February 2nd, 2012

Nicholas Kristof’s “Baby Face” Blunder

Nicholas Kristof at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2010. Photo by Monika Flueckiger/World Economic Forum.

New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof is revered by the public for his work highlighting humanitarian issues, in particular the plight of women worldwide. Having won two Pulitzer Prizes, his journalistic integrity is fervently defended by his supporters.  However, due to the tenuous grasp that trafficking and prostitution have on the American socio-political arena, the issues at hand are often misunderstood, and his philosophies remain largely unquestioned.  Specifically, in writings which highlight the worst abuses within the sex industry, at times Kristof creates the perhaps unfair characterization that all sex workers are victims.  While he is adept at constructing a compelling narrative for his loyal readers, his writing style and manipulation of statistics distort the public understanding of prostitution.

In Kristof’s January 25 op-ed for the New York Times, he introduces us to a 13-year-old girl, whom he refers to as “Baby Face, because of her looks…” She was forced into selling sex by her pimp, who posted ads to clients on the website Backpage.com. Kristof’s decision to call her “Baby Face” is disconcerting, because it only further victimizes her. While Kristof’s intention was undoubtedly to elicit an emotional response from reader over the young girl’s ordeal, is their outrage worth using a nickname that a pimp or john would have given her? It would have been better to allude to her by some generic name. Instead, Krisof relies on sensationalism to get his point across. The emphasis on her youth reduces her to an object, something she has already endured at the hands of her pimp and the johns he sold her to.

In addition, Kristof quotes Lauren Hersh, a Brooklyn prosecutor who asserts that “The average age where a girl is forced into prostitution is 12 to 14.” This statistic is from a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, and the research methodology has proven to be flawed. Emi Koyama, a sex worker activist explains how “[t]he major problem with [this] data is that it is based on survey of minors who engage in prostitution. Since the study does not include anyone who is over the age of 18, it is natural that the average age…at which respondents entered prostitution is below 18.” According to Ronald Weitzer of George Washington University, “[c]ontemporary studies have reported varying percentages of individuals who started selling sex when they were minors. These studies…have documented that only a minority began to prostitute before age 18 and an even smaller percentage before 14.”

Obviously, there’s a problem here – Kristof is just one of many journalists that includes the age 12-14 statistic in their articles. This distorted knowledge has become widespread, and the misappropriation of statistics does little to assist those who are truly victims truly in need of assistance because resources are not properly utilized as a result. It only serves to fuel media sensationalism. The prominent use of the Internet in the sex industry is, in part, a consequence of anti-prostiution sentiment. It provides an environment for artifice and deceit, something that those who force individuals into selling sex rely on. While we must obviously do what is necessary to combat those who utilize the internet to force individuals into selling sex, we must also acknowledge that the media needs re-evaluate how they approach the issues arising from the sex industry.

–Caitlyn Garcia

Caitlyn Garcia is a student at William Paterson University, double-majoring in French language & literature and political science.

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