The United States faces a human trafficking crisis just as countries overseas do, said journalist Nicholas Kristof in a lecture Monday.
Kristof, a New York Times columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, visited campus Monday evening to give a talk about the realities of human trafficking around the world and his work fighting it.
“Ultimately, it felt to me that [human trafficking] really was a version of slavery,” Kristof said. “People to tend to think that that’s a hyperbole or an exaggeration. It’s not.”
Kristof was invited as the 2012 speaker for the annual Liz Carpenter Lectureship, which began in 1984 and invites prominent figures from around the globe to speak to both students and the general public. The Plan II Honors Program sponsored this year’s lecture at the Lady Bird Johnson Auditorium, which nearly 850 people attended. Kristof has been a columnist for the New York Times since 2001 after more than 15 years reporting for the paper. He has traveled extensively, covering a range of human rights topics.
Plan II invited him to speak at the event because of his relevant work in exposing human trafficking and human rights issues as a whole, said Phillip Dubov, alumni relations and development specialist for the Plan II Honors Program.
“The Liz Carpenter Lectureship is a very high-profile lecture series,” Dubov said. “Liz Carpenter was the secretary to Lady Bird Johnson, and she was a dynamic and interesting person. We’ve had a lot of interesting people over the years and we wanted to bring in someone who is very high-profile and current in the news.”
Kristof spoke about his experiences in east Asian brothels, particularly in Cambodia, and the types of injustice currently taking place overseas. He gained distinction in 2004 when he purchased two young Cambodian women in order to remove them from a brothel he visited in the border town of Poipet, he said.
“In a sense I was exploiting those girls for their stories, and so many other visitors were exploiting them,” Kristof said. “I knew I was telling their stories, and I didn’t want just to walk off and benefit myself with these columns and leave them to die of AIDS.”
Kristof said sex trafficking in the U.S. is also prevalent and laws are becoming more effective at reducing it. Police are beginning to target clients and pimps instead of prostitutes, a changing dynamic that is making positive advances in fighting human trafficking, he said.
Kristof said he feels a responsibility to raise awareness about trafficking in the U.S., as well as abroad, in order to help the public understand that the domestic market for human trafficking is just as prevalent as the market overseas. Pimps often use online trading sites such as backpage.com to advertise their women and girls, he said.
“It was surprising how much [Kristof] talked about the domestic side of [human trafficking],” said Emily Ling, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs alumna. “His mention of the fact that it was mostly American girls here and not foreign girls was really educational for me.”
Despite the amount of injustice Kristof has witnessed firsthand, he remains hopeful about the future and said he encourages education and raising awareness about the issue.
“I think that there’s a tendency to think that this is sad and hopeless,” Kristof said. “In reporting about this over the years since I first went to Cambodia, I have seen that raising awareness on this issue makes an enormous amount of difference.”
Matt Valentine, program coordinator for the Joynes Reading Room, said Kristof’s coverage of human trafficking has brought significant publicity to the issue of human rights both overseas and in the United States, and his work is valuable in educating those who would not ordinarily be exposed to information about the issue.
“It’s a difficult topic for people to read about, but people do read about it in Kristof’s column because he approaches it with a sort of realism, and also with optimism,” Valentine said. “I think he does envision an end to human trafficking. It’s a very responsible form of advocacy journalism.”