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the good fight

How the Anti-Trafficking Movement Gave Cover to Opportunistic Men

What’s the future of the anti-trafficking charity-celebrity complex, with both Ashton Kutcher and Tim Ballard out of their respective groups?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty
Actor Ashton Kutcher, the co-founder of Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, prepares to testify during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Ending Modern Slavery: Building on Success, on February 15, 2017.

This is how the 2011 ad for Ashton Kutcher’s anti–child sex trafficking charity starring Donald Trump goes:

Trump appears in the ad while on television himself in a clip from his reality series, The Apprentice. Seated on a couch watching Trump is actor Jamie Foxx, who reaches over for a remote control—and uses it to crack open a beer. “Real Men Know How to Use the Remote,” a baritone voiceover announces, queuing up subsequent shots of a man cave adorned with gilt framed portraits of other “Real Men”—Tom Selleck, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford. The ad ends with a shot of Trump’s own portrait, the gold frame caressed by actor Eva Longoria, who delivers the tagline, in a slightly bizarre, come-hither register: “Donald Trump knows that real men don’t buy girls.” A URL appears: Visitors could find the ad there under the title “Donald Trump Is a Real Man.”

This was a public service announcement as much as it was a promotional message for Ashton Kutcher and then-wife Demi Moore’s new philanthropic effort, now called Thorn—which Kutcher resigned from on September 15 of this year, after putting the organization in an uncomfortably hypocritical position. The Dude, Where’s My Car? actor called his That 70’s Show co-star Danny Masterson a “role model” who “set an extraordinary standard around how you treat other people” in a letter of support, published online earlier this month, in advance of Masterson’s sentencing for sexual assault.

The launch of Thorn, then called the DNA Foundation, in 2010 coincided with gossip rags reporting that Kutcher had cheated on Moore. As Moore wrote years later, she was forced to “put on a brave face” at the charity’s kickoff event at the Clinton Global Initiative that year. Kutcher, she writes, “spoke about how there are more slaves alive now than at any other time in human history.” (There is no valid data behind this claim, but it’s a common rallying cry in anti-trafficking circles.) Moore recalled following Kutcher’s words about “sex slavery” with a plea that, “real men protect, respect, love, and care for girls.” But, she reflected, “I did not feel protected, respected, loved, or cared for myself.” Kutcher later became the face of Thorn, which in turn gave him the ability to call himself a “founder” and “philanthropist” while also currying favor in Congress.

That does not make this charity unique. In the anti-trafficking sector, and the anti–child trafficking and anti–sex trafficking sectors in particular, there are no shortage of organizations purporting to rescue children—or at least to raise awareness of the need to rescue children—yet whose founders appear to spend more time doing photo ops than actually changing the lives of victims and survivors of trafficking. Perhaps the most spectacularly self-imploding of these organizations is Operation Underground Railroad, or OUR, whose Trump-approved, QAnon-adjacent founder Tim Ballard left the group dramatically in recent months. Last week, Ballard was denounced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for his “morally unacceptable” behavior, as Vice News reported, in his efforts to use the Mormon church to advance OUR and its ventures. This week, Vice confirmed reports from Utah journalist Lynn Packer that Ballard’s departure was after an investigation into seven allegations of sexual misconduct made by support staff on the group’s self-styled “rescue” missions.

The New Republic reached out to both Thorn and OUR for comment on this article. OUR said in an email that it is “dedicated to combatting sexual abuse and does not tolerate sexual harassment or discrimination by anyone in its organization,” and that it had retained an outside law firm to look into the allegations against Ballard. We did not hear back from Thorn as of press time.

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?

With each of these two men’s fall from grace, it seems that the anti–sex trafficking vanity industrial complex is finally in ruins. It may still be too late: The attention, resources, and influence such groups have accrued has been at the expense of trafficking victims and survivors.

It’s hard to know what Kutcher has actually done at Thorn, but the organization has been enormously useful for enhancing his stature. Since its founding, Thorn has more often than not sounded more like a start-up than a human rights or advocacy organization. One of its few independently documented accomplishments is a piece of software called Spotlight, which Thorn takes credit for developing with a firm called Digital Reasoning; the group then provides the software free of charge to law enforcement.

We know few details about how Spotlight works, but it appears to involve data scraping, “machine learning,” and facial recognition, collecting adult sex workers’ data and identities from online sex work ads, then using that as a source to search for children suspected of having been trafficked. By creating a database of sex workers for cops, many sex workers rights’ advocates say, Spotlight sounds like nothing more than a tool for passively generating a collection of sexual content meant only for sex workers’ intentionally ephemeral online ads, which can also be used to identify them outside sex work, all without their knowledge or consent. In a Spotlight training video for police reviewed by Forbes, Spotlight is described as “the Google for human trafficking or online escort activities.” Clearly this has value to police beyond locating kids.

Law enforcement officers who have used Spotlight also acknowledge that Thorn has created a tool for obtaining confessions—from suspected victims who don’t want help from police, who may themselves be participants in criminalized conduct by being involved in the sex trade, even if nonconsensually. “We use it in victim interviews, which can be the turning point where they realize we know too much and full denials just won’t work anymore,” two detectives from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office wrote on Thorn’s blog in 2018. For them, though Spotlight may be a tool to locate missing kids, it’s also a tool for turning victims facing possible prosecution into state witnesses.

Spotlight didn’t just enable Kutcher to become an asset to cops—it also helped him become an A.I. guy. On the tech conference circuit over the past decade, he talked up how Spotlight uses A.I. for facial recognition, including in a partnership with Amazon Rekognition—a tool that Amazon has banned law enforcement from using, except by Thorn and similar, purported anti-trafficking efforts, after activists raised civil liberties and gender and racial justice concerns over its use. Kutcher also became an investor in A.I., for instance with his investment, alongside Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Mark Zuckerberg, in an A.I. company called Vicarious, a vague but richly cash-infused venture, described by its founder as a technology that would “let us make labor much more affordable, which would then let us all rise in society.” Kutcher followed this with his own $240 million A.I. investment fund. Kutcher once portrayed Steve Jobs, but now he has fully assumed the tech thought leader role himself. Thorn helped.

Unlike Kutcher, Tim Ballard, the founder of OUR, only recently made it in movies. Ballard started OUR in 2013 with a dramatic origin myth ready to go: claiming he had spent more than a decade hunting “pedophiles” with the Department of Homeland Security and was now going indie, bringing his “special forces” buddies along with him to save kids around the world. Ballard’s stories of rescuing children from “sex slavery”—which are often impossible to fact-check, including some shared at Trump White House events that have clearly been exaggerated—are rendered in a (perhaps even more) fictionalized form in the 2023 movie Sound of Freedom. Somehow, Sound of Freedom scored bigger audiences than some brand-name blockbuster franchises this summer. The production company behind the film boasts investors who are tight with Elon Musk (one sits on the SpaceX board). Playing Ballard is actor Jim Caveziel, who portrayed Jesus Christ for Mel Gibson and who thinks fondly of QAnon. But before the well-connected investors took interest, there was Glenn Beck.

Back in 2013, Ballard launched himself and what became OUR on Glenn Beck’s online show at The Blaze, purportedly raising $1 million for the group from this one appearance. Ballard pitched OUR as a “tech startup” too—and himself as a tech founder who, as a VentureBeat story in 2014 described him, “combs the world with a proprietary CPS data-mining software, ferreting out the worst pedophiles and freeing children enslaved by human traffickers.” (An editor’s note added in 2015 clarified that the software was actually “developed by the Child Rescue Coalition” and that OUR merely “distributed and trained law enforcement on how to use it.”) I met Ballard not long afterward, on a press junket in Manhattan. He employed a kind of tactical humility, speaking about his work as something that traumatized him and his volunteer-rescuers too, because, as he told us, on their rescues they were the ones who had to pose as sex traffickers.

At the time, this kind of rescue-oriented, almost missionary-style anti-trafficking group was in vogue. One of the world’s highest-profile such groups, International Justice Mission, or IJM, had been around for years—and like, OUR, was later found to have, at times, exaggerated its rescues (including, as was recently revealed, actually taking children who were not trafficked into its custody). What made Ballard stand out in a crowded field of anti-trafficking thought leaders was his use of social media to recruit an online fanbase—and their donations—into his movement.

But OUR’s operations sounded questionable to anti-trafficking experts from nearly the beginning. Former volunteers have begun to go public in recent years about their experiences on rescue operations. On one such operation in 2015, a new volunteer found that the others “were mostly as inexperienced as I was,” she wrote in 2021. “They believed in Ballard, too, and were doing their best to bootstrap his vision of salvation. The calls were fervent but flawed. Everybody wanted to ‘save the kids,’ but no one really knew anything about these kids. We talked mostly about fundraising.” It took years to get to anything like the truth behind some of the sensationalized rescue stories, as people who staffed the rescues came forward, including people who now say they were victimized by these rescues.

Nothing about helping children who have allegedly been trafficked into the sex trade requires their helpers to playact as a pimp or trafficker. But that playacting is at the heart of the sexual misconduct Ballard is now accused of by at least seven women, all OUR employees. Specifically, sources familiar with a subsequent investigation said Ballard made sexual advances on female staff during “rescues.” As Vice News revealed, Ballard allegedly invited women to go on undercover trafficking missions in which he posed as a trafficker, to act as his “wife,” and he would then coerce them “into sharing a bed or showering together, claiming that it was necessary to fool traffickers.” An anonymous letter sent to donors to anti-trafficking groups this summer, first publicized by Utah journalist Lynn Packer and confirmed by Vice News, describes how Ballard’s tactics were to solicit sex acts “under the premise of going where it takes and doing ‘whatever it takes’ to save a child.”

What’s the future of the anti-trafficking charity-celebrity complex with both these prominent founders out of their respective groups? There is a much larger story here about how the anti–sex trafficking movement as a whole has failed at its stated mission and has not reckoned with what it means that Trump’s followers believe he is an anti–sex trafficking champion; how it has operated as less of a movement than an arm of law enforcement and powerful donors across the political spectrum. It’s impossible to say if such a “movement” will sustain anything like a reckoning with Ballard and Kutcher. Anti-trafficking groups may seek to distance themselves from once-celebrated founders after such incidents, but it’s too late: The kinds of questionable claims and sensationalized tales of rescue that Kutcher and Ballard peddled now dominate what most people imagine when they hear about “fighting trafficking.”

Neither do I have a neat resolution to the stories of these two men. Kutcher, on the one hand, was not ousted from Thorn over any misconduct (that we know of), but his whole turn toward charitable works often has felt like a con to advance his personal brand and influence—and one he may no longer need Thorn for. Ballard, meanwhile, is left pushing vegan supplements (called, incredibly, “Freedom”) and claiming the denunciation from the LDS is just so-much fake news. Despite his real-life fall from grace, the on-screen version of Ballard may yet continue to be incredibly useful as a profit- and attention-generator. As long as that pays returns to someone, Ballard may not be going far.

The day Kutcher stepped down from Thorn, Ballard was in Congress giving “expert” testimony on child sex trafficking. On a Fox hit that followed, sandwiched between clips from Sound of Freedom, Ballard announced his new anti-trafficking mission: accusing the Biden administration of running a “a child trafficking delivery service.” He rounded out his week on Sean Spicer’s show, where he said that since the release of Sound of Freedom meant his “rescue” days were over, he was now “seriously considering” a run for U.S. Senate.