Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies. – Dorothy Allison
Lying can be benign. Yesterday was of course April Fools’ Day, when we employ good-natured lies to amuse each other; people actually pay stage magicians, actors and call girls to lie to them for entertainment purposes. And of course, without social lies such as, “Pleased to meet you”, “I’m doing fine”, “No, boss, I don’t mind” and “What a cute baby!” our interaction with others would generate considerably more friction than it does. But lies employed to harm, control, steal and keep others in ignorance are not at all benign and I am totally opposed to them, especially when they are used by the Powers That Be to excuse invasions of the privacy and rights of individuals. One year ago today I showed how several major elements of trafficking mythology grew from misquoting, distorting and exaggerating the already-flawed conclusions of the Estes and Weiner study, and today I’ll look at another source of highly dubious guesses masquerading as statistics: the so-called “Bales Algorithm”.
When I decided to make the day after April Fools’ Day an annual occasion for major trafficking myth debunking, I immediately contacted Dr. Laura Agustín, with whom regular readers are already familiar. Dr. Agustín is an expert on sex work and migration who is highly critical of the misogynistic, racist, anti-sex “trafficking” paradigm which characterizes most or all sex work and a large fraction of other migrant labor as “exploitation” or “slavery”, and whenever I write on the subject you will usually find a link to her work somewhere in the essay. So as you might expect, she is my “go-to girl” for all things “trafficking” related, especially information on the ridiculous claims made by “trafficking” fetishists. This time she directed me to her December 2nd, 2010 column, which in turn led me to a series of articles in which Jack Shafer of Slate debunked the ridiculous claims of New York Times writer Peter Landesman, whose January 25th, 2004 article “The Girls Next Door” may have been the critical event which really got “sex trafficking” hysteria going (and shaped the Times’ anti-whore campaign and Nick Kristof’s entire career for the next decade).
Landesman, like most who promote hysteria, is mighty short on facts; as Shafer stated in “Enslaved By His Sources”,
Landesman’s 8,500-word breathless hodgepodge of anecdotes, bait-and-switches, non sequiturs, pseudonymous testimonials, and over-the-top hysteria comes nowhere near to proving its thesis: Although the crime of sex-slavery exists, Landesman cites just two criminal cases involving 10 females. I continue to harp on Landesman’s unsubstantiated numbers precisely because without their sensationalistic wallop, his months-long Times Magazine investigation collapses upon itself. Landesman’s notion that every third block in the country harbors a sex-slave brothel can be traced to his reliance on well-meaning sources in government, activist circles, the religious community, and academia whose moral fervor causes them to stretch the truth to make their points about the abomination of sex slavery. Landesman appears to have fallen captive to these sources, internalized their views, and channeled their agenda into the pages of the Times Magazine.
One of the most important of those sources was Kevin Bales, the founder of a fetishist group named “Free the Slaves”; he claimed to have developed an “algorithm” for estimating the number of “sex slaves” in the US, and Landesman’s popularization of the “estimate” derived therefrom not only influenced future “estimates” by the fanatics, but may have been accepted by the US State Department as part of its method of calculating “sex slave” numbers for its annual “Trafficking in Persons” (TIP) report…we don’t know for sure, because the government refuses to release the methodology (if any) used in preparing the report. But even if the State Department isn’t influenced by it, the True Believers certainly are; you know that “27 million slaves worldwide” figure we started hearing early last year? Bales derived it with his so-called “algorithm” in December of 2010. And that’s highly problematic because…well, see for yourself; this is how Bales explained it to Shafer via email in June of 2005 (emphasis mine):
…The estimate of 30,000 to 50,000 people being held in forced labor in the United States for purposes of sexual exploitation was arrived at in this way: firstly, we used the State Department’s estimate of 18,000 to 20,000 people being trafficked into the US each year. (Admittedly, the State Department has not explained the methodology by which they arrived at this estimate, so we use it in the hope that they will soon make their research methods clear.) Secondly, we adjusted this estimate according to two surveys we have recently conducted. The first survey was of all media reports of trafficking cases in the US over the past four years. These reports covered 136 separate cases of forced labor, 109 of which noted the number trafficked totaling 5,455 individuals. As with most crimes, the number of known and reported cases is a fraction of the actual number of cases occurring. To the best of our understanding the proportion of known to actual cases for human trafficking is low. In this survey 44.2% of cases involved forced labor in prostitution and 5.4% involved the sexual abuse of children, totaling 49.6%. As this is a rough estimate I rounded this up to 50%. In a second survey of forty-nine service provider agencies in the United States that had worked with trafficked persons, we asked how long each trafficked person they had worked with had been held in forced labor. The minimum reported time was one month, the maximum was 30 years. The majority of cases clustered between three years and five years.
So, if 9,000 to 10,000 of the people trafficked into the US each year will be enslaved for sexual exploitation (50% of 18-20,000), and they are likely to remain in that situation for three to five years, then the number of people enslaved for sexual exploitation at any one time in the US could be between 27,000 and 50,000 people. Since a number of people working in the area of human trafficking have stated that they believe the State Department’s estimate is low, I chose to make our estimate based on the upper end of the State Department figure, thus giving an estimate of 30,000 to 50,000.
Savor the number-crunchy goodness for a moment and let it sink in. Bales starts with an “estimate” of unknown derivation, “adjusts” it by a factor based on media reports (which often repeat each other and obviously increase dramatically during a moral panic), presumes without evidence that the proportion of reports to actual incidents is low, multiplies the result by guesses from prohibitionists with an anti-whore agenda, then rounds up. When I made my own estimate of the number of US prostitutes I used solid data from a methodologically-sound survey, and cross-checked it via another widely accepted study; the results are both credible and jibe with figures extrapolated from historical data. Bales’ results, on the other hand, bear as much resemblance to the source data as the end product of the digestive process bears to the food which goes in the other end…and that was already nasty to begin with. Worst of all, Bales’ method is specifically designed to produce ever-increasing results: wildly-exaggerated “estimates” fuel the hysteria, which in turn generates more media reports, which dramatically increases the “adjustment factor”, thus generating ever-higher “estimates” which ratchet up the hysteria…and so on and on, ad nauseam. The current claim surpasses the population of Australia by a comfortable margin; by the time the hysteria collapses it will probably exceed that of the United Kingdom.
In any moral panic, the yellow press and those who stand to profit from the hysteria (politicians, government and groups selling a “solution” to the nonexistent “crisis”) have a mutually-reinforcing relationship. But not all press is sensationalistic, and even in the midst of hysteria there are always a few reporters like Shafer and Jerry Markon of the Washington Post who are willing to tell the truth. That number inevitably grows larger with time; like any other fad a moral panic is unsustainable because its unchecked growth eventually exhausts the credulity of even the most gullible, at which point the politicians switch to a new hobby-horse, the employees of dozens of NGOs have to get real jobs and the public has to find some new lie to believe in.