Press Box

Sex Slaves, Revisited

Looking back at the New York Times Magazine piece 16 months later.

“Left unchallenged, even the wildest guesses take on the certitude of fact,” reporter Christopher S. Wren wrote in 1997. Wren’s subject was the size and scope of the drug problem, but he could have been writing about the number of sex slaves working in American brothels, a subject about which I burned many pixels in this space 16 months ago.

What provoked me was Peter Landesman’s cover story in the Jan. 25, 2004, New York Times Magazine, “The Girls Next Door.” In language that glowed both purple and yellow, Landesman conjured a vision of an international “sex-trafficking epidemic” and the nightmare of tens of thousands of women and girls smuggled annually into the United States, held prisoner, and forced to service johns for the benefit of their pimps.

To be sure, sex slavery in the United States is real and horrific, but the body count remains anybody’s guess, and that includes the U.S. government. Since releasing its first “Trafficking in Persons Report” in 2001, the State Department’s estimate of the total number “trafficked” annually across international borders has stayed pretty constant, varying between 600,000 and 900,000. (The U.S. Code defines trafficking in part as the use of force or coercion—violent or psychological—to exploit a person for commercial sex or the recruitment, transportation, or provision of a person for any form of involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery.) In 2001, the State Department estimated that between 45,000 and 50,000 people were annually trafficked to the U.S. The 2002 report was silent on the total trafficked but confidently cited a 1997 estimate stating that 50,000 women and children were trafficked here annually “for sexual exploitation.” In 2003, the State Department report estimated that 18,000 to 20,000 individuals were trafficked here for forced labor and sexual exploitation. The June 2004 report, published after Landesman’s article appeared, set the total trafficked annually at between 14,500 and 17,500.

Landesman complained in one paragraph of his piece about how little work had been done to quantify the number of sex victims trafficked into the U.S and then in the next paragraph quoted a pulled-out-of-thin-air estimate by Kevin Bales, president of the advocacy group Free the Slaves, that at least 10,000 new sex slaves joined the count each year. Landesman also quoted the similarly manufactured estimate of State Department official John R. Miller, who said Bales’ figure “could be low. What we know is that the number is huge.” Bales further speculated that between 30,000 and 50,000 sex slaves were being held captive on these shores at any time.

None of these conjectures conform with the 2005 State Department report  on trafficking, released last week. The report stays the course of other recent estimates, stating that between 600,000 and 800,000 are trafficked across borders each year. It doesn’t venture a total U.S. trafficked number, but a June 4 news story by the Voice of America attributes a figure of 15,000 to Miller. The New York Timesalso reports the 15,000 number. So much for the “epidemic” Landesman posited in his piece.

How many of the people in this new trafficking estimate are sex slaves remains a mystery. According to the report, total U.S. Department of Justice investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of trafficking cases are up in the last four fiscal years (2001-2004) compared to the previous four years. But because the statistics don’t break out sex-trafficking cases from total trafficking cases, they’re not very useful. In any event, the uptick isn’t that significant in a nation of almost 300 million: 118 trafficking defendants were convicted in the last four years versus 59 in the previous four-year period. (See Page 244 of the 2005 report for more DoJ details.)

Because sexual slavery is the most depraved form of involuntary servitude, 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.” Of course it takes enormous courage and a view of daylight for a sex slave to break away even temporarily from a captor and apply for this visa, which allows qualified non-immigrant victims of trafficking to live in the U.S. for three years and apply for permanent residency. Yet in fiscal year 2004, only 520 T-visa applications were received, and that includes all T-1s as well as the lesser visas for the spouses (T-2), children (T-3), and parents (T-4) of the trafficked, according to the State Department’s 2005 report. Of those applications, 136 were granted, 292 denied, and 92 are pending. The 2004 report recorded only 374 requests for T visas. Can there be tens of thousands of sex slaves in the country, growing by tens of thousands each year, and only a handful applying for help?

None of this is to suggest that sex slaves don’t exist. They do, as a casual Nexis search will confirm. But 16 months after the publication of “The Girls Next Door,” Landesman’s wild guesses and shocking narrative have still not acquired a scintilla of certitude.


Landesman responds to Shafer, and Shafer talks back on this page.

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