Oh look! Is that another sex trafficker?

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By Lenore Skenazy . . . We are in the midst of a massive mommy moral panic. Across the country, mothers are writing breathless accounts on Facebook of how sex traffickers nearly snatched their children at Target/Ikea/the grocery store.

While at Sam’s Club, one such post explains, “a man came up to us and asked if the empty cart nearby was ours.…He was an African American with a shaved head.…It seemed like an innocent encounter.” Innocent, that is, until the mom and kids headed to Walmart and there was the guy again, “feverishly texting on his phone but not taking his eye off my daughter.”

It could only mean one thing, she wrote: “I have absolutely NO doubt that that man is a trafficker looking for young girls to steal and sell.”

But it sells. A Facebook post by Diandra Toyos went wildly viral after she said she and her kids were followed by two men at Ikea. “I had a bad feeling,” she wrote. Fortunately, she “managed to lose them.”

Which, frankly, is what one does at Ikea, even with people one is trying not to lose. Nonetheless, the post ricocheted through the media. CBS told viewers that while experts found the scenario unlikely, “that doesn’t mean Toyos didn’t have reason to be concerned.”

Actually, it does.

When yet another post from another mom took off in Denver, local news outlets had to run stories reassuring parents that there had been no legitimate sex trafficking reports in the area. The Littleton Independent also informed people that an earlier story about a man “kidnapping” a child in front of the local library turned out to be about a guy moving a stroller out of the way so he could get to his car.

David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, says parents always worry about their kids. But more and more, that primal fear “gets paired with the fact that we live in a very heterogeneous society, where we encounter lots of people whose behavior and motives we can’t read, we can’t identify with.” It’s a big case of fear of The Other.

Had Finkelhor heard of a single case where a child was taken from a parent in public and forced into the sex trade? No. Because it’s not happening. Actual traffickers build relationships with the young people they go on to exploit, usually troubled or runaway teens. No one is spiriting 2-year-olds from Target.

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