Last week a bunch of bloggers linked to this now-famous Ask MetaFilter thread where a guy enlisted the online community to help him save two Russian friends from “a dangerous situation”.
The young women had paid a travel agency 3000 bucks to set them up with jobs on their arrival in Washington, DC. The job placements failed to appear and they were redirected to a late-night meeting at a bar in New York, where they were promised “hostessing” jobs.
A commenter named nadawi summed up what everyone was probably thinking:
if they get to nyc tomorrow, they are signing up to be prostitutes. they will get their passports taken, they will probably be beaten, and the only way to get out will be to die or to become too old to be of use to them anymore.
After much discussion, a MetaFilter user agreed to meet the girls at the bus station in NYC and talk them out of going to the bar. The intervention was successful, and as of last Friday the girls were housed snugly in the apartment of the MetaFilter samaritan.
So far so good. The situation was clearly dodgy, and the girls had been rescued from possible peril. I awaited the follow-up investigations into the travel agency that had brought the girls to America and the bar that had attempted to hire them.
A week passed, and no follow-ups have appeared. Meanwhile this bar and this travel agency have been nationally publicized as front operations for an international sex slavery ring.
Clearly if they are front operations someone should shut them down. But maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re just ill-organized immigrant-run businesses. Maybe the travel agency found itself unable to deliver on the jobs it had promised, and called in a favour from the friends or relatives who ran the NYC bar. Maybe the meeting was scheduled for the middle of the night because, you know, it’s a nightclub, and the manager wouldn’t be around earlier in the evening.
I can’t say whether this is true or untrue. But after confidently blaring headlines like MetaFilter Saved My Pals From Sex Traffickers and The Internet Rescues Two Russians From Sex Slavery, I would like to see bloggers and news organizations invest some effort into verifying the calumnies they’ve directed against these business owners.
But my suspicion is that the story will quietly fall into obscurity. It’s too good to fact-check.
I’m about as remote from the world of human trafficking as a person can be. I have no idea how often immigrant girls in New York are really stripped of their passports, beaten, and forced into prostitution. Sex slavery, like serial murder or child abduction or snuff filmmaking, is such a lurid and exotic crime that it overwhelms the imagination. Our grown-up cynicism disappears and we become children, listening in fascination to stories of witches and bogeymen.
Some crimes at least are susceptible to statistical analysis. We can calculate the real risk of having your kid abducted by a stranger; we can add up the number of annual axe murders. “Sex trafficking” is a fuzzy concept by definition – it encompasses gradations of coercion and consent that are impossible for outsiders to suss out. It can be stretched to include any prostitute who crosses an international border. And of course, we can only count the sex trafficking rings that are successfully broken up by police. This means that people are free to make up statistics:
In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, some British journalists reported that thousands of women from across the world were going to be trafficked into Germany to work as sex slaves for football fans. The Independent reported that Germany was about to experience a “sex explosion”. In the Guardian, Julie Bindel said “Germany’s pimps are casting their eyes on poverty-stricken countries… in their search for women for the Cup”. As it turned out, German police uncovered just five cases of “human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation” during the World Cup – and one of the victims was a German. This did not stop Mary Honeyball from claiming two weeks ago that “thousands of prostitutes were drawn to Germany during the last World Cup” and that “trafficking is on the rise in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, which like all other international sporting events is predicted to effect a steep rise in prostitution”.
In the case of the MetaFilter story, precaution surely justified the effort that went into diverting these girls from their rendezvous at the bar. Whether or not the meeting was dangerous, it certainly sounded dangerous. But note how quickly the story changed from “We have to protect these girls from a sketchy situation” to “We have rescued these girls from a life of sex slavery.”
On a separate MetaFilter thread, when a commenter named bingo made the sensible offer to swing by the bar in question and check it out, other commenters immediately disparaged the plan on the grounds that,
[Y]ou’re poking at the Russian Mafia. And they’re probably already aware that at least one of the authorities is watching them.
Bingo made the trip anyway and wound up having a drink at the bar in question. He described it as “a nice, clean, fairly upscale place in a safe neighborhood.” He went on to point out:
A place of business with a previously small online footprint will soon have this thread associated with it as a primary search result.
As far as I can tell, the most complete listing of resources on what MetaFilter users have dubbed “The Russian Incident” can be found on this Wiki page.
I’m going to set myself a reminder to look into this topic again in a month. Maybe some more facts will have emerged by then. In the meantime if anyone happens by who can point to actual evidence – as distinct from speculation – that the businesses in question are involved in sex trafficking, that would be great. Or actually, I guess it would be awful. Anyway, it would be helpful to know, one way or the other.
Update, June 1 2010: Somehow in my initial browsing of this story I overlooked this blog post by Mike Cohn, AKA bingo, the guy whose skeptical take on the proceedings upset so many MetaFilterites. Definitely worth reading for the splash-of-cold-water perspective.
Update, June 7 2010: Re-linked Mary Honeyball’s name (in the Spiked article quoted above) to the Guardian editorial where her comment appeared. Previously the link pointed to her blog, which is here.