Posts Tagged 'sex trafficking'

The first draft of history is often the last.

A few days ago I discussed an Ottawa pizza waitress I identified as SL, who was fired after sharing a Snapchat video which supposedly showed her sister and her sister’s boyfriend flippantly reenacting George Floyd’s death.

That’s what the headlines alleged, anyway. SL claimed that the video merely showed the couple innocently rasslin’ on the floor, and that the George Floyd connection had never occurred to them.

I argued that the media companies that tarred these young people as racists probably ought to have actually confirmed the contents of the video before composing their inflammatory headlines, which might well dog their subjects for the rest of their lives.

Even assuming the worst about SL’s video – that it really was intended to mock and minimize George Floyd’s sad death – it was only a tasteless joke, the kind that young idiots make all the time. In a sane world they would get a stern lecture, suffer some minor punishment, and after a few months and a suitable show of contrition be accepted back into polite society.

But the internet and social media, along with the ever-mounting moral panic over racism, have made such a proportionate response impossible. There are no longer any intermediate punishments available; it’s either ignore the offense, or call down upon the offenders the full wrath of Twitter.

The media seems to have lost interest in SL’s story – just as it threatens to become interesting. Six months, a year, ten years from now, how will she make her way through life with the first page of her Google results identifying her as a racist?

We’ll never find out. SL will carry on, at a somewhat lower trajectory than before, maybe for another seventy, eighty years. But her story is over. It consists of a dozen or so news articles and blog posts, a few hundred tweets, maybe a couple thousand words of text altogether.

The first rough draft of her history has been written, and it’s unlikely to be revised.

***

Ten years ago I looked into another case that was a media sensation for a couple days. At that time I wrote,

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.

But it slipped my mind.

The story is described in my post, “The MetaFilter sex slavery story: can anyone actually verify this?”

To quickly summarize, in the summer of 2010 two Russian girls signed up with a job placement agency that promised to arrange “cultural exchange” visas and jobs as lifeguards in the United States. When they arrived in Washington, they were told that the lifeguard positions were no longer available, and that they should instead travel to New York City, where they would be given jobs as hostesses in a nightclub.

It all sounded kind of shady, and when someone who knew the girls posted about it to the then-mighty internet forum MetaFilter, a posse quickly emerged to divert the girls from what everyone was sure was an appointment with sex traffickers. And they were successful! The girls wound up staying in the apartment of a New York MetaFilter user, while the media lit up with feel-good stories about how a bunch of selfless internet heroes had put the boot to wicked Russian mobsters.

As I wrote shortly afterward:

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.

The bar was called Lux Lounge. Usually, in order to minimize my impact on the blind wanderings of the search spiders, I try to avoid using the real names of non-famous people and small businesses. In this case there’s little harm in referring to it by name because:

On June 14 [2010], Lux Lounge closed its doors. The closing came about three weeks after the [MetaFilter] saga began, and about four months after the club’s grand opening. (The Daily Beast tried to contact the former owners of Lux Lounge and also the landlord listed for the property, but never got a reply.)

That’s from a (paywalled) Daily Beast story from 2011, which seems to be the most recent mention of the case in the media. The implication is that the mobbed-up characters behind Lux Lounge slunk away into the shadows after the media shone a light on their misdeeds.

Maybe. Or maybe an innocent business was sabotaged by a gang of overwrought internet do-gooders. Or maybe it would’ve shut down anyway, because bars in that neighbourhood are failing all the time: since 2010 there have been at least four different restaurants and bars at its former address on Coney Island Avenue – Mexican, Georgian, Tajik, and most recently Moroccan.

As for Lux Lounge, the Daily Beast writer makes a big deal of the smutty flyer for its “Ass-travaganza Grand Opening” in February, 2010, featuring “a bronzed, near-naked woman wearing bright-yellow thong panties, and just one boot”:

lux lounge coney island grand opening

…And purses her lips over “the club’s Facebook page, full of photos of women in lingerie and fishnets, dollar bills stuffed into their panties.”

Okay, it’s not the kind of joint where I’d like to hang out, as evidenced further by this video of an ear-hammering performance there by a rapper named Akay Stacks in April, 2010. Seriously, turn down your volume before clicking on this.

The club was around for such a short time that after a decade there’s little surviving evidence of what it was like. In the original MetaFilter thread, a user named Bingo suggested that in lieu of lurid speculations, maybe someone should pop by the place and scope it out. Other users warned him off:

[Y]ou’re poking at the Russian Mafia. And they’re probably already aware that at least one of the authorities is watching them.

But Bingo went anyway, and in what strikes me as a pretty level-headed assessment that nevertheless enraged many of his fellow posters, he reported that,

It’s a nice, clean, fairly upscale place in a safe neighborhood. It seems to be popular with 20-something Russian kids.

It is absolutely not a strip club.
It is absolutely not a brothel. […]

Q: Does this mean that the organization(s) that brought these girls over were necessarily on the level?
A: No.

Q: Does this mean that the person who wanted to meet these girls at Cafe Lux was, de facto, an honest person, with their best interests at heart?
A: No.

…And so on. In response, another poster named Astro Zombie gathered some comments from now-defunct MySpace pages indicating that strippers and escorts were present at various events at Lux Lounge, which…look, I’m neither a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League nor an apologist for “sex work”, as we’re supposed to call it these days. But as far as I can tell, this is the closest anyone has come to producing damning evidence against Lux Lounge, and it’s pretty weak sauce.

My 2010 blog post got a comment from someone named Kim W:

Speaking as a MeFite who has been tangentially involved – one of the members who have been more closely involved is on the U.S. State Department anti-trafficking squad, and got involved very early on. There are details about the case that he CANNOT reveal because they now pertain to an ongoing investigation. That may explain why you haven’t heard any further details on the MetaFilter site – for the same reason that the police do not regularly release updates about current ongoing investigations (think about it).

But by the time the Daily Beast article came out the following year,

The police aren’t investigating. Detective Cheryl Crispin of the Deputy Commissioner’s Office in New York City says the case was closed after the two Russian women were interviewed the evening of their original arrival in New York, because they said they didn’t feel threatened at the time.

If a case was opened up at the federal level, apparently nothing came of it. We are asked to be realistic about this:

Explains Ken Franzblau, a trafficking expert who has worked with the human-rights group Equality Now and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services: “In a perfect TV world of law enforcement, sure, the police would bust open an international trafficking ring.” But that’s not the real world, he says, where police departments are understaffed and overworked. “In this case, the D.A. and the police ensured that these two women were safe.” That, he says, is a triumph.

A triumph? If you believe, as the Daily Beast evidently does, that the girls were about to be forced or blackmailed into prostitution, then the job placement agency that brought them over was knowingly linked to brutal pimps. Both the agency and the girls’ contact in Brooklyn, a person of unknown nationality called George, felt sufficient sense of impunity to continue hassling the girls – no, battering them – after they’d blown off their meeting at Lux Lounge:

The next day, the Russian company battered the women with calls on their cell phones, telling them they were breaking a contract and threatening lawsuits that would cost their families thousands of dollars. The women were told to fly to Texas immediately for new jobs as housekeepers. Or to go to San Diego to be pedicab drivers. Details on housing arrangements were uncomfortably vague.

George called the Russian women, too, asking where they were.

This was after the girls had already been interviewed by two policemen, who left because the girls said they “didn’t feel threatened”. Did anyone pass George’s contact info on to the cops? Or how about the name and number of the dodgy job placement agency? It was still in business a year later:

The two women’s travel plans involved two separate companies in Russia: One is a regular partner of CETUSA [the nonprofit organization that sponsored the women’s visas in the U.S.] but the other company was unknown to the U.S. organization. The latter is the company the women worked closely with. When contacted by The Daily Beast, that company denied knowing George. […]

The Russian company eventually stopped calling, thanks to the efforts of Ksenya’s boyfriend, the Russian lawyer. He managed to get the company to sign a contract saying the women were free of obligation.

In mid-June, the two women flew home to Moscow, having had no luck getting jobs.

By the time someone gets around to compiling the complete history of sex trafficking in 21st century America, it’ll be pretty much impossible to locate George, or the owners of the job placement agency, or the former owners of the Lux Lounge, or the cops who interviewed the Russian girls, or anyone else who might have added some solidity to this vaporous case. So the historian will probably just copy-and-paste the first-draft version: “The Internet Rescues Two Russians From Sex Slavery”.

M.

The theme of today’s essay is reputation, a topic which interested Max Beerbohm, who attempted to reconstruct the character of an 18th century clergyman from a few lines in the Life of Samuel Johnson. I seem never to have blogged about prostitution, but I once shared my surprise at how freely Nancy Mitford threw around the word “whore”. As for Russian mobsters, I’m less bothered by the remote threat of organized crime than I am by the petty misbehaviours of the mentally deranged.

The MetaFilter sex slavery story: can anyone actually verify this?

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.

M.

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.

Update, June 24 2020: Ten years later, a superficially similar media rush-to-judgement reminded me to look into this old story again: “The first draft of history is often the last”.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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