Press Box

Enslaved by His Sources

Reading Peter Landesman’s sex-slave story one more time.

Click  here for links to all of Slate’s pieces about Landesman’s sex-slave article, New York Times Magazine Editor Gerald Marzorati’s defense of the article, and Daniel Radosh’s blog entry.

Although I’ve already spilled 5,600 words on the subject in four pieces, I’m not quite finished cataloging the journalistic shortcomings of Peter Landesman’s Jan. 25 New York TimesMagazine cover story about the sex-slave industry, “The Girls Next Door.”

My endless pieces argue that 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. I continue to harp on Landesman’s unsubstantiated numbers precisely because without their sensationalistic wallop, his months-long Times Magazine investigation collapses upon itself.

Landesman’s notion that every third block in the country harbors a sex-slave brothel can be traced to his reliance on well-meaning sources in government, activist circles, the religious community, and academia whose moral fervor causes them to stretch the truth to make their points about the abomination of sex slavery. Landesman appears to have fallen captive to these sources, internalized their views, and channeled their agenda into the pages of the Times Magazine.

But some reporters see through the government/NGO/religious haze. In a Page One story in the Oct. 26, 2003, New York Times, reporter Elisabeth Bumiller detailed the growing influence of religious groups over human rights issues—”most notably sex trafficking and AIDS”—in the Bush administration. While Bumiller portrays the human rights partnership with religious groups as sincere on Bush’s part, she also notes the political payoff it offers. She writes:

The human rights issues offer a politically safe way for the president to appeal to his base of white evangelicals, who leading scholars and pollsters define by their membership in historically white evangelical denominations, like the Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God. Evangelical churches believe that the Bible is truth, that members have an imperative to proselytize and convert and that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.

The religious groups, Bumiller reports, displayed their political power by lobbying successfully for the appointment of former House member John Miller to the State Department post of director of the Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, overcoming Karl Rove’s observation that Miller was a McCain guy in 2000. “Essentially a variety of people let out the word that this is not the hill you want to die on—this is the guy we want,” Allen Hertzke, the director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the forthcoming, Freeing God’s Children: The Faith-Based Movement for International Human Rights, tells Bumiller.

John Miller, the religious groups’ made man, appears very high in Landesman’s piece in the “nut graf” discussion about the number of sex slaves in the United States. Landesman cites recent government estimates that 18,000 to 20,000 people are trafficked each year into the country, but acknowledges that no government study estimates how many of these people are trafficked as sex slaves. Engaging in a bit of journalistic sleight-of-hand, Landesman introduces Kevin Bales of the antislavery nonprofit Free the Slaves, who, without citing any source or methodology, purports that “at least 10,000” of the annually trafficked people are sex slaves.

Miller gives sanction to Bales’$2 10,000 figure by saying it might underestimate the annual trafficking in sex slaves. “That figure could be low. What we know is that the number is huge,” Miller tells Landesman, citing no methodology himself. Finally, Laura Lederer, identified only as a senior State Department adviser on trafficking, explains away the shortfall between the Bales/Miller estimates and the number of sex slaves discovered. “We’re not finding victims in the United States because we’re not looking for them,” she says.

Two very chatty Landesman sources from the International Justice Mission—Gary Haugen and Sharon B. Cohn—don’t suggest any numbers, but they do pop up frequently in the article to provide emotionally charged but vague comments about the workings of the sex-slave industry.

Who are these experts, and why are they saying the things that they’re saying? One would think that Bales, whose book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy bills him as “the world’s leading expert on contemporary slavery,” would have commented previously on the 10,000 sex slaves entering the country each year. But searching Nexis and Google, I found no mention by Bales about this vigorous trade. Nor does he mention anywhere in Disposable People about swarms of sex slaves arriving in the United States. He tells Landesman that between 30,000 and 50,000 sex slaves are in captivity in the United States at any time, but I can’t find an earlier instance of Bales making that allegation. Did he just discover the peril?

Landesman’s perfunctory identification of Laura Lederer as “a senior State Department adviser on trafficking” doesn’t pay justice to her career. Lederer’s bio reveals that she is a lawyer who also made her name as an antipornography, anti-“hate speech” feminist scholar, editing books such as Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography (1980) and The Price We Pay: The Case Against Racist Speech, Hate Propaganda, and Pornography (1996). Her book Speech, Equality, and Harm: New Legal Paradigms, will be released this spring. Feminist Lederer speaks explicitly about the need to make common cause with religious groups in the battle against the slave trade in this March 25, 2000, article from the World, a Christian newsweekly. (This link-up between religious groups and feminists is not unprecedented. Religious forces united with some feminists during the Reagan-era over the pornography issue.)

So when Lederer says, “We’re not finding victims in the United States because we’re not looking for them,” is she speaking from some official knowledge of the importation of tens of thousands of new sex slaves each year that the government is neglecting to observe? Or is she hyping a smaller crisis into a society-wide panic because of her own agenda? I have my suspicions.

Likewise, Landesman does little to identify Gary Haugen and Sharon B. Cohn’s organization, International Justice Mission, except to describe it as “an organization based in Arlington, Va., that fights sexual exploitation in South Asia and Southeast Asia.” The group’s Web site offers this much-needed transparency: IJM is a religious-based organization that “seeks to present … The biblical and devotional imperative to seek justice on behalf of the oppressed.” That IJM is a Christian organization does not disqualify its leader and an employee from adding something of substance to the sex-slave story, but Landesman and the Times Magazine editors err in not fully describing the group. (For a nuanced look at IJM’s “rescue” work in Thailand, see Maggie Jones’ piece in the November/December 2003 Mother Jones.)

Of course, Miller, Bales, Lederer, Haugen, and Cohn can be reliable sources even if they possess political or social agendas or relevant back stories. But the journalist who simultaneously fails to note the, um, relevant prejudices of his top talking heads, as Landesman does, and declines to locate any moderating views about the panic he’s inciting has lost his soul to his sources.

Landesman’s journalistic hysteria parallels the white slave panic that consumed the United States in 1909 after McClure’s magazine reported that flesh-peddling Jews were luring innocent country girls into sex slavery, an episode documented in James A. Morone’s new book, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History. The French and the Chinese were said to be in on the sex-slave game, too, writes Morone. Then as now, technological change and an influx of immigrants unsettled the national psyche, the sex-slave stories fed American xenophobia, and a political fusion of religious believers and social reformers fanned the panic. Morone writes, “The scare turned social change into a moral crisis.”

One book published during the panic proclaimed this in a cover banner: “Sixty thousand innocent girls WANTED to take the place of 60,000 white slaves who will die this year.” It sounds hokey today, but it’s nothing compared to Landesman talking about sex slavery on the table of contents page of the Times Magazine:

What struck me was how beneath the surface normality of American life run deep currents of human catastrophe and barbarity. … I now see a whole other population of human beings walking the earth. When driving the seedier strips in Hollywood, I no longer look at the prostitutes on the street as mere hookers but as potential victims in a mechanized criminal network. When I see a Mexican or Russian girl at a bus stop in Los Angeles, I wonder to myself, Is she walking around in invisible chains?

Historians are still separating the white slave panic from the facts, but Morone writes that they’ve uncovered nothing like tens of thousands of girls being snatched. That’s not to say that the panic was pure invention. “Real prostitutes faced intimidation, exploitation, and violence,” Morone writes. Asian prostitutes suffered horribly in California, and economic hardships induced native-born females into the profession, where they could earn 20 times what they earned in a factory. But the machinery of a huge white slave industry that religious figures and social reformers battled did not exist any more, I suspect, than do Landesman’s fanciful tales of toddler sex slaves and women auctioned on the Internet for $300,000.

Landesman’s story extrudes a very complex world though a very narrow mind. Kate Butcher of the British nonprofit John Snow International captures the difficulty of thinking about trafficked and prostituted women in a letter to the June 7, 2003, Lancet. She writes:

When women’s groups call for rehabilitation and rescue of trafficked and prostituted women they argue from their own moral perspective and not that of the women they are seeking to save. The situation is complex, in that a spectrum can exist between trafficking and prostitution, with trafficked girls at one end and women who have decided to work as prostitutes at the other.

It would take a true act of journalism, not what Landesman offers, to split the spectrum and describe the sex-trade scene with clarity. Thomas Steinfatt, a Fulbright scholar and professor at the University of Miami, who has studied the traffic of women and childrenunder a USAID grant, writes in an e-mail to me that the sex trade is “not a closed group of evil men who want to molest young girls. The purpose is commercial—to make money.” One needs a constant flow of new customers, not just repeat customers, to build a business. And to attract such a large base of customers, it needs to publicize its existence. He continues:

With such knowledge available in the community, any honest cop, let alone anyone with detective training, should be able to find it. Any interested male should be able to find it. While the existence of trafficked children may be more hidden than the existence of commercial sex itself, if money is to be made—and that is the purpose—then the existence of the children has to be made known in some way, or the money cannot be made. Thus, if there are all these locations as alleged by Landesman, any reasonable effort to find them should succeed. I have never tried to locate them in the U.S. but if they exist that should not be too difficult to do.

Which returns us once more to Landesman’s 8,500-word piece: What does it say about his 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?


For an eyeful of real scholarship on human trafficking, see these two papers: “Measuring the Number of Trafficked Women and Children in Cambodia: A Direct Observation Field Study” by Thomas Steinfatt and “Measuring the Number of Trafficked Women in Cambodia: 2002” by Steinfatt, Simon Baker, and Allan Beesey. I’ve now written almost as many words about Peter Landesman’s feature as he wrote himself. Time to stop? Send e-mail to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)