The Pimps' Slaves
by Nicholas D. Kristof
New York Times
March 16, 2008
Reading between the sheets, the world of “Kristen” and Eliot Spitzer may seem relatively benign. She may have been abused as a child, and tangled with drugs and homelessness, but she was also a consenting adult who apparently kept half the cash that customers paid for her.
That's a dangerously unrepresentative glimpse of prostitution in America. Those who work with street prostitutes say that what they see daily is pimps who control teenage girls with violence and threats — plus an emotional bond — and then keep every penny the girl is paid.
“Sometimes I meet a girl who says, ‘I have a really good pimp — he beats me only with an open hand,' ” said Rachel Lloyd, a former prostitute who runs a program for underage prostitutes in New York City.
“Many of the girls see the pimps as boyfriends, but violence is integral to everything that happens in the sex industry. That's how you get punished for not bringing in your quota for that evening, or for looking your pimp in the eye.”
Bradley Myles, who works in Washington for an antitrafficking organization called Polaris Project, says it is astonishing how similar the business model is for pimping across the country. Pimps crush runaway girls with a mix of violence and affection, degradation and gifts, and then require absolute obedience to a rigid code: the girl cannot look the pimp in the eye, call him by his name, or keep any cash.
Every evening she must earn a quota of money before she can sleep. She may be required to tattoo the pimp's name on her thigh. And in exchange he may make presents of clothing or jewelry.
It's complicated: What keeps her isn't just fear, but also often an emotional connection.
“When somebody wields power over you to kill you and doesn't, you feel this bizarre thankfulness,” Mr. Myles said. “It's trauma bonding.”
When a middle-class white girl ends up controlled like this — think of Elizabeth Smart, the Utah girl who was kidnapped in 2002 and apparently did not try to escape — then everybody is outraged at the way the kidnapper manipulated her. But when the girls are black, poor and prostituted, there is either indifference or an assumption that they are consenting to the abuse.
“It's about race and class,” said Ms. Lloyd, who is bewildered when she sees Amber alerts for abducted children. Last year she worked with 250 teenage girls who had been prostituted, and not one of them ever merited an Amber alert.
“If we served 250 white girls from upstate middle-class homes, we'd be rolling in money,” she added, “and we'd be changing the law.”
Changing the law is on the agenda. The House of Representatives passed a landmark bill in December, by a vote of 405 to 2, that would make the federal authorities much more involved in cracking down on pimps and trafficking.
But the Justice Department is fighting the House bill, and Senator Joe Biden, who is chairman of a crucial subcommittee, has dawdled on it. A broad coalition of antitrafficking leaders from left and right sent the Justice Department a furious letter scolding it for being soft on pimps.
That may be the only letter in history signed by both Gary Bauer and Gloria Steinem, by executives of the National Organization for Women and the National Association of Evangelicals.
Of the 100,000 prostitution-related arrests each year, the great majority of them are of women and girls; pimps and johns are much less likely to be arrested.
All those girls will never get a tiny fraction of the attention of the Elizabeth Smarts or Natalee Holloways, who fill the cable television niche for a “missing blonde” story. So let's not let “Kristen” displace the broader reality.
Sure, there are young women who voluntarily sell sex; some of them have posted lately on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the police should devote resources to such cases.
With prostitution as with narcotics, no legal model has worked perfectly. I've argued that the approach with the best record is the Swedish model — decriminalizing the sale of sex, while making it an offense to pimp or to buy sex.
But whatever one thinks of legalizing prostitution, let's face reality: The big problem out there is the teenage girls who are battered by their pimps, who will have to meet their quotas tonight and every night, who are locked in car trunks or in basements, who have guns shoved in their mouths if they hint of quitting. If the Spitzer affair causes us to lose sight of that, then the biggest loser will be those innumerable girls, far more typical than “Kristen,” for whom selling sex isn't a choice but a nightmare.
A Heroine From the Brothels
by Nicholas D. Kristof
New York Times
September 28, 2008
World leaders are parading through New York this week for a United Nations General Assembly reviewing their (lack of) progress in fighting global poverty. That's urgent and necessary, but what they aren't talking enough about is one of the grimmest of all manifestations of poverty — sex trafficking.
This is widely acknowledged to be the 21st-century version of slavery, but governments accept it partly because it seems to defy solution. Prostitution is said to be the oldest profession. It exists in all countries, and if some teenage girls are imprisoned in brothels until they die of AIDS, that is seen as tragic but inevitable.
The perfect counterpoint to that fatalism is Somaly Mam, one of the bravest and boldest of those foreign visitors pouring into New York City this month. Somaly is a Cambodian who as a young teenager was sold to the brothels herself and now runs an organization that extricates girls from forced prostitution.
Now Somaly has published her inspiring memoir, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” in the United States, and it offers some lessons for tackling the broader problem.
In the past when I've seen Somaly and her team in Cambodia, I frankly didn't figure that she would survive this long. Gangsters who run the brothels have held a gun to her head, and seeing that they could not intimidate Somaly with their threats, they found another way to hurt her: They kidnapped and brutalized her 14-year-old daughter.
Three years ago, I wrote from Cambodia about a raid Somaly organized on the Chai Hour II brothel where more than 200 girls had been imprisoned. Girls rescued from the brothel were taken to Somaly's shelter, but the next day gangsters raided the shelter, kidnapped the girls and took them right back to the brothel.
Yet Somaly continued her fight, and, with the help of many others, she has registered real progress. Today, she says, the Chai Hour II brothel is shuttered. In large part, so is the Svay Pak brothel area where 12-year-old girls were openly for sale on my first visit.
“If you want to buy a virgin, it's not easy now,” notes Somaly, speaking in English — her fifth language.
Somaly's shelters — where the youngest girl rescued is 4 years old — provide an education and job skills. More important, Somaly applies public and international pressure to push the police to crack down on the worst brothels, and takes brothel owners to court. The idea is to undermine the sex-trafficking business model.
In her book, Somaly recounts how she grew up as an orphan and was “adopted” by a man who sold her to a brothel. Once when Somaly ran away, the police gang-raped her. Then her owner, on recovering his “property,” not only beat and humiliated her but tied her down naked and poured live maggots over her skin and in her mouth.
Yet even after that, Somaly occasionally defied him. Once two new girls, about 14 years old, were brought in to the brothel and left tied up. Somaly untied them and let them run away. For that, she was tortured with electric shocks.
As Cambodia opened up, Somaly began to get foreign clients, whom she vastly preferred because they didn't beat her as well, and she began learning foreign languages. Eventually, a French aid worker named Pierre Legros and she got married, and together they started Afesip, a small organization to fight sex trafficking. They have since divorced, and Somaly works primarily through the Somaly Mam Foundation, set up by admiring Americans to finance her battle against trafficking in Cambodia. It's a successful collaboration between American do-gooders with money and a Cambodian do-gooder with local street smarts.
The world's worst trafficking is in Asia, but teenage runaways in the United States are also routinely brutalized by their pimps. If a white, middle-class blonde goes missing, the authorities issue an Amber Alert and cable TV goes berserk, but neither federal nor local authorities do nearly enough to go after pimps who savagely abuse troubled girls who don't fit the “missing blonde” narrative. The system is broken.
A bill to strengthen federal anti-trafficking efforts within the U.S. was overwhelmingly passed by the House of Representatives, led by Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York. But crucial provisions to crack down on pimping are being blocked in the Senate in part by Senators Sam Brownback and Joe Biden, who consider the House provisions unnecessary and problematic. (Barack Obama gets it and says the right things about trafficking to the public, but apparently not to his running mate.)
With U.N. leaders this week focused on overcoming poverty, Somaly is a reminder that we needn't acquiesce in the enslavement of girls, in this country or abroad. If we defeated slavery in the 19th century, we can beat it in the 21st century.
Girls on Our Streets
by Nicholas D. Kristof
New York Times
May 7, 2009
ATLANTA - Jasmine Caldwell was 14 and selling sex on the streets when an opportunity arose to escape her pimp: an undercover policeman picked her up.
The cop could have rescued her from the pimp, who ran a string of 13 girls and took every cent they earned. If the cop had taken Jasmine to a shelter, she could have resumed her education and tried to put her life back in order.
Instead, the policeman showed her his handcuffs and threatened to send her to prison. Terrified, she cried and pleaded not to be jailed. Then, she said, he offered to release her in exchange for sex.
Afterward, the policeman returned her to the street. Then her pimp beat her up for failing to collect any money.
“That happens a lot,” said Jasmine, who is now 21. “The cops sometimes just want to blackmail you into having sex.”
I've often reported on sex trafficking in other countries, and that has made me curious about the situation here in the United States. Prostitution in America isn't as brutal as it is in, say, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Cambodia and Malaysia (where young girls are routinely kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured by brothel owners, occasionally even killed). But the scene on American streets is still appalling — and it continues largely because neither the authorities nor society as a whole show much interest in 14-year-old girls pimped on the streets.
Americans tend to think of forced prostitution as the plight of Mexican or Asian women trafficked into the United States and locked up in brothels. Such trafficking is indeed a problem, but the far greater scandal and the worst violence involves American teenage girls.
If a middle-class white girl goes missing, radio stations broadcast amber alerts, and cable TV fills the air with “missing beauty” updates. But 13-year-old black or Latina girls from poor neighborhoods vanish all the time, and the pimps are among the few people who show any interest.
These domestic girls are often runaways or those called “throwaways” by social workers: teenagers who fight with their parents and are then kicked out of the home. These girls tend to be much younger than the women trafficked from abroad and, as best I can tell, are more likely to be controlled by force.
Pimps are not the business partners they purport to be. They typically take every penny the girls earn. They work the girls seven nights a week. They sometimes tattoo their girls the way ranchers brand their cattle, and they back up their business model with fists and threats.
“If you don't earn enough money, you get beat,” said Jasmine, an African-American who has turned her life around with the help of Covenant House, an organization that works with children on the street. “If you say something you're not supposed to, you get beat. If you stay too long with a customer, you get beat. And if you try to leave the pimp, you get beat.”
The business model of pimping is remarkably similar whether in Atlanta or Calcutta: take vulnerable, disposable girls whom nobody cares about, use a mix of “friendship,” humiliation, beatings, narcotics and threats to break the girls and induce 100 percent compliance, and then rent out their body parts.
It's not solely violence that keeps the girls working for their pimps. Jasmine fled an abusive home at age 13, and she said she — like most girls — stayed with the pimp mostly because of his emotional manipulation. “I thought he loved me, so I wanted to be around him,” she said.
That's common. Girls who are starved of self-esteem finally meet a man who showers them with gifts, drugs and dollops of affection. That, and a lack of alternatives, keeps them working for him — and if that isn't enough, he shoves a gun in the girl's mouth and threatens to kill her.
Solutions are complicated and involve broader efforts to overcome urban poverty, including improving schools and attempting to shore up the family structure. But a first step is to stop treating these teenagers as criminals and focusing instead on arresting the pimps and the customers — and the corrupt cops.
“The problem isn't the girls in the streets; it's the men in the pews,” notes Stephanie Davis, who has worked with Mayor Shirley Franklin to help coordinate a campaign to get teenage prostitutes off the streets.
Two amiable teenage prostitutes, working without a pimp for the “fast money,” told me that there will always be women and girls selling sex voluntarily. They're probably right. But we can significantly reduce the number of 14-year-old girls who are terrorized by pimps and raped by many men seven nights a week. That's doable, if it's a national priority, if we're willing to create the equivalent of a nationwide amber alert.