When it comes to the coverage of sex work or trafficking, the mainstream media seems to forget a basic journalistic principle — the need to get their facts straight. Here are two recent examples from supposedly top-notch purveyors of journalism. This week, the New Yorker ran a long piece about long-time feminist Gloria Steinem, which focused on Steinem’s non-stop travel on behalf of feminist organizations around the globe. It was mildly interesting but I cringed when I read this sentence:
“In America, sex trafficking is said to be as high today as in any other country.”
Not only is that not true, according to all the studies I’ve read, but the writer doesn’t even stop to provide supporting data for that statement. She merely moves on as if her readers are too dumb to notice the lack of evidence for such a sweeping generalization. As I discovered in researching my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, anti-trafficking groups have spread grossly inaccurate and inflated statistics about the number of women and children being trafficked for paid sex in the United States. There is little good data out there on the true numbers in large part because even the U.S. State Department conflates prostitution by choice with trafficking. Yet according to law enforcement and researchers who study this topic, sex trafficking in the United States is less than of a problem than in many Asian, African and European countries. So why have the editors of the New Yorker let this writer get away with such a profoundly ignorant statement?
Jane Kramer, the writer of the piece, goes on to say that, “Steinem finds it unlikely that anyone actually chooses to be a sex worker,” another sweeping and profoundly inaccurate stereotype that is left unchallenged. As I discovered in writing my book, most women and men are doing sex work in this country by choice. A study of indoor sex workers in New York City by the Urban Justice Center, for example, found that only 8 percent of the workers surveyed were trafficked into the trade. The majority have chosen this profession because it gives them the flexibility and economic independence they need — to raise children as single parents, pay their way through school, pay off student loans, or just pay the rent in such high-rent cities as New York, Washington and San Francisco.