Sex slaves of West 43rd Street.

Media criticism.
Jan. 26 2004 6:59 PM

Sex Slaves of West 43rd Street

The New York Times Magazine gets carried away in its investigation.

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.

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If that's how San Luis Rey River works, one would imagine that the health worker then blew the whistle, the cops raided the reed brothel, and people went to jail or were deported. Maybe those events transpired, and maybe they didn't. Landesman doesn't say! Instead, he writes, "It was 8 in the morning, but the girls could begin arriving any minute." The reader naturally expects Landesman to stake out the site with the deputy, but instead the scene terminates. What sort of sense does it makes for Landesman, who journeyed to Mexico four times, to Eastern Europe once, and visited a couple of states during his investigation to ignore a prime opportunity to witness the sub-teen foreign sex slave market in action!? I am baffled.

One of Landesman's pseudonymous ex-sex slaves, "Montserrat," says she's lived in Mexico City "since she escaped from her trafficker [Alejandro] four years ago." But Montserrat also talks about how Alejandro took her to see Scary Movie 2 in Portland, Ore. This would be impossible. Scary Movie 2 was released in 2001.

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Other minor annoyances populate "The Girls Next Door." Landesman writes about a Glendale, Calif., highway rest stop that's used as a transfer point for sex slaves. Glendale is a densely populated Los Angeles suburb, like Pasadena or Burbank. If there's a highway rest stop there, it's news to me. Likewise, Landesman's editors let him play mix and match with his story to advance his premise about sex abuse of youngsters. During the visit with federal immigration agents, he mentions "Operation Hamlet," in which the agents "broke up a ring of adults who traded images and videos of themselves forcing sex on their own young children." Awful, nasty, and despicable, but what does the prosecution of adults forcing sex on their own children have to do with international sex-slave rings except to boost the tone of depravity already cresting?

Slate colleague Josh Levin notes that much of the sensational material in "The Girls Next Door" comes from "Andrea," a source who can't remember her real name or age. Andrea does remember, though, that one American businessman read to her from the Bible before and after sex, that she witnessed a 4-year-old boy being purchased for $500, that she was regularly passed off to customers at Disneyland, and that one regular john was a child psychologist. (It's difficult to imagine that tidbit coming up in conversation.)

Because Landesman offers so few verifiable facts, he repeatedly pairs fudging adverbs of "typically," "sometimes," "most," "often," and "some" with specific nouns to make his unsourced generalizations appear more real than they are. He writes:

Some of these [Moldavian] young women are actually tricked into paying their own travel expenses—typically around $3,000—as a down payment on what they expect to be bright, prosperous futures. …

The young women are typically kept in locked-down, gated villas in groups of 16 to 20.

Sometimes they are sold outright to other traffickers and sex rings, victims and experts say. These sex slaves earn no money, there is nothing voluntary about what they do and if they try to escape they are often beaten and sometimes killed.

Most of the girls on Santo Tomas would have sex with 20 to 30 men a day; they would do this seven days a week usually for weeks but sometimes for months before they were ''ready'' for the United States. If they refused, they would be beaten and sometimes killed.

Landesman never actually witnesses any slavery, a point that Daniel Radosh emphasizes in his blog. Radosh writes, "Did Landesman exaggerate the scope of a real but small problem? Are his most serious charges supported by his evidence? … Should he have been more skeptical of outlandish stories told to him by dubious sources? What attempts did he make to verify these stories?" Radosh is especially good at calling Landesman out for mix-and-matching "instances in which a moderated quote from a government source is paired with an extreme one from someone at Free the Slaves or another advocacy group, as if the former is bolstering the latter."

Radosh wonders in his first blog entry if Landesman might be the new Stephen Glass. But thinking better, he wisely throttles back. I'm not accusing Landesman of concocting anything either, but from what's on the page it looks to me as if Landesman and his editors worked themselves into a Ahab-like hysteria—chasing something real, no doubt, but something they can't capture.

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See Radosh's blog for updates; he promises to untangle Landesman's story with the Web's metamind. Send your hysterical ramblings to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.