The sex-slavery epidemic that wasn't.

Media criticism.
Sept. 24 2007 5:59 PM

The Sex-Slavery Epidemic That Wasn't

Revisiting the numbers behind the New York Times Magazine's sex-slave story.

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Regular readers of Press Box might recall a column from three and a half years ago in which I took issue with the New York Times Magazine cover story "The Girls Next Door." My column and its sequels disputed the article's assertion that sex slavery was widespread in the United States.

"In fact, the United States has become a major importer of sex slaves," wrote Peter Landesman in the Times Magazine article.

Among Landesman's sources was Kevin Bales, the head of an anti-slavery organization, who said that each year sex traffickers smuggled at least 10,000 women into the United States, where they were enslaved as prostitutes. The State Department human-trafficking czar, John Miller, was quoted as saying Bales' number "could be low," and Bales further estimated that there were between 30,000 and 50,000 such sex slaves in the United States at any given time.

If sex slaves were so abundant, why weren't they being found? State Department adviser Laura Lederer told Landesman it was "because we're not looking for them."

Nobody can say we're not looking for them now. Over the last seven years, the government has spent $150 million to locate and help the victims, only to find relatively few, as Jerry Markon writes in the lead story in yesterday's (Sept. 23) Washington Post. (See "Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence: U.S. Estimates Thousands of Victims, But Efforts to Find Them Fall Short.")

At the beginning of the decade, the State Department's report estimated that 45,000 to 50,000 people were trafficked into the United States each year and forced into labor or prostitution. Those estimates dropped over the following years, first to 18,000 to 20,000 in State's 2003 report, and then to 14,500 to 17,000 in the 2004 and 2005 reports.

None of the estimates offered by activists—or the government—now seem remotely accurate. The Post reports that despite dispatching 42 Justice Department task forces to address the human-trafficking problem, only 1,362 victims of human trafficking brought into the United States have been identified since 2000. Efforts to reach victims of sex slavery continue, the Post reports, and the Bush administration has paid the public relations firm Ketchum $12 million as part of the government's outreach program.

Sex slavery does exist, of course. If you don't think so, ask "Google Alerts" to send you news stories in which the words sex slave appear. Yesterday's Post reports that the victims in most of the 15 local trafficking prosecutions brought since 2000 were forced into prostitution.

But skeptic Ronald Weitzer, a George Washington University criminologist who studies sex slavery, tells the Post that the "discrepancy" between the estimated numbers of victims and the number of cases actually brought to court "suggests that this problem is being blown way out of proportion."

The debate over the size and scale of the sex-slave industry will likely grow louder later this week: Trade, a sex-slave feature film "inspired" by Landesman's Times Magazine story, opens in theaters on Sept. 28.

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

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