Sex and the Single Reporter

Sex and the Single Reporter

New York City


New York City

Thank you for Debbie Nathan’s “Oversexed” [Aug. 29/Sept. 5], on human trafficking. She presented a balanced and rational view of a phenomenon that has been wracked by sensational presentation and used for political ends. Trafficked people are disserved by sensational depictions of their plight: Women are presumed to be sexualized victims, while trafficked men and women not in the sex industry–building our houses, picking our food and sewing our clothing–are rendered invisible.

In New York City, anti-trafficking funds given to law enforcement are spent almost exclusively on the vice squad, practically precluding any discovery of trafficking outside the sex industry, despite the fact that what may have been the largest trafficking case here involved deaf peddlers. Nathan clearly illustrates the inherent problems of neglecting the large number of industries into which workers are trafficked.

MELISSA DITMORE, Research Fellow
Center for the Study of Women and Society

Washington, DC

Debbie Nathan and The Nation deserve praise for spotlighting the issue of modern-day slavery. What is puzzling is the criticism of the Administration for allegedly focusing on sex trafficking at the expense of forced-labor trafficking. There is ample evidence that sex trafficking is the largest category of modern-day slavery in most countries, including our own. Your criticism comes despite the State Department’s recent Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which clearly focuses on forced-labor trafficking as well as sex trafficking worldwide. Of the fourteen countries placed on Tier 3 (the lowest ranking) on the 2005 TIP report, six countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, North Korea and Burma) earned this poor ranking primarily for trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation.

Also disturbing is the article’s sympathetic treatment of prostitution as “sex work,” even though recent research shows that the vast majority of women engaged in prostitution are routinely harassed, raped and assaulted and want to escape.

The author implies that because Gloria Steinem and Chuck Colson are working together to help pass antislavery legislation that includes sex slavery, the legislation is questionable. Here’s another explanation: Steinem and Colson agree that the United States should lead a twenty-first-century abolitionist movement. That’s what President Bush and Secretary Rice have been doing. While praising the President may embarrass The Nation and shock its readers (as well as the President), the praise is merited.

Office to Monitor and Combat


Venice, Calif.

I am a New York Times Magazine contributing writer and the author of “The Girls Next Door” (Jan. 25, 2004), the piece on sex trafficking Debbie Nathan refers to in her article. I’m curious about claims by Nathan, among others, that reporting on sex trafficking in general, and my piece in particular, relies heavily (or even somewhat) on the agenda of the “Christian right.” Or even that reporting on sex trafficking is fueled and influenced by a so-called Christian-right agenda.

I find sex trafficking to be a nondenominational issue, above politics and religion. As a reporter who spent five months investigating this subject, I frankly was less interested in my sources’ religion or their party affiliation than what they were doing about sex trafficking or inside trafficking networks. I find such debate on right versus left on this issue akin to spending one’s days in Plato’s Cave debating shadows and ideas rather than on those streets where girls are forced to have sex with as many as twenty to thirty men a day.

Experts are sometimes important to provide context, where appropriate. Reporters who rely on experts for direction often miss the point of a story. That said, regarding my Times Magazine piece, let me set the record straight: In the five months reporting this story, I made my first and only contact with one (and only one) so-called Christian organization, the International Justice Mission, and in the fourth month of my investigation, after reporting in Eastern Europe, Mexico and the United States, I quoted IJM’s president twice.

In fact, I had much more contact with Equality Now, a so-called left-leaning or feminist organization, than I did with IJM. Perhaps to the surprise of those pundits and bloggers (who I would guess have not actually had physical or even phone contact with anyone of this ilk), I found IJM to be decidedly unhysterical. In fact, anyone who deals with that organization might find it to be rather rational and lawyerly, if not practical. I found that no organization had all the answers or all the questions, or even a lot of them. But to define this issue and those interested in confronting it in the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” way of Nathan and others is to radically, and irresponsibly, miss the point. While reporting “The Girls Next Door” I spent nearly all my time among trafficking networks and law enforcement. I frankly find claims by Nathan and others of media “hysteria” on sex trafficking to be rather, well, hysterical.

In addition, I don’t know how much reporting Nathan did on how Free the Slaves’ Kevin Bales arrived at his numbers on sex trafficking into the United States. The math is quite complex but also very specific. It hardly relies on “press clippings.” For readers interested to learn how it works, I quote Bales’s lengthy but specific explanation in an exchange I had with Slate‘s Jack Shafer, easily found on Slate‘s website.

Last, Nathan seemed to suggest that the Times Magazine‘s cover, showing a trafficking victim, was irresponsibly lurid or exploitative because the victim was shown wearing a Catholic-school uniform and sitting on a bed. Again, I find her speculation itself to be symptomatic of a broad and possibly purposeful misinterpretation. I was present when that photograph was taken. The girl, a Mexican national, a recently rescued trafficking victim, had just returned from a day at school, where all students are required to wear a uniform. She was photographed in the women’s shelter in Mexico City that had taken her in. The bed she sat on and the stuffed animals that were all around her were all she had in the world and the only things she could call her own. Nothing about it was posed or exploitative.



New York City

Thanks to Melissa Ditmore for her observations: Details like these about law enforcement policy help explain why there may be many more immigrants forced into non-sex-related work than into prostitution, and why this first group gets so little attention or help. That was the point of my article.

As for Peter Landesman, it’s unfortunate that he lacks the same appreciation for getting details straight. His complaint about being tied to the right has nothing to do with my piece. Before he sent his letter to The Nation, he fired off an almost identical version to Daniel Radosh at The two have been sparring since last year about “The Girls Next Door,” and Radosh and Jack Shafer of Slate have criticized Landesman for not acknowledging his sources’ political backgrounds and connections. As for me, the only time I’ve mentioned “The Girls Next Door” was when I used the word “suggestive” in my article to characterize the cover photo of the teenager on a bed, wearing a Catholic-school uniform. Landesman’s claim that this is all she possessed in the world is coy: Much deeper in his article is a photo of the same girl walking in the courtyard of her home and wearing bluejeans. I stand by my characterization and note that “suggestive” is rather mild compared with language used by Landesman’s own paper. Daniel Okrent, the Times ombudsman when “The Girls Next Door” came out, faulted the cover (and the article) for “presentational excess.” He also called Landesman’s work “inflamed.” And when I fact-checked a section of the piece recently, I discovered it was worse than that. It was also shamefully, dangerously sloppy.

Several press critics have noted Landesman’s failure to find even one coerced or underage immigrant prostitute in the United States; they’ve also wondered about his plethora of apocryphal sounding passages. One concerns an outdoor brothel that used to operate in a reed-filled riverbed in San Diego County–and has been widely publicized by Southern California media since late 2001. Landesman visited it a couple of years ago with a sheriff’s deputy, but no one was there. In “The Girls Next Door” he describes the deputy giving him a secondhand account of the place from a tipster: “A local health care worker had heard rumors about Mexican immigrants using the reeds for sex and came down to offer condoms and advice. She had found more than 400 men and 50 young women between 12 and 15 dressed in tight clothing and high heels. There was a separate group of a dozen girls no more than 11 or 12 wearing white communion dresses.”

Mass farmworker pedophilia? Communion dresses? It sounds so urban mythic, I wondered why Landesman hadn’t just bypassed the sheriff and contacted the health worker. Poking around Google, I quickly located lots of old news coverage about the camp, including interviews with a very public and talkative Liz Pleitez-Christie. She used to work for the local Planned Parenthood doing AIDS-prevention education for migrants. The sheriff’s deputy told me that yes, she was the tipster. I had no trouble locating her. She said she’d never heard from Landesman.

“A volunteer health worker who also worked in the fields told me about the camp,” Pleitez-Christie recalled. “It went on every Sunday; we attended weekly for months. There were never more than twenty-five or thirty women, and the vast majority looked to be 17 to 50 years old. On one occasion I saw four or five 14- and 15-year-olds. And once, only once, I saw one girl, maybe two, who I thought might be as young as 12 or 13, though I couldn’t be sure.” Did Pleitez-Christie ever see girls in communion dresses? “No! Never.” Did they perhaps have on innocent, little-girl-looking clothes? “They dressed like the others: in Spandex and heavy makeup.”

The sheriff’s deputy never sees these camps up close, says Pleitez-Christie; when law enforcement officials approach, everyone scatters. But, she notes, health workers are trusted by the pimps and prostitutes, and they still regularly visit. Landesman could have gone with them for a firsthand look. He wouldn’t have seen white communion dresses or mobs of middle-school-aged children, but he might have witnessed some actual trafficking, even of a handful of minors. That reality is “upsetting enough,” says Pleitez-Christie.

Instead, Landesman took a fantasy, spun it as truth and conjured dozens of fictional child sex slaves. These phantasms might not be so troubling if they merely sullied the reputation of Landesman and the New York Times. But they’ll probably also contaminate databases, NGO reports, even government policy.

The problem is perfectly illustrated by Landesman’s claim that I erred in writing that anti-trafficking activist Kevin Bales depends heavily on news clips to calculate the ratio of forced sex workers to those doing other coerced work. Again, the assertion is mystifying: The e-mail Landesman got from Bales clearly states that media items are an important component of the tallies. Bales wrote the same thing in “Hidden Slaves,” a widely distributed report published late last year. And in another report, he praises press reports as being “by far the largest source of information” for researchers like himself.

So what happens when the news clips are populated with “sex slaves” who don’t exist? So far, Bales apparently hasn’t included Landesman’s imaginary victims in his calculations (his database stops with clips dated late 2003, and “The Girls Next Door” was published in early 2004). Still, he regularly publicizes his belief that sex trafficking prevails over other types, worldwide. State Department Ambassador Miller concurs, saying there is “ample objective evidence.” But an article by UNESCO trafficking expert David Feingold, in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, disagrees, as does a new report from the International Labor Organization. Miller also claims that sex trafficking predominates here in the States. His evidence? It’s Bales’s statistics, according to testimony Miller gave earlier this year at a House of Representatives hearing.

The media quote Miller’s claims, and Bales’s, then go looking for more sex trafficking while ignoring victims of other forced work. And from the new press clips that result, researchers will no doubt generate new tallies. It’s only a matter of time before Landesman’s nonexistent victims get into the calculations.

Meanwhile, groups who have real knowledge of trafficking victims–like health workers who do AIDS-prevention education and even tip off law enforcement about trafficking–are losing their funding because the Bush Administration marks prostitution as a special evil and demands that activists specially denounce it to get grants. (To see a critique that human rights experts have made about the research Miller and the State Department cite to characterize the harms of prostitution, click on “Letter to State Dept.” at

Sloppy counts and accounts will not help end the real problem of trafficking. Instead, they make for really bad public policy–and terrible journalism.


Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy