The latest controversy to erupt in journalism centers on a story about what everyone agrees is a real and serious problem: sexual slavery in which women and sometimes children are forced into prostitution. The question is whether a recent New York Times Magazine cover story exaggerated the scope of this ugly phenomenon, and whether author Peter Landesman was too uncritical in reporting the claims of agenda-driven activists. Landesman's lengthy article, "The Girls Next Door," has been extensively analyzed by Jack Shafer at Slate. Shafer notes that while Landesman refers to only two criminal cases involving forced prostitution, he depicts sexual slavery as an epidemic raging unseen in seemingly respectable neighborhoods.
The article acknowledges that the government has no information on how many women are trafficked annually into the United States for purposes of prostitution, yet goes on to cite alarming figures: 10,000 sex slaves imported every year, and a total of 30,000 to 50,000 slaves living in the country. These figures are based on estimates by anti-slavery and anti-trafficking activists such as Kevin Bales of the nonprofit organization Free the Slaves and Laura Lederer, a feminist attorney who has also crusaded against pornography.
Shafer and other critics point out that Landesman never witnessed any forced prostitution firsthand. He offers no corroboration for many lurid and sensational claims—for instance, that some sexual slavery rings allow clients to kill a child for a fee, or that women and children are routinely murdered by traffickers. One woman he profiles as a former sex slave, Andrea, offers a tale somewhat reminiscent of the now-debunked "recovered memories" about ritual abuse in satanic cults.
Andrea, who says she spent 12 years in captivity after being sold or abandoned by her mother at about age four, claims that her captors/pimps would sometimes turn her over to clients at Disneyland, dressing her in a specific color so they could identify her.
A New York Times editor has subsequently stated that Andrea's story was corroborated to the magazine's fact-checkers by Andrea's therapist; but is that a reliable journalistic source? (Many therapists believe it is their obligation to take a client's narratives at face value.) An additional red flag is raised by Landesman's statement on a radio show that Andrea suffers from multiple personality disorder—a common marker of false memories of sexual abuse.
Again, no one disputes that sexual slavery exists, or that it is a terrible thing. There are known cases in which young women from Mexico, Russia, Eastern Europe, and other countries have been lured to the United States with promises of jobs or marriage, and were forced into prostitution and robbed of all their earnings. Late last month, the Justice Department announced the indictment of three men who allegedly operated such a ring.
But the reality of sexual trafficking is complex and disturbing. Some women are coerced into prostitution; others choose it as what they hope will be the ticket to a better life. These choices may be the product of hard and even desperate circumstances, but that's not the same thing as forced prostitution. A recent article in Time magazine highlights the difficulty of combating this problem. In October, nationwide raids in the Czech Republic to free women from sexual slavery—an operation in which over 4,000 people were interviewed—netted only 15 arrests and three women who asked to return to their countries of origin. Thousands of migrant prostitutes are deported each year from European Union countries only to return again and again.
The activists against sexual slavery on whom Landesman relied so heavily in compiling information for his article are engaged in an admirable cause. But, like many advocates, they can be blinded by their agenda. Lederer, for instance, tells Landesman that "We're not finding victims [of sexual slavery] in the United States because we're not looking for them"—a statement that has some truth in it, but may also be a convenient way to explain the lack of evidence. The numbers touted by these activists are especially suspect since many of them deliberately blur the lines between voluntary and forced prostitution, regarding all of it as servitude and exploitation of women.
There is no doubt that Landesman's article was a well-intentioned effort. But its unraveling illustrates some common pitfalls of which all journalists should beware. One is the temptation to sensationalize the plight of sympathetic victims. Another is checking skepticism at the front door when confronted with the claims of activists for noble causes, be it homelessness, domestic violence, or sexual slavery.