The Problems With Ashton Kutcher’s Anti-Child Sex Trafficking Organization Are Bigger Than Him
Thorn's “exaggerated” claims of protecting children can be used as a backdoor to monitor and endanger sex workers, one sex worker and researcher told Jezebel.In Depth
Amid backlash against Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis over their letters of support for convicted rapist Danny Masterson, the pair resigned from the board of Thorn, the, err, controversial anti-child sex trafficking organization Kutcher founded with ex-wife Demi Moore in 2009.
“Victims of sexual abuse have been historically silenced and the character statement I submitted is yet another painful instance of questioning victims who are brave enough to share their experiences,” Kutcher wrote in his resignation letter last Thursday to Thorn, obtained by Time, adding, “I cannot allow my error in judgment to distract from our efforts and the children we serve.”
With Thorn back into the national spotlight, two sex workers and advocates told Jezebel that the organization’s problems run deeper than a famous couple, who sat on its board, invalidating the experiences of survivors on behalf of their friend. According to Olivia Snow—a dominatrix, sex worker, and research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry researching sex work, technology, and policy—Kutcher’s role in defending a convicted rapist should “encourage people to question everything about the organization,” and certainly how what she characterizes as Thorn’s “exaggerated” claims of protecting children can be used as a backdoor to monitor and endanger sex workers. (Snow reported on the phenomenon of sex workers facing mass reporting on social media for Jezebel earlier this year.)
Thorn’s star rose in 2017 when Kutcher offered an impassioned testimony before Congress about child sex trafficking and lifted up Spotlight, Thorn’s algorithm-based software that reportedly partners with Amazon to monitor for ads or posts involving potential sex trafficking, and works with law enforcement to scrape the internet for ads that ostensibly feature child sex trafficking victims. But Spotlight also scrapes the ads of sex workers. Forbes reported in December that Spotlight functions to “fill vast, easily searchable databases containing names, numbers, images and payment details of not just trafficked individuals but also consenting sex workers,” subjecting adult sex workers, who are already over-policed and threatened by law enforcement, to more aggressive surveillance. These databases make it possible for police to readily track and locate sex workers who are logged in the system.
Spotlight is regarded as especially dangerous as it uses Amazon’s Rekognition facial recognition technology, even though one test by the ACLU showed Rekognition misidentified 28 members of Congress, who were disproportionately people of color, as having previous arrests, and studies have discredited the accuracy of facial recognition algorithms generally. It follows that use of Rekognition would place sex workers of color at greater risk of being targeted. Yet a police training video for Spotlight obtained by Forbes characterizes Spotlight as “the Google for human trafficking or online escort activities.”
Sex workers and trafficking victims are endangered by the strategies and surveillance tools Thorn uses, Yves Tong Nguyen, an organizer with Red Canary Song and Survived and Punished, told Jezebel. (Red Canary Song is a coalition of Asian and migrant sex workers and massage workers.) Nguyen, who recounts participating in sex work as a teen while also acknowledging that “children can’t consent in any meaningful way,” points out that all too often, children are the ones who are punished or criminalized for sex crimes in the legal system. It’s not even just that Thorn’s tools are harmful to sex workers, Nguyen says—it’s that the organization’s inextricable connections to policing render it ill equipped to help trafficking victims who deeply fear police, too.
Kutcher claimed in 2017 that Thorn helped identify 6,000 U.S. sex-trafficking victims, including 2,000 children, in a six-month period by using Spotlight. But, as some journalists pointed out at the time, those numbers didn’t seem to square with reality. From 2009 through 2015, FBI agents working on child sex trafficking cases identified just 175 underage trafficking victims on average per year, per the attorney general’s 2015 annual report to Congress on trafficking reviewed by Reason. A 2020 version of this report specifies that the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Trafficking Victim Assistance Program served 105 underage victims in 2018, 144 in 2019, and 307 in 2020. Despite how Thorn and Kutcher’s numbers don’t add up, both received fawning coverage during that period: “Ashton Kutcher Helps Save 6,000 Kids from Sex Trafficking Via His Organization,” one People headline proclaimed. “Kutcher passionately testifies on his anti-sex trafficking efforts,” read one CNN headline.
This past December, Thorn CEO Julie Cordua told Forbes, “Law enforcement has reported that with Spotlight they have seen over 60% time savings in their investigative process and over 21,000 children have been identified using this tool.” But, again, this number is vastly higher than the federal data on child sex trafficking we have available to us.
“Child sex trafficking” has more recently become the go-to, highly politicized issue among right-wing culture warriors and conspiracy theorists, often as a means to demonize queer people and the left as child sexual predators. Nguyen says that, like many of these right-wing culture warriors, Thorn sweepingly presents trafficking as “this modern slavery”—even as, she points out, trafficking can also entail people “being taken advantage of, sometimes by loved ones, parents, boyfriends” in more nuanced or subtle ways than what we’ve been taught to imagine about it. While horrific acts of trafficking that Thorn talks about do happen, victims who may be navigating more complex situations can be buried by the extreme, “misleading” depictions pushed by Kutcher and Thorn, Nguyen says.
This, Snow says, is what Thorn does: fearmonger and mislead the public; stigmatize consensual adult sex work; and partner with law enforcement agencies and companies like Amazon and right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel’s Palantir (a data analytics company that’s helped the NSA develop its surveillance operations). The result, she says, is the surveillance of sex workers, which makes them vulnerable to police attention.
Violet Blue, a journalist reporting on privacy and sex work, in 2019 reported for Engadget on a rise in anti-trafficking organizations as “a lucrative growth market riddled with charlatans who’ve fooled companies as big as Google for years.” Blue named Kutcher’s Thorn as an example of a group that’s made surveillance technologies palatable, even popular, by claiming they’re rescuing children. Her reporting also showed almost all of Thorn’s nonprofit partners at the time—who help the organization “combat predatory behavior, rescue victims, and protect vulnerable children”—target adult sex workers and want to ban consensual sex work. In 2018, Thorn celebrated the passage of a federal law called FOSTA-SESTA that largely equates trafficking with sex work, forces sex workers off the internet under the guise of stopping trafficking, and places them in greater danger by pushing them underground, where they’re more vulnerable to violence and trafficking. According to Fordham Law Review’s 2019 report “FOSTA: A Hostile Law with a Human Cost,” within one month of FOSTA-SESTA’s enactment in 2018, 13 sex workers in the U.S. were reported missing.
“Sex work and trafficking are already so inextricably, rhetorically linked” that opponents “see sex workers as no better than what they think a ‘pimp’ is” and as deserving of punishment, Snow says. Surveillance and the dehumanization of sex workers by organizations like Thorn and law enforcement is thus justified when they are understood as “culturally acceptable collateral damage to ‘save the children,’” she explained.
Cordua did not comment to Forbes on how Spotlight reportedly identifies adults as well as children, but in 2019 told Engadget: “Our programs are designed specifically to channel very limited resources on the recovery of children who are being exploited through sex trafficking, not on consenting adults.”
Kutcher and Kunis quitting Thorn after defending a sexual abuser’s character, Snow says, isn’t about making Thorn better: “It’s about their public image, Thorn’s public image, rather than actual change,” she explained. To her point, Thorn’s statement responding to Kutcher’s resignation letter falls back on the organization’s tried-and-true strategy of invoking big numbers, claiming that it’s “helped the tech industry remove over 2 million potential child sexual abuse files from the open web,” and its tools have identified “more than 27,000 children and counting.” Snow suspects Kutcher and Kunis—two actors—had little, if anything, to do with the technologies that Thorn operates. Their removal from Thorn achieves little but reputational laundering for the organization, all as it continues to help law enforcement stalk and monitor consenting sex workers.