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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. 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.
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. 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. View all New York Times newsletters. 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. 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.