A Woman. A Prostitute. A Slave.
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Americans tend to associate “modern slavery” with illiterate girls in India or Cambodia. Yet there I was the other day, interviewing a college graduate who says she spent three years terrorized by pimps in a brothel in Midtown Manhattan.
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Nicholas D. Kristof
Nicholas Kristof addresses reader feedback and posts short takes from his travels.
Times Topic: Prostitution
Those who think that commercial sex in this country is invariably voluntary — and especially men who pay for sex — should listen to her story. The men buying her services all mistakenly assumed that she was working of her own volition, she says.
Yumi Li (a nickname) grew up in a Korean area of northeastern China. After university, she became an accountant, but, restless and ambitious, she yearned to go abroad.
So she accepted an offer from a female jobs agent to be smuggled to New York and take up a job using her accounting skills and paying $5,000 a month. Yumi’s relatives had to sign documents pledging their homes as collateral if she did not pay back the $50,000 smugglers’ fee from her earnings.
Yumi set off for America with a fake South Korean passport. On arrival in New York, however, Yumi was ordered to work in a brothel.
“When they first mentioned prostitution, I thought I would go crazy,” Yumi told me. “I was thinking, ‘how can this happen to someone like me who is college-educated?’ ” Her voice trailed off, and she added: “I wanted to die.”
She says that the four men who ran the smuggling operation — all Chinese or South Koreans — took her into their office on 36th Street in Midtown Manhattan. They beat her with their fists (but did not hit her in the face, for that might damage her commercial value), gang-raped her and videotaped her naked in humiliating poses. For extra intimidation, they held a gun to her head.
If she continued to resist working as a prostitute, she says they told her, the video would be sent to her relatives and acquaintances back home. Relatives would be told that Yumi was a prostitute, and several of them would lose their homes as well.
Yumi caved. For the next three years, she says, she was one of about 20 Asian prostitutes working out of the office on 36th Street. Some of them worked voluntarily, she says, but others were forced and received no share in the money.
Yumi played her role robotically. On one occasion, Yumi was arrested for prostitution, and she says the police asked her if she had been trafficked.
“I said no,” she recalled. “I was really afraid that if I hinted that I was a victim, the gang would send the video to my family.”
Then one day Yumi’s closest friend in the brothel was handcuffed by a customer, abused and strangled almost to death. Yumi rescued her and took her to the hospital. She said that in her rage, she then confronted the pimps and threatened to go public.
At that point, the gang hurriedly moved offices and changed phone numbers. The pimps never mailed the video or claimed the homes in China; those may have been bluffs all along. As for Yumi and her friend, they found help with Restore NYC, a nonprofit that helps human trafficking victims in the city.
I can’t be sure of elements of Yumi’s story, but it mostly rings true to me and to the social workers who have worked with her. There’s no doubt that while some women come to the United States voluntarily to seek their fortunes in the sex trade, many others are coerced — and still others start out forced but eventually continue voluntarily. And it’s not just foreign women. The worst cases of forced prostitution, especially of children, often involve home-grown teenage runaways.
No one has a clear idea of the scale of the problem, and estimates vary hugely. Some think the problem is getting worse; others believe that Internet services reduce the role of pimps and lead to commercial sex that is more consensual. What is clear is that forced prostitution should be a national scandal. Just this month, authorities indicted 29 people, mostly people of Somali origin from the Minneapolis area, on charges of running a human trafficking ring that allegedly sold many girls into prostitution — one at the age of 12.
There are no silver bullets, but the critical step is for the police and prosecutors to focus more on customers (to reduce demand) and, above all, on pimps. Prostitutes tend to be arrested because they are easy to catch, while pimping is a far harder crime to prosecute. That’s one reason thugs become pimps: It’s hugely profitable and carries less risk than selling drugs or stealing cars. But that can change as state and federal authorities target traffickers rather than their victims.
Nearly 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s time to wipe out the remnants of slavery in this country.