If when you think of slavery, you imagine a distant, bygone era, ponder this conversation:
Florin: That’s not a lot. For one night, I make two hundred Euros off her . . . . She’s very clean. A very nice girl — you won’t have any problems with her. Whatever you say, she will do.”Skinner: Two thousand seems like a lot.
Florin: No, for two months that’s very inexpensive! The girl is very nice, she is not doing drugs. She is good at what she is doing.
Skinner: How about something else? A trade. A motorcycle — I can see that being about the value.
Florin: A car, maybe. Not a motorcycle. A good car.
Skinner: A Dacia? But only if I’m buying the girl for three months. And the car will come with 50,000 kilometers.
Skinner: Could I leave the country with her?
Florin: What if you leave me with my eyes in the sun? [a Gypsy expression for being stood up] I don’t know if you’d be back with her. I need a deposit. But I can get a Romanian passport for her.
Investigative reporter E. Benjamin Skinner recorded this conversation with Florin, a pimp in Bucharest. You can listen online, if you have the stomach. In his new book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery , Florin represents the worst of the worst: selling not only a sex slave but an abused, scared, suicidal girl with Down syndrome out of a sewage-infested store, caring little how much she is beaten and raped. All for less than $2,400.
Skinner’s eyes, though only thirty-two, have seen much. According to former assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke, Skinner is the first person to observe the sale of human beings on four continents. Skinner’s interest in slavery goes far back. As a boy in Wisconsin, he attended Quaker meetings where he reports learning as much about Harriet Tubman and William Lloyd Garrison as he did about Jesus.
A conversation with Walter Russell Mead prompted Skinner’s five-year exploration culminating in this book — at once a portrait of slavery today, a history of recent U.S. abolition efforts, and a critique of the antislavery lobby.
According to the State Department, more than 800,000 people (two-thirds are women and children) are trafficked across national borders, and millions within national borders, annually. But what does slavery mean today? Skinner insists upon the following tripartite definition: “A slave is a human being who is forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence.” Skinner first paints a portrait of modern slave experience, and along the way we hear some gruesome tales.
Skinner demonstrates with a certain irony the ease with which one may obtain a slave. Southeast of Port-au-Prince, Skinner quickly finds a slave broker, and in this “banal” conversation — he told NPR it was “as if I was negotiating on the street for a used stereo” — Skinner asks for a nine- to twelve-year-old to cook and clean for him. After negotiating a fifty-dollar fee, Benavil, a slaver, “leans in close and whispers”:
“This is a rather delicate question. Is this someone you want as just a worker? Or also someone who will be a ‘partner.’”“I mean, is it possible to have someone that could be both?”
“‘Oui!’ Benavil responds enthusiastically.”
“I think probably a girl would be better.”
“Just one?” Benavil asks, hopefully.
“Here, 600 miles from the United States, and five hours from the desk of the UN Secretary-General,” summarizes Skinner, “you have successfully bargained a human being down to the price of the cab fare to JFK.” Benavil even offered fake adoption papers to transport the girl to the United States. This took place not in the remote past but in October 2005.
Many well-meaning rural Haitians relinquish their children to slavers. Parents are told they will be educated, fed, and well-treated. This is momentous in a place where 149 of every 1,000 children die before age five. Sadly, studies show that 80 percent never go to school, most are beaten daily, and most girls are sexually abused.
“Slavery,” writes Richard Holbrooke in the foreword, “persists despite twelve international conventions banning the slave trade, and over three hundred international treaties.” It is basically illegal everywhere.
Following Toussaint L’Ouverture’s slave revolt of 1791, Haiti was the first Western nation (second in the world) to abolish slavery. Yet today “Haiti has more slaves than any nation outside of Asia, and more than toiled on the entire island of Hispaniola . . . when the revolution began.” Modern presidents like Aristide decried child slavery but little more.
Beyond infiltrating slavers’ networks and providing historical perspective, Skinner introduces readers to individual slaves. We meet Gonoo, an Indian man in debt bondage who, along with his children, is a quarry slave because his father borrowed 73 cents. We meet Tatiana, an Eastern European girl lured to a slaver through a deceitful boyfriend and absurdly forced to pay off the money it took to lure her. Taken to one of Amsterdam’s taxpayer-funded “tippelzones,” she was forced to “service” men (police included) for twenty-five Euros. In both of these instances, we see initial debt growing through exorbitant “interest” such that slaves cannot break free.
Unfortunately, Tatiana was not alone. Skinner reports that “a top police official told John Miller [the U.S. antislavery czar] that 40 percent of the Netherlands’s 30,000 prostitutes were slaves.”
Skinner’s second aim is to describe “John Miller’s War.” (Full disclosure: Miller is a good acquaintance and a senior fellow at Discovery Institute.) A dear man unliked by no one except human traffickers, Ambassador Miller — along with congressional allies Chris Smith, Frank Wolf, Sam Brownback, and Donald Payne — waged war against those nations that tolerated slavery, threatening sanctions when necessary. Yet Miller’s war was also internal: He pushed State Department officials to prioritize abolition and call slavery “slavery.”
Punishing aberrant nations proved difficult. Miller’s service from to 2003 to 2006 produced “more than a hundred new antitrafficking laws and over 10,000 trafficking convictions worldwide.” All too often, however, other geopolitical concerns trumped his passionate abolition efforts.
Skinner also critiques an influential antitrafficking coalition led by Hudson Institute’s Michael Horowitz. Page after page, Skinner derides Horowitz and his band of “evangelicals.”
Why would Skinner disparage a dogged neo-abolitionists ally? He believes Horowitz’s coalition is moralistic, caring more about sex slavery than debt bondage. Fearing the equation of prostitution with slavery, Skinner rejects the coalition’s position that all pimping should be illegal.
Having met Horowitz before, this smelled fishy. So I interviewed him, a State Department official, and coalition members. In truth, Horowitz’s coalition has no right-wing fetish; feminists like Catharine MacKinnon are in the vanguard. Rather, in thirty years of experience with legislation, Horowitz learned something: “Less is more.” Narrowly targeting egregious crimes, he builds broad coalitions that accomplish more than back-patting. Horowitz spearheaded the Trafficking Victims Protection (TVPA), International Religious Freedom, Sudan Peace, and North Korean Human Rights Acts with left-right coalitions.
“The law is not the end but the means,” he told me, to empowering impassioned coalitions: “It’s just the opposite of what people think.” Coalitions demand enforcement; coalitions strengthen reauthorizations. Horowitz cites the campaign to protect Soviet Jewry. Advocates knew that if they could protect Jews, freedom for artists and others would follow. Why? Instead of merely passing a law, a coalition was fashioned.
Horowitz’s group wants to keep pimping a per se crime and make pimps’ use of “fraud, force, or coercion” a basis for extra punishment rather than the sole basis for their prosecution. Skinner prefers the coercion standard, fearing prosecutorial focus on high-priced call girls. Just the opposite, says Horowitz: This higher standard makes pimps’ prosecution nearly impossible, while prosecutors seem to have little trouble prosecuting Eliot Spitzer’s girl.
The average age of a prostitute is now about fifteen. According to Joe Parker, who works with these women: “Survivors usually have some combination of depression, anxiety, and dissociative disorders. Brain damage, psychosis, and suicide are common.” Or consider girls in Latino brothels, “some as young as 12” who, according to Polaris Project’s Bradley Myles, “are forced to have sex with a different man every fifteen minutes, from 30 to as many as 55 ‘customers’ per day. After a few weeks in these horrific conditions, dissociation from reality as a sheer survival mechanism creates lifelong scars.” Needless to say, testimony of coercion against pimps who beat, sadistically rape, and psychologically manipulate prostitutes is sparse.
If pimping is a per se crime, however, prostitutes need only name their pimp. Game over. Ironically, if only “coerced” pimping is prosecuted, violence against prostitutes increases: Pimps have more incentive to abuse prostitutes so as to make testimony impossible.
Contra Skinner, Horowitz’s coalition sees the moral difference between abducted girls forced into prostitution and the late D.C. Madam’s operation. But punishing the Madam is a small price to pay to save enslaved girls.
The Pretty Woman stereotype of numerous, slightly misguided women profiting from victimless entrepreneurship is overblown and even contradicted by Skinner’s own research. One Brazilian woman Skinner met claimed she “originally” got into the business because “I love sex,” and another European made good money off drunken World Cup fans. Still, the majority of prostitutes he interviewed were enslaved or originally enslaved — even though some returned to prostitution after being freed. Claiming the latter women “chose” prostitution — this after they had been kidnapped at a young age and taught the only “business” they know — is absurd. And if even some women choose prostitution (bear in mind that most prostitutes were sexually abused in childhood), it remains that prostitution is destructive and contrary to human flourishing for prostitutes and their patrons’ families. According to Skinner, research shows “that prostitution — regardless of whether it was coupled with slavery or not — produced women who were, in effect, torture victims.”
A majority of the prostitutes in a 2003 study had severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Most were clinically depressed. As John Miller often pointed out, 90 percent wanted to leave prostitution. And among trafficking victims, 95 percent of whom were physically or sexually abused, the situation was even graver.
Pretty Woman prostitutes deserve the law’s righteous ire, for they conceal enslaved women in a cloud of “legitimacy.” More important, if we do not stand on firm natural-law ground in condemning all pimping, how can we condemn slavery? Surely not Skinner’s proposed ground: “A moral law that stands above men and nations.” Both are wrong, and one need not equivocate in saying so.
Skinner’s depiction of Horowitz’s coalition is deeply unfair. Disagreeing with Horowitz that cracking down on sex trafficking will affect other forms of trafficking and bondage is fine. But Skinner owes Horowitz (and readers) an argument before labeling his position “illogical” and “immoral.” The coalition does emphasize sex slavery. But many groups emphasize labor slavery. Why did they not warrant Skinner’s indignation?
Still, these defects cannot erase the originality of Skinner’s depiction of the faces of global slavery and the bravery of his undercover investigations. Zooming in like a high-powered satellite to focus intensely on the stories of a few makes slavery a present-day reality. And this is no small feat. For, as Skinner often says, if we don’t understand the experience of one slave, one particular human being, slavery means nothing.
Logan Paul Gage is a policy analyst with Discovery Institute in Washington, D.C.