For some, he will forever be known as Kelso from ‘That 70’s Show’, as well as his many other Hollywood activities such as marrying actress Demi Moore, before finally settling down with former co-host Mila Kunis and having children with her. But for us, Ashton Kutcher will from now on be known as the celebrity who leveraged his popularity to become a formidable entrepreneur and founder of a tech company, advocating for vulnerable children caught in the sex trafficking trade.
But before we get into all that, it’s important to take a moment and understand why Ashton Kutcher specifically talking about this issue and using his platform is powerful. You see, a celebrity’s elevated platform is a unique form of currency in our society today. Their reach on social media, their ability to command attention from masses, and the way mainstream media clamors to have them part of their content simply because of name recognition has the potential to be used for good or bad.
We also need to stop demonizing celebrities when they do use their platform for something positive. When Meryl Streep stood up at the Golden Globes to take a stand against Donald Trump’s hateful, divisive rhetoric (without specifically mentioning his name), many conservatives were up in arms, saying she should just shut up and stick to acting. There are countless examples of smart, successful and passionate entertainment figures being told to stop talking about important subjects, as if they aren’t humans and their opinions don’t count outside of the entertainment world. Beyonce at the 2016 Super Bowl, anyone?
Which brings us to Ashton Kutcher. If you have been closely following his career, especially outside of his acting talents, you will be familiar with his entrepreneurship. As a father of two young children and the founder of a company called Thorn, today he using his familiar face and name, which has the ability to open doors of opportunity many ordinary folk may not have, for the good of an extremely neglected demographic of children.
He began Thorn in 2008 with ex-wife Demi Moore, where he works with his team to utilize digital technology to fight child pornography and child sex-trafficking, especially in the US. The International Labor Organization estimates a whopping 20 million people worldwide are currently caught in the human trafficking trade, one of the largest criminal enterprises in the world which has allowed more human slaves to exist today than at any other point in human history.
And according to a report from The Atlantic in 2016, it is a rampant problem across America, one which law enforcement continues to struggle with. We hear about major raids and arrests happening on Super Bowl Sunday, a day when trafficking activity is at an all-time high due to the nation’s preoccupation with one of its favorite pastimes. But what about the other 354 days of the year?
In a session before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee not too long ago, Ashton brought to light other aspects of the child sex trafficking trade, and explained how his company has now become a go-to resource for law enforcement due to the innovation in technology they are utilizing to stay ahead of the criminal trade.
With great emotion, at times his voice wavering, he spoke passionately about the need to protect every child’s right to pursue happiness and freedom, and that we need to be doing better to ensure this happens. He spoke not just as an actor, a celebrity, but also as a dad.
“As part of my anti-trafficking work, I’ve met victims in Russia, I’ve met victims in India, I’ve met victims that have been trafficked from Mexico, victims from New York and New Jersey and all across our country. I’ve been on FBI raids where I’ve seen things that no person should ever see. I’ve seen video content of a child that’s the same age as mine being raped by an American man that was a sex tourist in Cambodia. And this child was so conditioned by her environment that she thought she was engaging in play,” he said during his opening statement.
He wanted the Senate to understand how technology, people in the private sector working in the digital world, and how funding can play a key role in helping law enforcement create meaningful, preventative solutions to this epidemic.
“It’s working. In six months, with 25% of our users reporting, we’ve identified over 6,000 trafficking victims, 2,000 of which are minors. This tool has enhanced 4,000 law enforcement officials in 900 agencies. And we’re reducing the investigation time by 60%,” he said of a software tool called “Spotlight.”
When answering a question by Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, Ashton explained why it is important that the government work with the tech world and its entrepreneurs on this issue.
“As I work with entrepreneurs across the country, the extraordinary thing is they’re not afraid to fail. It’s unbelievable. They just go for it, like, full-blown. So if you deploy the capital in a way that allows people to fail but also in a way to allow people to massively succeed, you may find that you have much greater outcomes than you do by making safe choices with the deployment of the capital. Oftentimes the greatest ideas come when those people aren’t afraid to fail…The reason why I think they are best built in the private sector is we’re willing to take those risks, and we’re willing to create that accountability. So I think they’re best incubated in the private sector, but at a certain point, the public sector needs to recognize that tool,” he said.
One of the parts of his opening testimony which really struck a chord with us was when he spoke about the foster care system in the US, and how there needs to be a greater focus on fixing it because it is a breeding ground for abuse and trafficking. He referred to foster care as the “pipeline” for this issue, given that there are close to 500,000 kids in the system today.
“Fifty per cent of these kids will not graduate from high school and 95% of them will not get a college degree. But the most staggering statistic I found that was foster care children are 4 times more likely to be exposed to sexual abuse…I promise you that’s a breeding ground for trafficking…The reason I looked at foster care is that it’s a microcosm of what happens when displacement happens abroad…When people are left out, when they’re neglected, when they’re not given the love they need to grow, it becomes an incubator for trafficking,” he said.
We are so glad he spoke about this issue, because many of the Republican legislators in houses of Congresses across the US today claim to be “pro life” and doggedly go after abortion regulations like there’s no tomorrow, but fail to look at the foster care system as a place where the lives of young children already born are extremely vulnerable and victimized. So thank you Ashton!
He also pointedly spoke about the fact that celebrities like him are constantly being told to shut-up by critics who like to police what other people do with their time, and made a very good point.
“This is about the time where I start talking about politics and the internet trolls tell me to stick to my day job, so I’d like to talk about my day job. My day job is as the chairman and co-founder of Thorn. We build software to fight human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children,” he said.
But this issue, and the advocacy of it, is not only about Ashton Kutcher and how he used his voice for good. It is about him raising awareness of an issue that sadly gets little to no daylight compared to topics such as where transgender people should be relieving themselves. It is about what WE as ordinary citizens can go once confronted with the facts. We don’t have to be a famous Hollywood star or entrepreneur to make a difference, there are many small, everyday ways we can contribute to ending this problem.
The Thorn website has a great list of ways to get involved, which we highly recommend sharing with your community. And as always, it is imperative we as citizens (and employers of our Government representatives) put pressure on our leaders to take action and use resources to work with companies like Thorn to tackle child sex trafficking and child pornography.
If you missed Ashton’s full opening statement before the Senate, watch it below, and click through to the Youtube link to find another link to watch his answers to various questions from members of the committee: