Press Box

Landesman vs. Shafer

The sex slave author and his critic.

Editors’ note: If you’ve arrived at this controversy late, you might want to first read Peter Landesman’s January 2004 New York Times Magazine cover story, “ The Girls Next Door,” and Jack Shafer’s piece from earlier in the week, “ Sex Slaves, Revisited.” Find links to all the elements in the controversy on this page.

From: Peter Landesman

To: Jack Shafer

Date: June 8, 2005


Re: Jack Shafer/Slate column: “Sex Slaves Revisited,” June 7, 2005

I find it curious the way Mr. Shafer continues his 16-month campaign against my New York Times Magazine story on sex trafficking (“The Girls Next Door,” January 25, 2004). Mr. Shafer formulates his latest set of complaints not as an argument with me but with the victims. “Because sexual slavery is the most depraved form of involuntary servitude,” Mr. Shafer writes, “one would expect that if sex slaves existed in the numbers Landesman, Bales, and Miller would have us believe, more of them would have applied for the heavily publicized ‘T-1 visa.’ ” If only. In the real world, this is akin to suggesting to a 15-year-old inmate of Bergen-Belsen, after being raped by her captors 20 times a day for a year, that she hurtle past the guards, electric fences and dogs into a foreign land, and beg for help in a language she does not speak. How many of these young women know what a T-visa is, do you think? Did Mr. Shafer know what a T-visa was before he began surfing Google? Methinks Mr. Shafer needs to get out more.

This story was not about numbers. This was an exhaustive investigation into the process of recruiting and transporting sex slaves into this country. The issue of numbers was exactly two sentences in an 8,500-word piece. That said, it is, admittedly, difficult to quantify any sort of underground commerce or black market. “The Girls Next Door” made no attempt to be definitive about this; I simply reported how big the problem could be, according to those who study it and are mandated to combat it. Sex traffickers do not register their victims with the INS. But neither do weapons and drug traffickers call in their profits and inventory to the IRS. So what are we to make of Mr. Shafer’s silence (and presumably blind acceptance) when he reads the abundance of articles that quote government estimates on worldwide illegal drug and weapons sales?

Mr. Shafer goes on to attempt to discredit two experts I quoted by saying they pulled their numbers “out of thin air.” Mr. Shafer conveniently left out a few pieces of pertinent information. The State Department “official” Mr. Shafer refers to, John Miller, is actually the Director of the State Department’s office on human trafficking, and Washington’s ambassador on this issue to the international community. The other, a long-time and roundly respected researcher named Kevin Bales, has devoted years to attempting to quantify the commerce and personal horror of human trafficking. His algorithm—which I’ve attached below—is actually reasonable if complicated, and predicated on the fact that the numbers we do have are really the tip of the iceberg, which no one could reasonably deny. Last year, while Mr. Shafer was making his ad hominem attacks, Mr. Bales sent Mr. Shafer this exhaustive explanation of his math. The explanation obviously didn’t jive with Mr. Shafer’s thesis or agenda; he has simply chosen to ignore it rather than pass it along to his readers.

Since the beginning of this 16-month episode, while Mr. Shafer has continued to over-reach, dozens of experts and officials I have spoken to in the State Department, the Department of Justice officials, various federal prosecutors, and the Department of Health and Human and Services, and local case workers, not to mention victims themselves, identify “The Girls Next Door” as a watershed moment in the public discourse of a reprehensible and vastly misunderstood problem. Federal, state and local task forces and initiatives were established in both the U.S. and Mexico in the story’s wake, including in Los Angeles and San Diego, two principle gateways for sex traffickers into this country. Arrests and prosecutions of some of the trafficking networks named in the story were made. (The principles of one of the largest Mexico-based trafficking mechanisms, the Carreto network, which I exposed in the story, were raided and arrested shortly after the story’s publication; they were convicted in Federal court in the Southern District of New York last month. Federal authorities have since surveilled and raided the San Diego trafficking network exposed by the story, rescuing dozens of its captives. Embarrassed by the story’s revelations, the Mexican government—through its intelligence agency, CISEN—founded a task force to fight sex trafficking in Mexico.) The Overseas Press Club has cited this piece in the category of Best International Reporting on Human Rights Issues. In response, Mr. Shafer continues to thrash, committing the very sins he accuses others of: exaggeration, manipulation of fact and information. With respect to this story, Mr. Shafer and Slate have done their readers and colleagues—not to mention the many victims of sex trafficking—a disservice.

Peter Landesman

Contributing writer, New York Times Magazine


Free the Slaves’ Kevin Bales’ algorithm on counting sex trafficking victims in the United States (via e-mail):

“… The estimate of 30,000 to 50,000 people being held in forced labor in the United States for purposes of sexual exploitation was arrived at in this way: firstly, we used the State Department’s estimate of 18,000 to 20,000 people being trafficked into the US each year. (Admittedly, the State Department has not explained the methodology by which they arrived at this estimate, so we use it in the hope that they will soon make their research methods clear.) Secondly, we adjusted this estimate according to two surveys we have recently conducted. The first survey was of all media reports of trafficking cases in the US over the past four years. These reports covered 136 separate cases of forced labor, 109 of which noted the number trafficked totaling 5,455 individuals. As with most crimes, the number of known and reported cases is a fraction of the actual number of cases occurring. To the best of our understanding the proportion of known to actual cases for human trafficking is low. In this survey 44.2% of cases involved forced labor in prostitution and 5.4% involved the sexual abuse of children, totaling 49.6%. As this is a rough estimate I rounded this up to 50%. In a second survey of forty-nine service provider agencies in the United States that had worked with trafficked persons, we asked how long each trafficked person they had worked with had been held in forced labor. The minimum reported time was one month, the maximum was 30 years. The majority of cases clustered between three years and five years.

“So, if 9,000 to 10,000 of the people trafficked into the US each year will be enslaved for sexual exploitation (50% of 18-20,000), and they are likely to remain in that situation for three to five years, then the number of people enslaved for sexual exploitation at any one time in the US could be between 27,000 and 50,000 people. Since a number of people working in the area of human trafficking have stated that they believe the State Department’s estimate is low, I chose to make our estimate based on the upper end of the State Department figure, thus giving an estimate of 30,000 to 50,000.”


Jack Shafer Replies:

What sort of journalist is Peter Landesman? He’s the sort who inflates a piece I wrote on Monday and five pieces I wrote inside of a week 16 months ago, when his story first appeared, into a “16-month campaign.” He’s the sort so incurious about his own subject that he can’t bother to ask—or be asked—why, in a nation supposedly flooded with tens of thousand of new sex and labor slaves each year, only a few hundred T-visa applications were filed in the last two years. He’s the sort of sensationalist who when doubted invokes the Holocaust, in which millions and millions were killed, to make his critic appear to be some sort of latter-day Holocaust denier.

If Landesman’s story was not about numbers, why is the coverline for the article, “For tens of thousands of women and girls forced into prostitution around the world, the hell they’re living is in the cities and towns of America”? If his story was not about numbers, why was the inside subhead for the article, “The sex-trafficking trade may begin in Eastern Europe and wend its way through Mexico, but it lands in the suburbs and cities of America, where perhaps tens of thousands are held captive and pimped out for forced sex”? I know writers aren’t responsible for headlines, coverlines, and subheads. Editors write them. But if the article wasn’t about the numbers, what made the editors think so when they prepared the piece for publication?

What sort of journalist is Landesman? He’s such a lazy smear artist that of the many crimes against journalism he could successfully tar me with, he accuses me of blindly and silently accepting the government’s illegal drug numbers in the press. Shafer to Landesman: I’ve made a cottage industry out of exposing the skeezy government drug numbers that journalists publish. Why else do you think I was so skeptical about yours?

As for Bales’ seat-of-his-pants estimate of the sex slave population, is Landesman familiar with the computer science term, “garbage in, garbage out”? Get a social scientist to sign on to Bales’ methodology and then give me a call.

Peter Landesman is the sort of journalist whose idea of “experts” is people who agree with his sensationalist approach. When Nina Shapiro of the Seattle Weekly wrote about the political dimension of the same story in “The New Abolitionist” (Aug. 25, 2004), she quoted informed sources—whom I’m certain Landesman will be denouncing as Holocaust deniers in his next e-mail—questioning his numbers. Shapiro writes:

“The situation has been exaggerated; that seems to be the reality we’re learning,” says Ann Jordan, the director of a trafficking program run by the International Human Rights Law Group in Washington, D.C., who has worked on the issue since living in China 15 years ago. Jordan, who works with a network of service providers nationwide, notes that the feds keep changing the statistics regarding the number of people trafficked into the U.S. At one time, they said there were 50,000 trafficking victims here, then 18,000 to 20,000 and now, according to the latest State Department report, 14,500 to 17,500. “I only know that all our partner NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are busy with clients all the time,” Jordan says. “But they have nowhere near that number. Either we have tens of thousands of people in the U.S. sitting in slavery or their numbers are off. I don’t know.” According to [Attorney General John] Ashcroft’s report on trafficking to Congress this May, the federal government had identified just 450 trafficking victims domestically in the 2003 fiscal year who were eligible to receive certain benefits, including the newly created “T” visa. In King County, the Refugee Women’s Alliance received a grant of approximately a quarter million dollars to lead a “trafficking response team” that would provide services to victims. It has handled only about 10 cases in more than a year. “A lot of the stats are, if not made up, then certainly the basis for which they are derived is never given,” says David Feingold, who coordinates regional trafficking projects for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Bangkok. Speaking by phone from there, he says that a lot of the estimates come from nongovernmental organizations that have no training in research. His agency has put together an illuminating database of the many and wildly varying trafficking statistics, cited along with their sources. The worldwide trafficking estimates vary from 700,000 victims (in the range of the current State Department figure) to 200 million. “It’s very embarrassing,” [John] Miller admits of the statistical fluctuations. Within the federal government, he says, the varying numbers reflect the increasingly intensive research effort.

I’m glad to hear about the pats on the back Landesman has received from his sources (isn’t that a surprise!) and am thrilled for the sake of his ego that he believes that his story single-handedly alerted the nation to sex trafficking. Where I draw the line is his Nixonian willingness to conflate criticism of his work with an attack on the very real victims of sex slavery. He writes, “Mr. Shafer formulates his latest set of complaints not as an argument with me but with the victims,” and later describes my scrutiny into his journalism as a “disservice” to “the many victims of sex trafficking.” For shame, Peter Landesman, for shame.


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