It might be difficult for the average American to understand the problem of sex trafficking, or to notice it when it’s happening, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said during a visit Monday night to Washington State University Vancouver.
For example, you might see a 15-year-old prostitute on the side of the road, dressed provocatively and making come-hither gestures at potential customers, Kristof said. Nobody’s holding a gun to her head and forcing her into a john’s car.
“She doesn’t look like she’s being oppressed by anybody,” he said, so you might think, “if that’s what she wants to do, then what can we do?”
But in reality, Kristof said, that girl could be a runaway who left behind an abusive stepfather. She could have met a pimp who has coerced her into prostitution, and who demands that she make a certain amount of money each day, or else he’ll beat her.
Although the problem seems dire and prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, there are things community leaders can do to fight sex trafficking, Kristof said before a packed auditorium of about 200 on the WSUV campus. He was there to shine a light on the global problem of sex trafficking, which also affects a large number of girls in the U.S.
The legal system in the U.S. needs to crack down on the johns who buy girls and the pimps who enslave them, he said. Traditionally, sex trafficking victims who are prostituted get arrested over and over again, while their pimps aren’t caught and their johns get a slap on the wrist.
“Basically right now in America, polls suggest 15 percent of American men have used a prostitute at some point in their life,” he said. “There’s essentially zero chance you’re going to get prosecuted. … There’s no real disincentive.”
Complicating matters, girls are terrified of and psychologically manipulated by their pimps, so it’s difficult to get them to testify against sex traffickers. Residential programs aimed at getting the girls off the streets can be a part of the solution. So can policies that make big-picture changes to society, such as tackling poverty, reducing teen pregnancy, and increasing access to early childhood education.
Questions from students
Before his keynote speech, Kristof gathered with WSUV students for a question-and-answer session. Many of the questions focused on the state of journalism in a digital age, and what it is like to travel the world and write about social problems.
Because many news organizations are struggling financially, Kristof said, there is less money to send journalists out in the field to do “shoe leather” reporting. In 2003, while politicians in Washington, D.C., were telling the public that the U.S. needed to intervene in Iraq, and that it was for the good of Iraqi citizens, Kristof traveled to the county to ask Iraqis how they felt about U.S. intervention.
Leaders in the U.S. “were sure American troops were going to be welcomed with flowers,” Kristof said, but the Iraqis he talked to didn’t trust the U.S. “As a foreign correspondent, I became a huge believer in actually going out and doing real reporting.”
A student asked Kristof what he thought of the argument that prostitution should be legalized. Kristof said he was once drawn to the argument, because legalizing it would allow the industry to be regulated. But in practice, legalizing prostitution hasn’t helped decrease sex trafficking, he said.
That model “pretty much failed,” Kristof said, adding that areas with legal prostitution also become hotbeds for illegal activities, such as child prostitution. “Going after pimps and going after johns may be the most effective way to reduce trafficking.”
Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, has co-authored three books with is wife, Sheryl WuDunn. Their latest book is titled “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” Much of his writing focuses on human rights issues around the world.
Kristof grew up on a farm in Yamhill, Ore. His visit on Monday was tied to a visit with his mother, who still lives in Oregon.
His talk at WSUV was part of the university’s Public Affairs Lecture Series. The series, which tackles weighty political topics, has drawn other prominent public figures, including former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Democratic presidential candidate and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and Kweisi Mfume, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Fighting sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a problem others in Vancouver have focused on. Vancouver is the headquarters for Shared Hope International, an organization started by former Congresswoman Linda Smith to combat sex trafficking.
On Friday, WSUV will host a free workshop at 2 to 4 p.m. in its Firstenburg Student Commons for people interested in fighting human trafficking. Guests will learn how to talk to elected officials about human trafficking and how the problem impacts Clark County and the Pacific Northwest.
On Nov. 14, WSUV will show the documentary “Playground: The Child Sex Trade in America,” 4:30 to 7 p.m. in Room 129 of the school’s Dengerink Administration Building. The documentary, which focuses on child sex trafficking in North America, will be followed by a discussion and information about local organizations that support victims of human trafficking.