Nicholas Kristof addresses reader feedback and posts short takes from his travels.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Monday, March 26, 2012
Friday, March 23, 2012
Thursday, March 22, 2012
The Fight Against Modern Slavery
Published: March 21, 2012
President Obama, in convening the annual meeting of his cabinet-level task force on human trafficking last week, noted the work the administration has done in law enforcement, aid to victims and diplomatic pressure to help the millions around the world who toil “under the boot of modern slavery.”
But a crucial element is missing in this important campaign. Congress has yet to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a law passed with strong bipartisan support in 2000 and reauthorized in 2003, 2005 and 2008. It expired at the end of 2011.
A Senate bill to reauthorize the act through 2015 cleared the Judiciary Committee in October but has not come to a floor vote. The bill, trimmed for lean times, cuts appropriations to $130 million, but toughens enforcement measures and modestly increases victim assistance to $25.5 million. A reauthorization bill has also been offered in the House, with wrongheaded Republican modifications. It would, for example, shift financing for victims’ services to the Justice Department from the Department of Health and Human Services, which is far better-suited for the job but has been a recent source of Republican obstructionism over contraception and health insurance.
Passing a law to fight human trafficking and slavery is one of those bipartisan no-brainers that Congress used to be able to accomplish — as it did three times in the administration of George W. Bush. But it’s a different era now, one in which conservative Republicans also find reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act unacceptable.
Allowing politics to hamper the campaign against human trafficking is especially tragic at a time when innovative approaches are making gains. A new trafficking hot line, financed through a grant by health and human services, for instance, has taken more than 49,000 calls, connected 5,770 potential victims with services and provided more than 2,155 law-enforcement tips. Those fighting modern-day slavery need support to find and help survivors. Congress should move quickly to keep this effort moving.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Monday, March 19, 2012
I WENT on a walk in Manhattan the other day with a young woman who once had to work these streets, hired out by eight pimps while she was just 16 and 17. She pointed out a McDonald’s where pimps sit while monitoring the girls outside, and a building where she had repeatedly been ordered online as if she were a pizza.
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Alissa, her street name, escaped that life and is now a 24-year-old college senior planning to become a lawyer — but she will always have a scar on her cheek where a pimp gouged her with a potato peeler as a warning not to escape. “Like cattle owners brand their cattle,” she said, fingering her cheek, “he wanted to brand me in a way that I would never forget.”
After Alissa testified against her pimps, six of them went to prison for up to 25 years. Yet these days, she reserves her greatest anger not at pimps but at companies that enable them. She is particularly scathing about Backpage.com, a classified advertising Web site that is used to sell auto parts, furniture, boats — and girls. Alissa says pimps routinely peddled her on Backpage.
“You can’t buy a child at Wal-Mart, can you?” she asked me. “No, but you can go to Backpage and buy me on Backpage.”
Backpage accounts for about 70 percent of prostitution advertising among five Web sites that carry such ads in the United States, earning more than $22 million annually from prostitution ads, according to AIM Group, a media research and consulting company. It is now the premier Web site for human trafficking in the United States,according to the National Association of Attorneys General. And it’s not a fly-by-night operation. Backpage is owned by Village Voice Media, which also owns the estimable Village Voice newspaper.
Attorneys general from 48 states have written a joint letterto Village Voice Media, pleading with it to get out of the flesh trade. An online petition at Change.org has gathered 94,000 signatures asking Village Voice Media to stop taking prostitution advertising. Instead, the company has used The Village Voice to mock its critics. Alissa thought about using her real name for this article but decided not to for fear that Village Voice would retaliate.
Court records and public officials back Alissa’s account, and there is plenty of evidence that under-age girls are marketed on Backpage. Arrests in such cases have been reported in at least 22 states.
Just this month, prosecutors in New York City filed charges in a case involving a gang that allegedly locked a 15-year-old Long Island girl in an empty house, drugged her, tied her up, raped her, and advertised her on Backpage. After a week of being sold for sex, prosecutors in Queens said, the girl escaped.
Liz McDougall, general counsel of Village Voice Media, told me that it is “shortsighted, ill-informed and counterproductive” to focus on Backpage when many other Web sites are also involved, particularly because Backpage tries to screen out ads for minors and reports possible trafficking cases to the authorities. McDougall denied that Backpage dominates the field and said that the Long Island girl was marketed on 13 other Web sites as well. But if street pimps go to jail for profiteering on under-age girls, should their media partners like Village Voice Media really get a pass?
Paradoxically, Village Voice began as an alternative newspaper to speak truth to power. It publishes some superb journalism. So it’s sad to see it accept business from pimps in the greediest and most depraved kind of exploitation.
True, many prostitution ads on Backpage are placed by adult women acting on their own without coercion; they’re not my concern. Other ads are placed by pimps: the Brooklyn district attorney’s office says that the great majority of the sex trafficking cases it prosecutes involve girls marketed on Backpage.
Alissa, who grew up in a troubled household in Boston, has a story that is fairly typical. She says that one night when she was 16 — and this matches the account she gave federal prosecutors — a young man approached her and told her she was attractive. She thought that he was a rapper, and she was flattered. He told her that he wanted her to be his girlfriend, she recalls wistfully.
Within a few weeks, he was prostituting her — even as she continued to study as a high school sophomore. Alissa didn’t run away partly because of a feeling that there was a romantic bond, partly because of Stockholm syndrome, and partly because of raw fear. She says violence was common if she tried connecting to the outside world or if she didn’t meet her daily quota for cash.
“He would get aggressive and strangle me and physically assault me and threaten to sell me to someone that was more violent than him, which he eventually did,” Alissa recalled. She said she was sold from one pimp to another several times, for roughly $10,000 each time.
She was sold to johns seven days a week, 365 days a year. After a couple of years, she fled, but a pimp tracked her down and — with the women he controlled — beat and stomped Alissa, breaking her jaw and several ribs, she said. That led her to cooperate with the police.
There are no simple solutions to end sex trafficking, but it would help to have public pressure on Village Voice Media to stop carrying prostitution advertising. The Film Forum has already announced that it will stop buying ads in The Village Voice. About 100 advertisers have dropped Rush Limbaugh’s radio show because of his demeaning remarks about women. Isn’t it infinitely more insulting to provide a forum for the sale of women and girls?
Let’s be honest: Backpage’s exit from prostitution advertising wouldn’t solve the problem, for smaller Web sites would take on some of the ads. But it would be a setback for pimps to lose a major online marketplace. When Craigslist stopped taking such ads in 2010, many did not migrate to new sites: online prostitution advertising plummeted by more than 50 percent, according to AIM Group.
Alissa, who now balances her college study with part-time work at a restaurant and at Fair Girls, an antitrafficking organization, deserves the last word. “For a Web site like Backpage to make $22 million off our backs,” she said, “it’s like going back to slave times.”