Reading between the sheets, the world of “Kristen” and Eliot Spitzer may seem relatively benign. She may have been abused as a child, and tangled with drugs and homelessness, but she was also a consenting adult who apparently kept half the cash that customers paid for her.

That’s a dangerously unrepresentative glimpse of prostitution in America. Those who work with street prostitutes say that what they see daily is pimps who control teenage girls with violence and threats — plus an emotional bond — and then keep every penny the girl is paid.

“Sometimes I meet a girl who says, ‘I have a really good pimp — he beats me only with an open hand,’ ” said Rachel Lloyd, a former prostitute who runs a program for underage prostitutes in New York City. “Many of the girls see the pimps as boyfriends, but violence is integral to everything that happens in the sex industry. That’s how you get punished for not bringing in your quota for that evening, or for looking your pimp in the eye.”

Bradley Myles, who works in Washington for an antitrafficking organization called Polaris Project, says it is astonishing how similar the business model is for pimping across the country. Pimps crush runaway girls with a mix of violence and affection, degradation and gifts, and then require absolute obedience to a rigid code: the girl cannot look the pimp in the eye, call him by his name, or keep any cash.

Every evening she must earn a quota of money before she can sleep. She may be required to tattoo the pimp’s name on her thigh. And in exchange he may make presents of clothing or jewelry.

It’s complicated: What keeps her isn’t just fear, but also often an emotional connection.

“When somebody wields power over you to kill you and doesn’t, you feel this bizarre thankfulness,” Mr. Myles said. “It’s trauma bonding.”

When a middle-class white girl ends up controlled like this — think of Elizabeth Smart, the Utah girl who was kidnapped in 2002 and apparently did not try to escape — then everybody is outraged at the way the kidnapper manipulated her. But when the girls are black, poor and prostituted, there is either indifference or an assumption that they are consenting to the abuse.

“It’s about race and class,” said Ms. Lloyd, who is bewildered when she sees Amber alerts for abducted children. Last year she worked with 250 teenage girls who had been prostituted, and not one of them ever merited an Amber alert.

“If we served 250 white girls from upstate middle-class homes, we’d be rolling in money,” she added, “and we’d be changing the law.”

Changing the law is on the agenda. The House of Representatives passed a landmark bill in December, by a vote of 405 to 2, that would make the federal authorities much more involved in cracking down on pimps and trafficking.

But the Justice Department is fighting the House bill, and Senator Joe Biden, who is chairman of a crucial subcommittee, has dawdled on it. A broad coalition of antitrafficking leaders from left and right sent the Justice Department a furious letter scolding it for being soft on pimps.

That may be the only letter in history signed by both Gary Bauer and Gloria Steinem, by executives of the National Organization for Women and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Of the 100,000 prostitution-related arrests each year, the great majority of them are of women and girls; pimps and johns are much less likely to be arrested.

All those girls will never get a tiny fraction of the attention of the Elizabeth Smarts or Natalee Holloways, who fill the cable television niche for a “missing blonde” story. So let’s not let “Kristen” displace the broader reality.

Sure, there are young women who voluntarily sell sex; some of them have posted lately on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the police should devote resources to such cases.

With prostitution as with narcotics, no legal model has worked perfectly. I’ve argued that the approach with the best record is the Swedish model — decriminalizing the sale of sex, while making it an offense to pimp or to buy sex.

But whatever one thinks of legalizing prostitution, let’s face reality: The big problem out there is the teenage girls who are battered by their pimps, who will have to meet their quotas tonight and every night, who are locked in car trunks or in basements, who have guns shoved in their mouths if they hint of quitting. If the Spitzer affair causes us to lose sight of that, then the biggest loser will be those innumerable girls, far more typical than “Kristen,” for whom selling sex isn’t a choice but a nightmare.

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF (Columnist New York Times, March 16, 2008)
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 Biography of  Nicholas D. Kristof
Nicholas D. Kristof writes op-ed columns that appear twice each week in The New York Times. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, he previously was associate managing editor of The Times, responsible for the Sunday Times.

Mr. Kristof grew up on a sheep and cherry farm near Yamhill, Oregon. He graduated from Harvard College and then studied law at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship.

He later studied Arabic in Cairo and Chinese in Taipei. After working in France, he caught the travel bug and began backpacking around Africa and Asia, writing articles to cover his expenses. Mr. Kristof has lived on four continents, reported on six, and traveled to 120 countries, plus all 50 states, every Chinese province and every main Japanese island.

He’s also one of the very few Americans to be at least a two-time visitor to every member of the Axis of Evil. During his travels, he has had unpleasant experiences with wars, malaria, mobs carrying heads on pikes, and an African airplane crash.

After joining The New York Times in 1984, initially covering economics, he served as a Times correspondent in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo. In 2000, he covered the presidential campaign and in particular Governor Bush, and he is the author of the chapter on Mr. Bush in the reference book “The Presidents.”

In 1990 Mr. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, also a Times journalist, won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy movement. They were the first married couple to win a Pulitzer for journalism.

Mr. Kristof won a second Pulitzer in 2006, for commentary for what the judges called “his graphic, deeply reported columns that, at personal risk, focused attention on genocide in Darfur and that gave voice to the voiceless in other parts of the world.”

He has also won other prizes including the George Polk Award, the Overseas Press Club award, the Michael Kelly award, the Online News Association award and the American Society of Newspaper Editors award. Mr. Kristof has taken a special interest in Web journalism and was the first blogger on The New York Times Web site.

In his column, Mr. Kristof was an early opponent of the Iraq war (see: The Day After, Sept. 24, 2002; The Stones of Baghdad, Oct. 4, 2002; and Revolving-Door Monsters, Oct. 11, 2002), and among the first to warn that we were losing ground to the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. His columns have often focused on global health, poverty and gender issues in the developing world. In particular, since 2004 he has written dozens of columns about Darfur and visited the area eight times.

Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn are authors of “China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power” and “Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia.” Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn are the parents of Gregory, Geoffrey and Caroline. Mr. Kristof enjoys running, backpacking, and having his Chinese and Japanese corrected by his children.