fired by DynCorp after telling higher-ups at the company that employees working as peacekeepers in Bosnia were participating in the exploitation of children. She later successfully sued DynCorp in a British court. Another DynCorp worker who was in Bosnia at this time, Ben Johnston, filed a lawsuit which alleged “coworkers and supervisors literally buying and selling women for their own personal enjoyment,” and that, “employees would brag about the various ages and talents of the individual slaves they had purchased.”

Some of these girls were, allegedly, as young as 12 years old. As the linked Huffington Post article reads, “Dyncorp, hired to perform police duties for the UN and aircraft maintenance for the US Army, were implicated in prostituting the children, whereas the company’s Bosnia site supervisor filmed himself raping two women. A number of employees were transferred out of the country, but with no legal consequences for them.” 

The Huffington Post points out that, in a less well known scandal from October 2004, it was revealed that “DynCorp contract workers operating at Tolemaida Air Base in Colombia distributed  a video in which they could be observed sexually violating underage girls from the town of Melgar. This video was even sold on the main streets of Bogotá. Nonetheless, the Lawyers’ Collective of Colombia has not learned of any criminal investigation undertaken in relation to these acts involving minors. According to follow-up work carried out by the Lawyers’ Collective it was discovered that one of the minors involved in the videos committed suicide some time after the publication of them.” 

In official circles in Afghanistan, the culture of child abuse within DynCorp would become known as the “Kunduz DynCorp Problem.” According to the Huffington Post, this “problem” sparked Afghan demands that contractors and private security companies be put under much tighter regulation, a wish the US embassy was legally incapable of granting. Karzai’s administration eventually issued a decree that all private security companies in Afghanistan be dissolved by the end of that year, but this was eventually watered down. 

Hillary Clinton’s e-mail describes a video taken of the event by one of its participants (the whereabouts of this video remain unclear): 

“The week of April 13th, the DynCorp regional commander from Konduz, Flint Chambers, allowed his men to hire a 15-year-old boy dancer to do tribal dances at a DynCorp party on the training site. Some 15 or so DynCorp employees in attendance pulled out a single chair and had the boy do mock lap dances. This was captured on video. The video shows DynCorp employees putting dollar bills in the boy’s waistband, just as they would a stripper’s garter. The revelry lasted about 45 minutes.” 

The e-mail, sent to Hillary by then-Counselor of the US Department of State, Cheryl D. Mills, was a “heads up.” As Marcus Oliveira Spiegelma puts it, “this e-mail is evidence that Hillary Clinton and the State Department were aware of this scandal, and still, they continued to work in close collaboration with DynCorp. They even granted DynCorp a contract to provide support for the Criminal Justice Program Support (CJPS), which ironically involved teaching people about criminal justice and law enforcement.” 

A Forbes article from February 2020 notes, “human trafficking often involves the legitimate services of the banking system, transportation companies, the hospitality business, health care providers, and digital social media platforms.” According to an International Labour Organization report, forced labour in the “private economy” generates $150 million annually. The linked Forbes article goes on to claim that individual business associated with industries utilized by traffickers have taken steps to combat the problem, but doesn’t point out that the profits of traffickers could not grow so intensely if these industries, along with the government, weren’t looking the other way. 

Steven Watt, a human rights attorney at the ACLU, pointed out, with regards to DynCorp and other contractors caught in the act of trafficking, “The government says it has a zero tolerance policy, and yet there’s fairly credible allegations that these guys have been involved in trafficking and they continue to win government contracts. It’s pretty far from a zero tolerance policy.” Sam McCahon, a lawyer based in India, went even further, “This is the only situation in which the government uses U.S. tax dollars to fund human trafficking. It’s not that we’re idly sitting by; we’re actively paying for it. It’s like the U.S. government is the John, telling the pimp, ‘We need bodies here, but we aren’t going to look at how you got them, or if they are even getting paid.’” McCahon, who used to represent government contractors in war zones such as DynCorp, recalls the event that caused him to shift gears; he was at a conference where the vice president of a company with a contract in Iraq was asked what he was doing to mitigate human trafficking. “We have no privity of contract with the subcontractor’s employees,” the VP said. “It’s not our problem.” 

As for the exploitation of children in Afghanistan, even DynCorp’s formal departure in 2013 didn’t end it.

As the New York Times reported in 2015: “soldiers and Marines have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages — and doing little when they began abusing children.” A Special Forces commander named Dan Quinn beat an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed. For this, Quinn was relieved of his command by the Army and pulled from Afghanistan and Quinn subsequently quit the military altogether. Four years later, Sgt First Class Charles Martland, who assisted Quinn in the beating, was targeted by the Army for forcible retirement. While this particular problem has been attributed to cultural differences between the two nations, the Washington Post has reported that the US-supported government and various warlords in Afghanistan were generally tied to larger organized crime networks. “Key figures in the war said Washington tolerated the worst offenders — warlords, drug traffickers, defense contractors — because they were allies of the United States,” says the Post. It also notes that forensic accountant Gert Berthold, after analyzing 3,000 Department of Defense contracts between 2010-2012, concluded that about 40% of federal funds in Afghanistan ended up, “”in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates or corrupt Afghan officials.” 

The Role of Porn and The Internet 

An essay by Catharine A. MacKinnon states, “Although legitimate corporations increasingly traffic the materials, the pornography industry, like other means of human trafficking, remains at base an organized crime industry built on force, some physical, some not.” MacKinnon points out “The majority of adults enter the industry as children and are exploited in ways that do not disappear when they each the age of majority, including through materials in which children are used as women and women infantilized as children.” As I pointed out in part one of this series, the origin of modern porn in the so called “porno chic” era was rooted in the sexualization of childhood, overlapped with child pornography and was kickstarted by organized crime. 

A 1975 article in the New York TImes reports on James, David, and Frederick Buckley, three brothers who ran a company to produce and distribute “both pornographic and legitimate films.” As the Times reports, “The three Buckleys, who say that their goal is to make the Buckley brothers bigger than Warner Brothers someday, openly acknowledge their dealings with Mafia members, who book their films into theaters…’We’re pro-Mafia around here,’ says David Buckley.” One Mafia-linked pornographer profiled by the article, Michael Zaffarano, produced a porn film called Defiance, “whose showings were stopped by court order when it was disclosed that its leading actress, Jean Jennings, was a minor.” 

The act of recording sexual encounters with trafficked women and children goes back to the very beginnings of organized crime in America. According to Nicholas Faith, Seagrams billionaire Samuel Bronfman, a man whose family is still very influential in Western circles of the rich and powerful, was able to build his fortune by being friendly with prominent figures in Prohibition-era crime syndicates.

Bronfman maintained close ties to Abner “Longy” Zwillman, a friend of notorious gangsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano who the FBI once labelled Public Enemy Number One. One of “Sam’s best customers” and a liquor industry titan in his own right, Joseph Reinfeld, helped him network with figures like Waxy Gordon and Dutch Schultz. “According to evidence from a former Treasury Department agent,” Faith writes, “he was a regular supplier to the usual suspects.” But, as Faith says, Bronfman had an “even more important middleman” in Lewis Rosenthiel.

Faith points out that a “bitter divorce lawsuit” launched by Rosenthiel’s fourth wife outed him as the “organizer of parties where J. Edgar Hoover could frolic in his favorite frocks, parties that featured boy prostitutes for the enjoyment of other guests like Roy Cohn.” Rosenthiel placed microphones throughout the apartments where he’d host these shindigs, using the evidence of homosexuality or pedophilia found among his guests for blackmail. As time went on and Americans became slowly but surely less contemptuous of cis gay men, the capturing of powerful figures in the act of pedophilia was made even more important for this vile form of blackmail. J. Edgar Hoover, as Faith points out, would play down the role of the Mafia in American crime until the mid 60s, largely because of the dirt obtained on him by mob figures such as Frank Costello, Sam Giancana, Santo Trafficante, Angelo Bruno, and Meyer Lansky. 

Another member of Rosenthiel’s sexual blackmail racket was Cardinal Francis Spellman, the 6th Archbishop of New York. Spellman has alleged to have abused young men and boys and ordained Theodore McCarrick, a cardinal who was found by the Holy See itself to have abused numerous boys. McCarrick would be dismissed from the clergy in February 2019. 

(The development of “sexual blackmail” techniques in the world of organized crime leads directly to the case of Jeffrey Epstein. However, while Epstein’s case involves human trafficking, I have decided to reserve discussion of it for a seperate post)

In 2018, The Hill reported that “Porn consumption is contributing to the child sex trafficking epidemic.” As the Hill says, “The Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force recently found 46 published research studies demonstrating that exposure to pornography puts individuals at increased risk for committing sexual offenses.” On the other hand, searches for “teen porn” more than tripled between 2005 and 2013. By obliterating the lives of children, traffickers yield about $32 billion a year, with about 70% of such transactions taking place online.

Human Trafficking Search says that, “80% of survivors report that their customers showed them pornography to illustrate the kinds of sexual acts they want performed.” And just as the bourgeoisie use “sexual blackmail” to coerce each other, those who profit from the practice of human trafficking use it to blackmail victims. “Once a film or image with the girl’s face is uploaded onto the Internet, it is there forever,” says Human Trafficking Search. “ Traffickers know this & use it.” At the same time, the relationship between the modern, Internet-based porn industry and human trafficking also allows sellers to “advertise” their “product” to potential buyers. “Traffickers…use the photos and films of the girls to attract more clients. Much like a traditional marketplace, buyers like to see the product before committing to pay for it.”

To give just one, recent example of how this dimension of the porn industry has normalized child abuse, look at recent scandals involving PornHub *and its parent company MindGeek), such as those detailed in Nicholas Kristof’s recent op-ed deconstructing PornHub in
The New York Times:

Pornhub prides itself on being the cheery, winking face of naughty, the website that buys a billboard in Times Square and provides snow plows to clear Boston streets. It donates to organizations fighting for racial equality and offers steamy content free to get people through Covid-19 shutdowns.

That supposedly “wholesome Pornhub” attracts 3.5 billion visits a month, more than Netflix, Yahoo or Amazon. Pornhub rakes in money from almost three billion ad impressions a day. One ranking lists Pornhub as the 10th-most-visited website in the world.

Yet there’s another side to the company…

…After a 15 year old girl went missing in Florida, her mother found her on Pornhub — in 58 sex videos. Sexual assaults on a 14-year-old California girl were posted on Pornhub and were reported to the authorities not by the company but by a classmate who saw the videos. In each case, offenders were arrested for the assaults, but Pornhub escaped responsibility for sharing the videos and profiting from them…

….“Pornhub became my trafficker,” a woman named Cali told me. She says she was adopted in the United States from China and then trafficked by her adoptive family and forced to appear in pornographic videos beginning when she was 9. Some videos of her being abused ended up on Pornhub and regularly reappear there, she said.

“I’m still getting sold, even though I’m five years out of that life,” Cali said. Now 23, she is studying in a university and hoping to become a lawyer — but those old videos hang over her.

“I may never be able to get away from this,” she said. “I may be 40 with eight kids, and people are still masturbating to my photos.”

“You type ‘Young Asian’ and you can probably find me,” she added.” 

Kristof details the story of a girl named Selena who, at age 14, sent nude images and videos of herself to a boy she liked after he asked her to. After sending him several more images, Selena started to receive, “Strange looks in school.” Selena’s crush had not only shown what she sent him to his friends, but had uploaded it to PornHub. “People were texting me,” Selena told Kristof. “If I didn’t send them a video, they were going to send them to my mom.” 

The most the boy endured for putting Selena through all of this, obviously without her consent, was suspension from school. Selena, on the other hand, slowly spiralled downward.

PornHub removed the videos and Selena switched schools, but they resurfaced both on PornHub and other sites not long after. Selena attempted suicide multiple times and was then introduced to meth and opioids. Now an addict, she dropped out of school and became homeless. In Selena’s words, she began to think “I’m not worth anything any more because everybody has already seen my body.” Despite still being underage, Selena sold pornographic images of herself on Craigslist for spare cash. These videos would soon find their way to PornHub beside earlier material, which she says had over 400,000 views.

(NOTE on Kristof: At the time I was first writing this piece, I had no idea that Kristof has a history of conservative religious zealotry and is likely using the legitimate anti-pornography backlash developing among young people to promote the agenda of various organizations on the religious right. An article in the New Republic goes deep into this. All I can say is I don’t agree with everything in the New Republic piece, but there is one passage that is pretty much exactly how I feel approaching the side of human trafficking involving pornography:

There is no question that Pornhub sits at the crux of two bad ideas: a race-to-the-bottom gig economy and a tech-determinist business model that values stickiness and seamlessness over content moderation. But the abuses that all this enables are not signs of the end times; to confront them with a religious crusade is not only useless but dangerous. Pornhub can continue business as usual so long as it can say its loudest critics are just pissed-off fundamentalists. Stuck in the predictable pushback to anti-porn “puritans,” the possibilities for challenging Pornhub’s business model—and the working conditions and the exploitation it enables—could be lost.

In a future installment of this series I will be explaining why I think Kristof’s piece, along with a subsequent civil suit by MindGeek, is a sort of limited hangout.)

Big Tech and Child Abuse

Much as military contractors say “not our problem” to child trafficking and abuse, even among their own ranks, so too does the tech industry take a laissez faire approach to images containing abused children and teens. In some cases, it even enables their presence online. As the New York Times reports:

Amazon, whose cloud storage services handle millions of uploads and downloads every second, does not even look for the imagery. Apple does not scan its cloud storage, according to federal authorities, and encrypts its messaging app, making detection virtually impossible. Dropbox, Google and Microsoft’s consumer products scan for illegal images, but only when someone shares them, not when they are uploaded.” 

Big Tech, which has massive, often illegal data collection as its modern day business model, sometimes appeals to “privacy” to excuse itself on this issue. “Tech companies are far more likely to review photos and videos and other files on their platforms for facial recognition, malware detection and copyright enforcement,” the Times reports, “But some businesses say looking for abuse content is different because it can raise significant privacy concerns.” On the other hand, tools developed by these companies often fail to function properly. Microsoft invented the most widely used tool for detecting illegal imagery by private companies, but its Bing search engine still returned many of those same images when pedophiles went looking for them:

A report in January commissioned by TechCrunch found explicit images of children on Bing using search terms like “porn kids.” In response to the report, Microsoft said it would ban results using that term and similar ones.

The Times created a computer program that scoured Bing and other search engines. The automated script repeatedly found images — dozens in all — that Microsoft’s own PhotoDNA service flagged as known illicit content. Bing even recommended other search terms when a known child abuse website was entered into the search box.”

Amazingly, even after Microsoft was made aware of this issue by the New York Times & claimed they had fixed it, a follow-up investigation found it had gotten even worse: “After reviewing The Times’s findings, Microsoft said it uncovered a flaw in its scanning practices and was re-examining its search results. But subsequent runs of the program found even more. A spokesman for Microsoft described the problem as a ‘moving target.’“

Is it a bridge too far to ask that, just as various other entities in this story profit or gain leverage through ignoring, tolerating, or even enabling and encouraging the proliferation of child trafficking and pornography involving children and teens, Big Tech doesn’t fail to make any real progress on solving the problem by accident?


Two recent events tie into this post’s central ideas:

First, famous gymnast McKayla Maroney and other gymnasts testified before congress regarding the large scale sex abuse perpetrated by US women’s national gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Maroney called Nassar, “more of a pedophile than he was a doctor” and stated that, after coming to the Federal Bureau of Investigation with information regarding her abuse, they actively worked against her to protect him. “Not only did the FBI did not report my abuse…They chose to lie about what I said to protect a serial child molester,” Maroney said. “What is the point of reporting abuse if our own FBI agents are going to take it upon themselves to bury that report in a drawer?”

Simone Biles joined Maroney in condemning the FBI’s intentional decision to cover up Nassar’s crimes: “To be clear, I blame Larry Nassar and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse.” Aly Raisman testified that it took over 14 months for the FBI to contact her after she first reported Nassar’s abuse in June 2015. During this time Nassar continued to see and presumably molest patients. “Why would duly sworn officers ignore reports of abuse across state lines?”

Secondly, ostensibly “anti-establishment” (and socialist) congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended the Met Gala on a double date with a descendant of the Bronfman family whose aunt is currently in jail for her role in the rape cult and human trafficking organization known as NXIVM.

It is apparent that child abuse among the bourgeoisie and the organs of State is not just a matter of a few bad apples using their powerful positions to insulate themselves from legal ramifications. Indeed, it is a pillar of the capitalist system itself.

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