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.

New York Times Magazine cover

If just one person sold another into sex slavery in the United States, I would call upon the great guns of the New York Times to pulverize the slave master's quarters with tens of thousands of words, to reload, and then fire again. So I applaud journalist/novelist/screenwriter Peter Landesman and the editors of the New York Times Magazine for investigating the issue with the cover story, "The Girls Next Door," in this Sunday's (Jan. 25) issue. Landesman convinces me that sex slavery exists in the United States by citing a successful prosecution of sex slavers and with his vivid description of a Plainfield, N.J., police raid on a house where four Mexican women between the ages of 14 and 17 were held captive and forced to have sex.

But my praise ends there. I can't disprove the claim made in the article's subhed that sex slavers hold "perhaps tens of thousands" of women, girls, and boys against their will in the United States, but I seriously doubt its veracity. Landesman's breathless performance, in which he asserts that "hundreds" of "stash houses" inhabited by foreign sex slaves dot America's metropolitan landscape, offers almost nothing in the way of verifiable facts about the incidence and prevalence of this heinous practice.

Landesman's supporting evidence is vague. Where it is not vague, it is anecdotal. Where it is anecdotal, it is often anonymous, too. And where it is not anecdotal or vague it is suspicious and slippery.

Before drawing and quartering Landesman, let's first cut him a break. It's almost impossible to conduct an accurate census of American sex slaves. It's like counting the number of marijuana smokers, only a thousand times more difficult. We know something about the number of pot smokers from anonymous surveys, from tabulations of marijuana possession and trafficking convictions, from the amount of marijuana seized by police, and from aerial surveillance of pot farms. But except for prosecutions and border interdictions, there's little hard data about the number of sex slaves smuggled into the country. And that makes the numbers incredibly elastic.

For instance, in 2002, the U.S. government estimated between 700,000 and 4 million international victims of human trafficking each year, with 50,000 people trafficked into the United States. In 2003, the U.S. conceded the unreliability of its previous nose-count by reducing its estimate to 800,000 to 900,000 people trafficked worldwide and 18,000 to 20,000 into the United States.

When Landesman cites the 18,000 to 20,000 number in his article, he acknowledges that the government has yet to determine how many are sold into sex slavery, but then he lets Kevin Bales of the nonprofit group Free the Slaves hype his premise with the speculation that the number is "at least 10,000 a year." How credible is Bales? How credible are his numbers? Bales claims 27 million slaves around the world, which is only 10 times larger than the estimate of the Anti-Slavery Society, which puts the number at 2.7 million.

State Department go-to guy on slavery John Miller tells Landesman that the 10,000 new sex slaves a year estimate by Bales "could be low." But the fact is nobody in the field seems to have a good handle on slave traffic numbers or the sex slave population in the United States. So, when Bales surmises that there are between 30,000 to 50,000 sex slaves in the United States at any time, don't feel the need to believe him. Nobody really knows the true answer, but we do know whose interests are served by any inflation of the numbers.

Landesman introduces other dubious figures. He writes early in the piece that "law-enforcement officials say [there] are dozens of active stash houses and apartments in the New York metropolitan area—mirroring hundreds more in other major cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago—where under-age girls and young women from dozens of countries are trafficked and held captive." But if police know of dozens of active stash houses in the metro area and hundreds more in other cities, why haven't they busted them? If they have, Landesman isn't telling.

During a session with federal immigration agents in Fairfax, Va., Landesman suggests they look at a Web site "that supposedly offered sex slaves for purchase to individuals." The agents had never heard of the site and gasped when they clicked to an on-going auction for a woman that had topped $300,000. Was the auction real? Did the agents investigate the transaction? Like other shocking scenes in Landesman's piece, it dribbles away without explanation or resolution.

The article's single most preposterous anecdote comes during Landesman's trip to the northern San Diego County community of Vista, Calif. There a sheriff's deputy named Rick Castro takes him to the banks of the mostly dry San Luis Rey River. The deputy leads him into pathways and "caves" hacked out from the reeds and tells Landesman that a local health care worker discovered 400 men and 50 young women "between 12 and 15 dressed in tight clothing and high heels" and "a separate group of a dozen girls no more than 11 or 12 wearing white communion dresses." Landesman describes condom wrappers, toilet paper, and dirty underwear, but he doesn't come out and write that the young-looking girls were slaves who had forced sex with the men. Instead, the deputy tells him how the system works: "[T]he girls are dropped off at the ballfield, then herded through a drainage sluice under the road into the riverbed. Vans shuttle the men from a 7-Eleven a mile away. The girls are forced to turn 15 tricks in five hours in the mud. The johns pay $15 and get 10 minutes."

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.

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.

******

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.)

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