You know what I hate? Child sex trafficking. Yeah, I said it and I meant it. Deal with it.
I’m opening with that searing hot take because the go-to response to anyone talking about what I’m about to talk about is “Well, I guess you are pro-child sex trafficking.” So let’s just get that out of the way early on.
That’s right, today we’re talking about 2023’s biggest summer blockbuster, “Sound of Freedom,” starring Jim Caviezel as real-life person Tim Ballard, founder of the anti-trafficking charity “Operation Underground Railroad.” As an aside, you should ALWAYS see a red flag when anyone uses “underground railroad” to mean anything other than the network of safe houses used by African Americans to escape slavery during the Civil War. Yes, even feminists who talk about setting up an underground railroad for women seeking abortions. Come up with a new phrase! That one has a very good meaning already! Anyway, I digress.
Sound of Freedom tells the supposedly based-on-a-true-story of Ballard rebelling against his bosses at the Department of Homeland Security to fly a team to Colombia to rescue a child abducted by anonymous “rebels” who forced her into sex slavery. The movie is getting pretty good reviews, racking up a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes (and 100% audience score), and despite a relatively small budget, it even beat out the latest Indiana Jones (after Indy had already been out a few days, to be fair). That said, I won’t be seeing it, for a few reasons. First, because my month is already packed with Indy (I mean, my dog is named after his dog, I kind of have to), Oppenheimer, Barbie, you know, lots of important films to see. And second, because no matter how good this movie may be, I’m disgusted by the “true story” behind it and I don’t want to give my precious money to awful people.
Now, if you’re aware of my channel’s usual content, you might guess that the awful people I’m referring to are QAnon conspiracy theorists. After all, the QAnon cult have been laser focused on accusations of child sex trafficking and abuse for years now – “Pizzagate” happened in 2016, when alt-right conspiracy theorists claimed that high-level Democrats like Hilary Clinton were operating a vast network of child sex rings, one of which was in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. Also apparently Hilary ate a child.
And there ARE a lot of those conspiracy theorists who are very excited about this movie, to the point that they’re making up new conspiracy theories about it. The alt-right thinks that AMC Theaters is behind a massive attempt to stop them from seeing the movie. If I were a national chain of movie theaters that didn’t want people to see a particular movie, I would simply not show that movie in my movie theaters, but QAnon thinks that instead AMC is screening the film but then faking evacuations in the middle of it, or canceling it and refunding tickets because the air conditioning isn’t working even though it probably IS working.
And despite “Operation Underground Railroad” (or “OUR”) having previously disavowed QAnon conspiracy theories…(IMPORTANT POST-PRODUCTION EDIT: when I recorded this video on Thursday, July 13, that link led to this article stating that “the effort to knock out child exploitation and human trafficking is being harmed by individuals and a number of conspiracy theory groups who have chosen to latch onto child exploitation and human trafficking as a vehicle to deceptively bolster their causes.
This is not welcomed, nor should it be supported.”
As of Monday, July 17th, that article has been deleted.)
…some critics think that Sound of Freedom seems to intentionally leave it up to the audience to determine who in the US is funding the “$150 billion” child trafficking industry. As Charles Bramesco writes at The Guardian, “The first rule of QAnon: you don’t talk about QAnon where the normals can hear you.”
But hey, a good movie is a good movie and honestly if Sound of Freedom were getting better reviews from outlets I trust and that was all there was to it, I’d probably carve out time to see this one. But that’s not all there is to it: OUR is, as far as I can tell, a horrific organization that not only isn’t solving the problem of child sex trafficking but may in fact be making it worse.
Ballard founded OUR in 2013, and has claimed that since then the organization has rescued thousands of trafficked children and young women around the world by literally raiding the areas where they’re held captive and dragging them to freedom. OUR claims to be staffed by “former CIA, past and current law enforcement, and highly skilled operatives.”
But several Vice News exposés have revealed that the organization is actually an amateurish operation full of unskilled real estate agents more concerned with looking like cinematic badasses than actually ending child sex trade. One man described the “training” he got from OUR, which included taking a random object and trying to sell it to the other trainees (which is an exercise for, you know, people in sales) doing a scavenger hunt around a city, and watching that old psychology 101 “spot the gorilla” video with the people passing the basketball around. He also took a psychological exam, in which a fellow trainee told him to just mention “God” to pass easily. It took 10 minutes, he said “trust in God,” and he passed. At the end of the training he and his fellow trainees were informed that if they developed an attraction to the child sex trafficking victims they were going out to save, they should let someone know so they could be removed from the situation. Apparently that happened often enough that it required that warning.
Other OUR operatives described a “rescue mission” in which they pretended to be medical personnel helping the people living in a remote village on the Haitian border. Ballard was there and had a camera following him the entire time as he wandered around looking for a missing boy; the villagers started getting paranoid about who they really were, and eventually they threatened them until the group left town without the boy. Ballard had been positive that the boy was in that village but it turns out that his source for that intelligence had been a psychic medium named Janet from Utah. A psychic. Named Janet. From Utah. He flew an entire “jump team” to Haiti, and TOLD THE BOY’S FATHER to come to the village because he was about to be reunited with him.
In one fell swoop, he probably destroyed that father’s slim hope while also destroying an entire village’s trust in foreign medical aid, meaning the next time a real organization that does good work, like Doctors without Borders, shows up to deliver free vaccines or other medical care, they’re more likely to face open hostility from the people they’re trying to help.
Amazingly, that may not be the worst outcome from OUR’s operations. Experts in anti-trafficking, former OUR operatives, and sex workers themselves point out that OUR’s tactics are actually INCREASING the chances that children are put to work in sex slavery. One wealthy real estate agent admitted that he went to Haiti for OUR and used his unique skills to literally negotiate for children, “just like I negotiate on a real estate deal.” He told of “one instance of haggling with traffickers who demanded $60,000 in payment for two children. They eventually settled on $30,000.” Wow, great job, great deal.
OUR themselves have admitted that one of their tactics is to go to a town known for the sex trade and throw a bunch of money around the bars until they attract the attention of pimps. If the pimps only offer them adults, they tell them they actually want young girls, which obviously leads the pimps to GO OUT AND GET YOUNG GIRLS for the rich foreigners. At that point, OUR calls the police to come arrest everyone and they leave town, full of smug satisfaction at a job well done. They are literally increasing the demand for child sex slavery and then leaving without concern for what’s now going to happen to those children, or the adult sex workers who were just arrested.
There are many more horrific details in the Vice article, which I encourage you to read in full before you even consider buying a ticket to see Sound of Freedom. I promise that your movie ticket isn’t going to “raise awareness” or help anyone get out of the sex trade – all it’s going to do is feed the ego of a bunch of wealthy white guys who want to believe that they’re Rambo.
I actually have a good friend who has worked in the anti-trafficking world for some time. I asked him if he could recommend a better organization that’s working in that space, and he pointed out that even the best known NGOs are problematic in terms of sometimes actually harming sex workers (both voluntary and involuntary). So instead of recommending one of those, I’ll go back to that Vice article, where an organizer for Empower, a nonprofit that provides support to sex workers in Thailand, says to “think about support for us all to be more secure and able to defend ourselves. Scholarships, apprenticeships, family payments for mothers, support for teenagers who have left home.” It’s the same in places like Thailand as it is here in the United States: real positive change rarely happens due to action hero stunts; it happens thanks to boring, tireless work on the ground to improve everything surrounding the problem you want to address. Child sex trafficking will end when we provide EVERYONE with safe homes, education, income, food, and healthcare. It may not make a good movie, but it makes a wonderful society.