Monday, February 09, 2004
"Sex Slaves on Main Street"
So reads the cover of the New York Times Magazine from two weeks
ago (January 25, 2004), describing a long article inside ("The Girls
Next Door") about, well, sex slaves in the US. Following a tradition
established by a co-blogger, I waited until seeing the letters in this
Sunday's Times Magazine before mentioning the original
article. (You can buy the original article from the Times's archive here.)
Letters responding to the article are here (registration required).
The article concerns young, sometimes very young women (even toddlers
are mentioned), generally from Mexico or the former Eastern bloc, who
become enslaved and forced into prostitution in the US. And they are
everywhere, we are led to believe, next door and on Main Street. [Update:
a friend of Vice Squad correctly points out that this "everywhere"
characterization of the article is itself an exaggeration.] The problem is, the
article never delivers any real evidence that there is anything other than a
few isolated cases of such sex slavery in the US. Isolated cases are
themselves bad enough that there is no need to sensationalize, but the
article, it seems to me, largely does just that.
I expected that the response letters would judge the article more-or-less
the way that I did, but I was wrong (again). For the most part, the letter
writers praise the author of the article for opening their eyes to the sex
slave business in the US.
Jack Shafer of Slate.com has taken a more skeptical view, and filled it
out with what amounts to an elaborate refutation of the original article
in multiple Slate columns. Here's a snippet from Shafer's summary piece,
which takes a close look at some of the major sources for the Times article:
"My endless pieces argue that [the Times author] Landesman fails to substantiate the claim made on the cover and inside that tens of thousands of women and girls are being held 'captive and pimped out for forced sex' in American suburbs and cities. Landesman's 8,500-word breathless hodgepodge of anecdotes, bait-and-switches, non sequiturs, pseudonymous testimonials, and over-the-top hysteria comes nowhere near to proving its thesis: Although the crime of sex-slavery exists, Landesman cites just two criminal cases involving 10 females."
The Shafer summary article, noting that prostitution services run for profit must be sufficiently visible to attract customers, concludes thusly:
"What does it say about his [Landesman's] opus that after a four-month investigation that took him to Mexico four times and Eastern Europe once and included visits to several states—a project in which government officials, police, and rescue groups welcomed his questions—that he never observes an operating sex-slave emporium in the United States?"
So, read the original article and read the Shafer response.
One final note. Shafer cites the white slave panic of the early 20th
century as a parallel case of journalistic excess. What he leaves out
is one of the long-term costs of that panic: the harassment
(and sometimes imprisonment) of consensual couples via the Mann
Act. Let's hope that our new panic doesn't lead to any other short-
sighted but long-lasting legislation. After all, sex slavery is already
OK, yet another "final note." Vice does sell newspapers and magazines,
so perhaps it isn't surprising that the occasional over-the-top story
appears. Still, it is disheartening when such stories appear in highly
respected outlets. Last August, Newsweek opened our eyes
to a startling trend we might have otherwise missed: the marked rise in
US teen prostitution, especially among middle and upper-middle class kids.
Jack Shafer examined that one, too.