RESEARCH paper, essay, study, report project, sex tourism, fact sheet in Denver, Colorado, Colorado Springs, Boulder, CO, Fort Collins, Pueblo, Grand Junction, Aspen, Front Range, Rocky Mountains, West, United States of America, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago on Sex Trafficking, Human Trafficking, Sex Slavery, Prostitution FACTS
New research demolishes the stereotype of the underage sex worker—and sparks an outbreak of denial among child-sex-trafficking alarmists nationwide
By Kristen Hinman
River Front Times
published: November 02, 2011
The typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery and is not held captive by a pimp. Nearly all the boys and girls involved in the city’s sex trade are going it alone.
Life is life, and you gotta do what you gotta do. It’s like everybody can’t be a doctor, a teacher, or have rich parents take care of us. And it’s gonna teach us, like—when we get older, we’re gonna be stronger, ’cause we know life experience and stuff like that. And we’re goin’ to know what to do in certain situations because of what we’ve been through when we were younger. You gotta do what you gotta do to survive. — female, age 16
The first night Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank went looking for child prostitutes in the Bronx back in the summer of 2006, they arrived at Hunts Point with the windows of Curtis’s peeling Oldsmobile, circa 1992, rolled down.
Curtis, who chairs the anthropology department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, had done research on the neighborhood’s junkies and was well acquainted with its reputation for prostitution (immortalized in several HBO documentaries). If the borough had a centralized stroll for hookers, he figured Hunts Point would be it.
But after spending several hours sweating in the muggy August air, the professor and his PhD student decided to head home. They’d found a grand total of three hookers. Only two were underage, and all three were skittish about climbing into a car with two strangers and a tape recorder.
Dispirited though they might have been, the researchers had no intention of throwing in the towel. They were determined to achieve their goal: to conduct a census of New York City’s child sex workers.
Even before they’d begun gearing up for the project two months prior, Curtis and Dank knew the magnitude of the challenge they had on their hands.
No research team before them had hit on a workable method of quantifying this elusive population. For decades, most law-enforcement officials, social workers, and activist groups had cited a vast range—anywhere from tens of thousands to three million—when crafting a sound bite pegging the population of underage hookers nationwide. But the range had been calculated with little or no direct input from the children themselves.
Over time, the dubious numbers became gospel.
In similar fashion, monetary outlays based on the veracity of those numbers began to multiply.
The $500,000 the federal government had allotted for this joint study by John Jay and New York’s public-private Center for Court Innovation was chump change compared to the bounty amassed by a burgeoning assortment of nonprofit groups jockeying to liberate and rehabilitate the captive legions of exploited and abused children.
Now Ric Curtis intended to go the direct route in determining how many kids were out there hooking: He and Dank were going to locate them, make contact with them, and interview them one-on-one, one kid at a time. If they could round up and debrief 200 youths, the research team would be able to employ a set of statistically solid metrics to accurately extrapolate the total population.
It took two years of sleuthing, surveying, and data-crunching, but in 2008, Curtis and Dank gave the feds their money’s worth—and then some.
The results of the John Jay survey shattered the widely accepted stereotype of a child prostitute: a pre- or barely teenage girl whose every move was dictated by the wiliest of pimps.
After their first attempt flopped, the two researchers switched tacks. They printed a batch of coupons that could be redeemed for cash and which listed a toll-free number that kids could call anonymously to volunteer for the survey. With a local nonprofit agency that specialized in at-risk youth on board to distribute an initial set of the coupons, the researchers forwarded the 1-800 line to Dank’s cell phone and waited.
It took almost a week, but the line finally lit up. Soon afterward, Dank met her first two subjects—one male, the other female—at a café near Union Square. Both were too old to qualify for the study, and the man said he’d never engaged in sex for pay. But Dank decided to stay and interview them.
The woman said she had worked as a prostitute and that she was confident she could send underage kids Dank’s way. The man said he was 23, just out of jail and homeless.
“Out of the two of them, I thought she would have been the catalyst,” Dank says now. “But his was the magic coupon.”
Within a day, her phone was “blowing up” with calls from kids who’d been referred by the homeless man. Almost as quickly, word got around that two professors were holding late-afternoon “office hours” at Stuyvesant Park and would pay half the going rate for oral sex in exchange for a brief interview. Before long, the researchers found themselves working long past dark, until they’d covered everyone in line or the rats got too feisty.
Nine months later, Dank and Curtis had far surpassed their goal, completing interviews with 249 underage prostitutes. From that data, they were able to put a number on the total population of New York’s teen sex workers: 3,946.
Most astonishing to the researchers was the demographic profile teased out by the study. Published by the U.S. Department of Justice in September 2008, Curtis and Dank’s findings thoroughly obliterated the long-held core assumptions about underage prostitution:
• Nearly half of the kids—about 45 percent—were boys.
• Only 10 percent were involved with a “market facilitator” (e.g., a pimp).
• About 45 percent got into the “business” through friends.
• More than 90 percent were U.S.-born (56 percent were New York City natives).
• On average, they started hooking at age 15.
• Most serviced men—preferably white and wealthy.
• Most deals were struck on the street.
• Almost 70 percent of the kids said they’d sought assistance at a youth-service agency at least once.
• Nearly all of the youths—95 percent—said they exchanged sex for money because it was the surest way to support themselves.
In other words, the typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery, and is not held captive by a pimp.
Nearly all the boys and girls involved in the city’s sex trade are going it alone.
Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank were amazed by what their research had revealed. But they were completely unprepared for the way law-enforcement officials and child-advocacy groups reacted to John Jay’s groundbreaking study.
“I remember going to a meeting in Manhattan where they had a lot of prosecutors there whose job was to prosecute pimps,” Curtis recalls. “They were sort of complaining about the fact that their offices were very well staffed but their workload was—not very daunting, let’s say. They had a couple cases, and at every meeting you go to, they’d pull out the cherry-picked case of this pimp they had busted, and they’d tell the same story at every meeting. They too were bothered by the fact that they couldn’t find any pimps, any girls.
“So I come along and say, ‘I found 300 kids’—they’re all perky—but then I say, ‘I’m sorry, but only 10 percent had pimps.’
“It was like a fart in church. Because basically I was saying their office was a waste of time and money.”
Jay Albanese, a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who headed up the Justice Department’s research arm for four years, says the findings of the John Jay study are among the most interesting he has seen.
“Whether you are a kid or an adult, the issue becomes: To what extent is this voluntary?” Albanese says. “Because you make more money in this than being a secretary? Or because you really have no choices—like, you’re running from abuse or caught up in drugs? The question becomes: If Curtis is correct, what do we do with that 90 percent? Do we ignore it? How hard do we look at how they got into that circumstance? You could make the case that for the 90 percent for whom they couldn’t find any pimping going on—well, how does it happen?
“It’s a very valid question,” Albanese continues. “A policy question: To what extent should the public and the public’s money be devoted to these issues, whether it’s child prostitution or child pimping?”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is the only agency that keeps track of how many children the legal system rescues from pimps nationwide. The count, which began in June 2003, now exceeds 1,600 as of April of this year, according to the FBI’s Innocence Lost website [http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/vc_majorthefts/cac/innocencelost]—an average of about 200 each year.
Through interviews and analysis of public records, Village Voice Media has found that the federal government spends about $20 million a year on public awareness, victims’ services, and police work related to domestic human trafficking, with a considerable focus on combating the pimping of children. An additional $50 million-plus is spent annually on youth homeless shelters, and since 1996, taxpayers have contributed a total of $186 million to fund a separate program that provides street outreach to kids who might be at risk of commercial sexual exploitation.
That’s at least $80 million doled out annually for law enforcement and social services that combine to rescue approximately 200 child prostitutes every year.
These agencies might improve upon their $400,000-per-rescued-child average if they joined in the effort to develop a clearer picture of the population they aim to aid. But there’s no incentive for them to do so when they stand to rake in even more public money simply by staying the course.
At the behest of advocates who work with pimped girls, along with a scattering of U.S. celebrities who help to publicize the cause, the bipartisan Senate tag team of Oregon’s Ron Wyden, a Democrat, and John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican, is pushing for federal legislation that would earmark another $12 million to $15 million a year to fund six shelters reserved exclusively for underage victims of sex trafficking. (In an editorial published this past July, Village Voice Media expressed its support for the initiative, now folded into the pending Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.)
Although the language of the bill is gender-neutral, some advocates point to the disproportionate influence wielded by groups who direct their efforts exclusively at pimped girls. They worry that anti-sex-trafficking funding might increasingly ignore boys and transgender youths, not to mention kids of any gender who aren’t enslaved by a pimp but sell sex on their own volition.
Jennifer Dreher, who heads the anti-trafficking program at Safe Horizon, a New York nonprofit whose Streetwork Project has targeted juvenile prostitutes and homeless youths since 1984, says if federal lawmakers took the time to read the John Jay report, they would better grasp the complexity of the issue.
“We have been seeing and talking about this population for so long, but that kind of tug-at-your-heartstrings narrative was the only one focused on,” Dreher says, referring to the stereotype of the pimped little girl.
Certainly those girls are out there, Dreher says, and they’re in need of help and compassion. But they’re only a small segment of the underage population commercially exploited for sex. If you want to eradicate the scourge, argues Dreher, “Then you have to recognize the 90 percent of other types of people that this John Jay College study found.”
Ric Curtis couldn’t agree more. “All of the advocates are focused on girls,” he fumes. “I’m totally outraged by that—I can’t tell you how angry I am about that. The most victimized kids that I met with were the boys, especially the straight boys. I felt so bad for those who have no chance with the advocates.”
More than three years after publishing his study, the researcher still smarts from the cold shoulder that greeted his work.
“[Initially] there were a lot of people enthusiastic in Washington that we found such a large number,” he recounts. “Then they look more closely at my findings. And they see, well, it wasn’t 300 kids under the yoke of some pimp, in fact, it was half boys, and only 10 percent of all of the kids were being pimped. And [then] it was a very different reception.”
Dank, who now researches human trafficking and commercial sex at the nonpartisan Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., is equally baffled at the study’s lack of traction outside the halls of the Justice Department.
“We’re not denying that [pimped girls] exist,” she emphasizes. “But if you were to take all the newspaper, magazine, and journal articles that have been written on this, you’d come away saying, ‘Oh, my God! Every child-prostitution incident involves a pimp situation!’ It’s this huge thing. Where really, at the end of the day, yes, that is an issue, but we’re at the point where we need to look beyond this one subgroup of the population and look at commercial sexual exploitation of children as a whole.”
About a year after the John Jay study commenced, the Justice Department set its sights on Atlanta and awarded a $452,000 grant to Mary Finn, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University. Finn’s 2007 study had two goals: first, to calculate the population of the metro area’s underage sex workers. And second, to evaluate the work of an assemblage of government agencies and nonprofits that had joined forces to combat child prostitution.
The coalition Finn was to assess had formed several years prior with $1 million in Justice Department funding. Heading it up: the Juvenile Justice Fund, a child-advocacy agency allied with the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, and the Harold and Kayrita Anderson Family Foundation. The trio of nonprofits had commissioned a child-prostitution survey whose alarming findings were destined to be regurgitated nationwide by an unquestioning media—and whose methodology, in turn, would be exposed as entirely bogus and discounted by a veritable who’s who of child-prostitution researchers.
To kick off the project, Finn arranged a meeting with representatives of the collaborative and invited Curtis along to help break the ice. It seemed like a good idea: Curtis had accrued a wealth of experience thanks to his one-year head start, and the researchers would ultimately share their findings in a final report. But what was intended as an exercise in diplomacy quickly devolved into a debacle.
The get-together began to unravel when Finn explained that the Justice Department’s guidelines required her team to gather its data without regard to gender or motive—in other words, that they would be calculating the prevalence of commercial sex among both boys and girls and that both trafficking and so-called survival sex were fair game.
At that point, Finn recounts, a Juvenile Justice Fund board member angrily objected, insisting that no child would engage in prostitution by choice. Throughout the debate that ensued, not a single representative from the Atlanta advocates’ contingent uttered a syllable of support for Finn’s approach.
Curtis stepped in, noting that Finn’s methodology made sense in light of his preliminary findings.
The group wasn’t having any of it.
“The members of the collaborative felt the data couldn’t be accurate—that maybe that’s the case in New York, but it’s certainly not how it is here in Atlanta,” Finn recalls. “That’s when I sensed that they had far more invested—that there was a reason to be so standoffish, to resist so aggressively or assertively, that I wasn’t privy to. What was clear to me was the silence of everyone else: There was some issue of control and power.”
To this day, Finn says, she’s not sure what was behind the hostile reception. But she does provide some compelling historical context.
Back in the late 1990s, she explains, Atlanta women had galvanized to prevent child prostitution. One juvenile-court judge in particular provided a catalyst when she instituted a screening process in her courtroom that was aimed at identifying kids who were engaging in prostitution.
The only children who were questioned about sex work were girls. Boys were never screened.
“The problem was very narrowly defined from the outset,” says Finn.
“I’m a feminist scholar,” she goes on. “I understand the importance of these advocates—who are predominantly women, predominantly concerned about the plight of girls—wanting to retain that focus on that issue. But as a researcher, knowing that this is labeled as ‘child exploitation,’ and knowing that there are numbers in other cities showing boys are being victimized, I had to argue that this was maybe a small but significant population we had to look at.”
Finn soon found herself facing a dilemma on the research front as well.
When Curtis and Dank put out the call for underage sex workers in New York, they were confident they’d be able to find space in an emergency shelter if they encountered an interview subject who appeared to be in immediate peril. Atlanta, on the other hand, was equipped with no emergency shelters for homeless youths. In the absence of any such backstop, Finn concluded, it would be unethical to go hunting for kids to interview.
So she went with Plan B: interviewing law-enforcement agents and social workers; examining arrest records; and mining a countywide database of child-sexual-abuse cases.
Despite the less-than-satisfactory secondary-source approach, Finn figured she’d have plenty of data to mine. After all, she’d seen breathless media reports of trafficking in Atlanta. “The overall market for sex with kids is booming in many parts of the U.S. In Atlanta—a thriving hotel and convention center with a sophisticated airport and ground transportation network—pimps and other lowlifes have tapped into that market bigtime,” blared a 2006 New York Times story.
“I walked in thinking: This is going to be a huge priority for any agency that is dealing with at-risk youth. I mean, goodness, this must be at the top of their agenda for training, protocol—all of it.”
On the contrary, Finn found that most organizations, whether nonprofit or government run, were not systematically documenting cases of child prostitution. Apart from 31 juvenile arrests police had made over a four-year period, there were virtually no numbers for her to compile.
“It was almost like nobody wants to document their existence,” Finn says. “Whether it’s because they don’t want to label the youth, or they don’t want other agencies to know they’re aware of them because then the call comes—‘Well, what are you doing about it?’—I just don’t know. It was very odd. The environment we were seeing in the media just looked so different from the environment we walked into.”
In September 2008, just as Finn was preparing a summary of her scant findings, the Juvenile Justice Fund announced an ongoing statewide study based on “scientific probability methods,” whose results to date pointed to “a significant number of adolescent girls being commercially sexually exploited in Georgia, likely ranging from 200 to 300 girls, on the streets, over the Internet, through escort services, and in major hotels every month from August 2007 to May 2008.”
Published in 2010, the final report was nearly as ambiguous, though there were more—and even bigger—numbers. According to the Justice Fund’s “scientific research study,” underwritten with money from the Anderson Family Foundation, each month in Georgia, 7,200 men pay underage girls for 8,700 sex acts, “with an average of 300 acts a day.” The report’s authors updated their 2008 stat, increasing their underage-hooker count to 400.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution trumpeted the report’s findings under the headline “City’s shame remains; despite crackdowns, Atlanta is still a hub in selling children for sex.”
The Journal-Constitution did not, however, inform its readers that the “scientific study” was undertaken not by researchers adhering to rigid academic standards, but by the Schapiro Group, an Atlanta public relations firm hired by the Justice Fund.
Despite the claims to the contrary, there was nothing remotely “scientific” about the research. In order to gauge the number of men who pay for sex with underage girls, the PR firm observed activity at major hotels and on streets thought to be frequented by sex workers. Staffers also called escort services, posing as customers, to inquire into the possibility of hookups with adolescent girls. And they created online ads featuring photos of young-looking females and inviting prospective customers to call a phone number—a line answered by PR firm “operators” posing as pimps and madams. (For more about the Schapiro Group’s dubious methods, see “Weird Science,” written by Nick Pinto and published in the March 24 issue of Village Voice Media’s newsweeklies. [citypages.com/2011-03-23/news/women-s-funding-network-sex-trafficking-study-is-junk-science])
Mary Finn is troubled by the murky provenance of the statistics, but more so by the time and effort wasted on sensationalizing a problem instead of addressing it.
“This shouldn’t be a race to the top,” she contends. “We should be mobilized for a single victimization. Why do we need 300, or 500, or 1,000 to mobilize as a community?
“I guess that’s what is most disheartening about the [dubious] numerical information that’s coming out: We may not be putting resources where we need to put them because we don’t have a clear grasp of what the underlying problem is.”
Anyone curious about the underlying problem in New York City can find numerous clues within the 122-page report documenting the several hundred in-person interviews at the core of the John Jay College study.
There are, for instance, the state-run group homes for orphans and kids whose families have kicked them out:
“. . . [H]e was like, you know, the little leeches that linger around,” said a girl who told of being picked up by a pimp outside the group home where she resided at age 15. “And I was sittin’ on my steps, and I was cryin’ because they’re givin’ you allowance—20 sumpin’ dollars a week—and then you’re not allowed to do certain types a jobs because you have a curfew. And if you miss curfew, they shippin’ you somewhere else. So it was like, I was just at my rope’s end. And the things that he was sayin’ to me, it sounded good.”
And the potential pitfalls of the foster-care system:
“My mother died, and I was placed in foster homes,” said a girl who started hooking at age 15. “My foster father would touch me, and I ran away. I ended up coming to New York, and I was on the streets; nobody wanted to help me. And I ran into this girl, and she was like 38 when she passed away last year, but she taught me everything I know. She taught me how to do what I have to do—but not be stupid about it—to play it right and be smart.”
Not to mention youth homeless shelters:
“I’ve been raped at Covenant House three times,” one young man stated. “It was by guys in the men’s ward.” (The three other youths interviewed for the study who spoke specifically about the New York–based nonprofit, whose mission is to care for kids in crisis, made no mention of sexual assault; they described the shelter as a place where kids shared knowledge about how to sell sex and/or characterized it as a popular place for pimps looking to recruit.)
One recurring theme is economic desperation:
“The fact that people think that I’m doing it because I want to—I mean, I get replies all the time on e-mail, and they tell me, ‘You know, why don’t you just get a job?’” reported a boy with three years’ experience selling sex. “Well no shit, Sherlock! Honestly! I don’t know, I would like someone to be able to offer me something.”
Law-enforcement personnel, the kids say, are not always helpful:
“One cop said, ‘You’re lucky I’m off duty, but you’re gonna suck my dick, or I’ma take you in,’” a transgender youth stated. “This has happened to me about eight times.”
“Police raped me a couple a times in Queens,” said a female who had worked as a prostitute for four years. “The last time that happened was a coupla months ago. But you don’t tell anybody; you just deal wit’ it.”
Although many kids said they developed buddy-system strategies to stay safe and fed on the street, nearly all wanted a way out:
“I really wanna stop now, but I can’t ’cause I have no source of income since I’m too young,” said a girl who’d begun hooking at age 12. “So it’s like that I have to do it; it’s not like I wanna do it. As I say, I’m only 17, I got a two-year-old daughter, so that means I got pregnant real young. Didn’t have no type of Medicaid. . . . Can’t get a job, have no legal guardian, I don’t have nobody to help me but [friends], so you know, we all in this together.”
In late 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice called on the Center for Court Innovation and John Jay professor Ric Curtis to expand their research to other cities nationwide, backing the project with a $1.275 million federal grant. Now Curtis and Jennifer Bryan, the center’s principal research associate, direct six research teams across the U.S., employing the same in-the-trenches approach that worked in New York City: respondent-driven sampling, or RDS.
The method was developed in the 1990s by sociologist Doug Heckathorn, now on the faculty at Cornell University, who was seeking a way to count hidden populations. It has since been used in 15 countries to put a number on a variety of subcultures, from drug addicts to jazz musicians. Curtis and his research assistant, Meredith Dank, were the first to use RDS to count child prostitutes.
For the John Jay study, Curtis and Dank screened kids for two criteria: age (18 and under) and involvement in prostitution. All subjects who completed the study’s full, confidential interview were paid $20. They were also given a stack of coded coupons to distribute to other potential subjects, and for each successful referral, they were paid $10. And so on.
RDS relies on a snowball effect that ultimately extends through numerous social networks, broadening the reach of the study. “The benefit of this is that you’re getting the hidden population: kids who don’t necessarily show up for [social] services and who may or may not get arrested,” says Bryan. “It’s based on the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory.”
To calculate their population estimate, the John Jay team first culled the interview subjects who didn’t fit the study’s criteria but had been included for the potential referrals they could generate. The next step was to tally the number of times the remaining 249 subjects had been arrested for prostitution and compare that to the total number of juvenile prostitution arrests in state law-enforcement records. Using a mathematical algorithm often employed in biological and social-science studies, Ric Curtis and his crew were able to estimate that 3,946 youths were hooking in New York.
David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, calls the New York study significant, in that it “makes the big [national] numbers that people put out—like a million kids, or 500,000 kids—unlikely.”
Finkelhor’s single caveat: While RDS is efficient in circulating through a broad range of social networks, certain scenarios might elude detection—specifically, foreign children who might be held captive and forbidden to socialize.
Still, says Finkelhor, “I think [the study] highlights important components of the problem that don’t get as much attention: that there are males involved and that there are a considerable number of kids who are operating without pimps.”
The John Jay study’s authors say they were surprised from the start at the number of boys who came forward. In response, Dank pursued new avenues of inquiry—visiting courthouses to interview girls who’d been arrested and canvassing at night with a group whose specialty was street outreach to pimped girls. She and Curtis also pressed their male subjects for leads.
“It turns out that the boys were the more effective recruiter of pimped girls than anybody else,” Curtis says. “It’s interesting, because this myth that the pimps have such tight control over the girls, that no one can talk to them, is destroyed by the fact that these boys can talk to them and recruit them and bring them to us. Obviously the pimps couldn’t have that much of a stranglehold on them.”
The same, of course, might be true of the elusive foreign-born contingent Finkelhor mentions.
Curtis and Dank believe there is indeed a foreign subpopulation RDS could not reach. But with no data to draw on, it’s impossible to gauge whether it’s statistically significant or yet another overblown stereotype.
And as the researchers point out, the John Jay study demolished virtually every other stereotype surrounding the underage sex trade.
For the national study, researchers are now hunting for underage hookers in Las Vegas, Dallas, Miami, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area, and interviews for an Atlantic City survey are complete.
Curtis is reluctant to divulge any findings while so much work remains to be done, but he does say early returns suggest that the scarcity of pimps revealed by the New York study appears not to be an anomaly.
A final report on the current research is scheduled for completion in mid 2012.
“I think that the study has a chance to dispel some of the myths and a lot of the raw emotion that is out there,” says Marcus Martin, the PhD who’s leading the Dallas research crew. “At the end of the day, I think the study is going to help the kids, as well as tell their story.”
At the end of the day, if the work Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank began in New York is indeed going to help the kids, it will do so because it tells their story. And because it addresses the most difficult—and probably the most important—question of all: What drives young kids into the sex trade?
Dallas Police Department Sergeant Byron Fassett, whose police work with underage female prostitutes is hailed by child advocates and government officials including Senator Wyden, believes hooking is “a symptom of another problem that can take many forms. It can be poverty, sexual abuse, mental abuse—there’s a whole range of things you can find in there.
“Generally we find physical and sexual abuse or drug abuse when the child was young,” Fassett continues. “These children are traumatized. People who are involved in this are trauma-stricken. They’ve had something happen to them. The slang would be that they were ‘broken.’”
Fassett has drawn attention because of his targeted approach to rescuing (rather than arresting) prostitutes and helping them gain access to social services. The sergeant says that because the root causes of youth prostitution can be so daunting to address from a social-policy standpoint, it’s easy—and politically expedient—to sweep them under the proverbial rug.
And then there are the John Jay researchers’ groundbreaking findings. Although the study could not possibly produce thorough psychological evaluations and case histories, subjects were asked the question: “How did you get into this?” Their candid answers revealed a range of motives and means:
• “I can’t get a job that would pay better than this.”
• “I like the freedom this lifestyle affords me.”
• “My friend was making a lot of money doing it and introduced me to it.”
• “I want money to buy a new cell phone.”
Although the context is a different one, Dank and Curtis have, not unlike Byron Fassett, come to learn that their survey subjects’ responses carry implications that are both daunting to address and tempting to deny or ignore.
For example, the John Jay study found that when asked what it would take to get them to give up prostitution, many kids expressed a desire for stable, long-term housing. But the widely accepted current social-service model—shelters that accommodate, at most, a 90-day stay—doesn’t give youths enough time to get on their feet and instead pushes them back to the streets. The findings also point to a general need for more emphasis on targeted outreach, perhaps through peer-to-peer networks, as well as services of all kinds, from job training and placement to psychological therapy.
Regarding that last area of treatment, Curtis believes that kids who have made their own conscious decision to prostitute themselves might need more long-term help than those who are forced into the trade by someone else.
“Imagine if you take a kid off the street and put them in therapy,” he says. “Which do you think is easier to deal with: the kid who’s been enslaved by another human being or the one who’s been enslaved by him- or herself—who only have themselves to blame? In my view, healing those kids is a steeper hill than the one who can point to somebody and say, ‘He did that to me, I’m not that kind of person,’ and who can deflect the blame.”
Which raises the question: Who’s willing to pay the freight to guide kids up that hill?
Real Men Get Their Facts Straight
Ashton and Demi and Sex Trafficking
By Martin Cizmar, Ellis Conklin, Kristen Hinman
published: June 29, 2011
“It’s between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today,” Ashton Kutcher told CNN’s Piers Morgan on April 18. That, says Kutcher, is how many kids are lost to prostitution in America every single year. “If you don’t do something to stop that, that’s when there is something wrong with you, in my opinion.”
“We want to make a difference with this,” chimed in Kutcher’s wife, Demi Moore. “We don’t want to just come and talk about it. We want to actually see a change, and that’s not going to come by us just, you know, jumping in and doing a little bit and coming and talking.”
In order to “make a difference,” Kutcher and Moore recently launched a series of public service announcements under the banner “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls.” In the spots, Kutcher plays a scruffy doofus who’d rather toss out his smelly socks and put on a pair fresh from the package than do a load of laundry. “Real men do their own laundry,” an off-camera voice booms. “Real men don’t buy girls.”
The message is somewhat bewildering, given the lack of context, but there are more like it, all part of a campaign featuring celebrities Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, and Jason Mraz doing cartoonishly manly things, such as trying to shave with a chainsaw and find a car while blindfolded in a parking lot.
Along with his wife, Kutcher, the titular dude of Dude, Where’s My Car?, has become the public face of an effort to stop underage trafficking since leavingThat ’70s Show and Punk’d.
The PSAs have made some observers scratch their heads and others guffaw. Ostensibly about an intense issue—childhood sex slavery—the videos reek of frat-boy humor.
“Is it just me or is there, like, no connection whatsoever between Sean Penn making a grilled cheese with an iron (manly!) and the horrific situation of someone paying for an enslaved 7-year-old to give them a blowjob?” wrote a blogger on TheStir.com.
A blogger for Big Hollywood suggested viewers “sit back and take in a full year’s supply of empty-headed, self-important Hollywood narcissism.”
But the point isn’t that the PSAs are fatuous and silly.
The real issue is that no one has called out Kutcher and Moore for their underlying thesis.
There are not 100,000 to 300,000 children in America turning to prostitution every year. The statistic was hatched without regard to science. It is a bogeyman.
But well-intentioned Hollywood celebrities aren’t the only ones pushing this particular hot button.
The underage-prostitution panic has been fueled by a scientific study that was anything but scientific.
The thinly veiled fraud behind the shocking “100,000 to 300,000 child prostitutes” estimate has never been questioned.
The figure has echoed across America, from the halls of Congress to your morning newspaper, from blogs both liberal and conservative. Google it and you’ll get 80 pages of results.
Last month, the New York Times breathlessly confided, “An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 American-born children are sold for sex each year.”
The Gray Lady was not breaking new ground.
• USA Today: “Each year, 100,000 to 300,000 American kids, some as young as 12…”
• CNN: “There’s between 100,000 to 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States…”
• Media Bistro: “There are an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 victims of child prostitution…”
• Salon: “Roughly 100,000 to 300,000 American children are prostituted each year…”
• Family Court Chronicles: “Nationwide, 100,000 to 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation…”
• Wikipedia: “Anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation…”
• U.N. goodwill ambassador Julia Ormond: “100,000 to 300,000 potentially trafficked…”
• Press TV: “Child trafficking rampant in the U.S. An FBI bulletin shows that 100,000 to 300,000 American children…”
• Orphan Justice Center: “An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children in forced prostitution in the U.S….”
• C-SPAN: “Children in our country enslaved sexually…from 100,000 to 300,000…”
But a detailed review of police files across the nation tells another story.
Village Voice Media spent two months researching law enforcement data.
We examined arrests for juvenile prostitution in the nation’s 37 largest cities during a 10-year period.
To the extent that underage prostitution exists, it primarily exists in those large cities.
Law enforcement records show that there were only 8,263 arrests across America for child prostitution during the most recent decade.
That’s 827 arrests per year.
Some cities, such as Salt Lake City and Orlando, go an entire year without busting a child prostitute. Others, such as Las Vegas, arrest or recover 100 or so per year.
Compare 827 annually with the 100,000 to 300,000 per year touted in the propaganda.
The nation’s 37 largest cities do not give you every single underage arrest for hooking. Juveniles can go astray in rural Kansas.
But common sense prevails in the police data. As you move away from such major urban areas as Los Angeles, underage prostitution plunges.
When the local police data was shared with a leading figure in the struggle against underage prostitution, the research struck her as ringing true.
“The Seattle Police Department totally have a handle on the situation and understand the problem,” says Melinda Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare, which runs a live-in shelter for underage prostitutes in Seattle. “That seems to be a very accurate count and is reflective of what the data shows.”
It is true that police departments do not arrest every juvenile engaged in sex work. But, surely, they don’t ignore the problem.
So, if there are slightly more than 800 underage arrests a year, where did an estimate as horrible as several hundred thousand come from?
There are, quite simply, no precise numbers on child prostitution.
The “100,000 to 300,000” figure that people like Kutcher and Moore trumpet—the same number that’s found its way into dozens of reputable newspapers—came from two University of Pennsylvania professors, Richard J. Estes and Neil Alan Weiner.
But what no newspaper has bothered to explain—and what Moore and Kutcher certainly don’t mention—is that the figure actually represents the number of children Estes and Weiner considered “at risk” for sexual exploitation, not the number of children actually involved.
Furthermore, the authors of The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, released in 2001, admitted that their statistics are not authoritative.
“The numbers presented in these exhibits do not, therefore, reflect the actual number of cases in the United States but, rather, what we estimate to be the number of children ‘at risk’ of commercial sexual exploitation,” they wrote, underlining their words for emphasis.
Who, then, is at risk?
Not surprisingly, the professors find that any “outsider” is at risk.
All runaways are listed as being at risk.
Yet the federal government’s own research acknowledges that “most runaway/thrown-away youth were gone less than one week (77 percent)”—hardly enough time to take up prostitution—”and only 7 percent were away more than one month,” according to the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children 2002, commissioned by the Department of Justice.
According to Estes and Weiner, transgender kids and female gang members are also at risk.
So are kids who live near the Mexican or Canadian borders and have their own transportation. In the eyes of the professors, border residents are part of those 100,000 to 300,000 children at risk of becoming whores.
Interviewed for this story, Estes offers an explanation about the risk of living on the border that hardly wins points.
“All you have to do is go to San Diego and look at who fills the San Diego trolley going to Tijuana on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and it’s very, very obvious that the kids are on the way to Tijuana to make money, and they come back Sunday totally stocked,” he says. “They go there for cheap drugs, cheap money, cheap sex—[Tijuana’s] full of everything. And that’s using public transit, right to the border station.”
Rather than taking a trolley to engage in prostitution in a third-world city like Tijuana, isn’t it possible that kids from San Diego might simply want a cold Corona south of the border?
Such broad brushstrokes by professors have not endeared the study to such serious social scientists as David Finkelhor, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and director of Crimes Against Children Research Center. Finkelhor’s work is cited in the University of Pennsylvania study, and he helped review the report—not that he could’ve changed the direction of it.
“As far as I’m concerned, [the University of Pennsylvania study] has no scientific credibility to it,” he says. “That figure was in a report that was never really subjected to any kind of peer review. It wasn’t published in any scientific journal.”
Rigorous peer review, as is required for most scientific publishing, could have really helped the study, he says.
“Initially, [Estes and Weiner] claimed that [100,000 to 300,000] was the number of children [engaged in prostitution]. It took quite a bit of pressure to get them to add the qualifier [at risk],” he says.
Professor Steve Doig, Knight Chair of Journalism at Arizona State University, said the “study cannot be relied upon as authoritative.”
As for the supposed number of children being exploited as prostitutes, Doig says, “I do not see the evidence necessary to confirm that there are hundreds of thousands of them.”
Doig, who specializes in the analysis of quantitative methodology, was contracted by Village Voice Media to examine the science behind the Estes and Weiner study.
“Many of the numbers and assumptions in these charts are based on earlier, smaller-scale studies done by other researchers, studies which have their own methodological limitations. I won’t call it ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ But combining various approximations and guesstimates done under a variety of conditions doesn’t magically produce a solid number. The resulting number is no better than the fuzziest part of the equation.”
When asked directly, Estes gives an estimate that is much less dramatic.
How many kids are involved in sex slavery—forcibly taken into the trade and abused?
“That number would be small,” Estes acknowledges. “Kids who are kidnapped and sold into slavery—that number would be very small.”
When we talk about very small, what sort of number are we talking about?
“We’re talking about a few hundred people.”
Finkelhor says there’s no way to know for sure how many child prostitutes there are in America.
“All we have in the way of really hard evidence is what the police arrests are,” he says. “They’re way low. They’re certainly not an underestimate, but it seems to me that it’s incumbent on anyone who is writing about the problem to at least include that number on one end of the continuum, because that’s probably the most justifiable number you have.”
Ashton Kutcher owns one of the most-followed Twitter accounts in the world. His @aplusk handle famously beat CNN to a race to 1 million and never slowed down—he’s now at 7 million followers and counting. He is a technically literate, if ill-informed, advocate.
Kutcher made his bones playing the prankster, dummy, and stoner.
Yet he’s become so powerful that Piers Morgan, the British TV personality who replaced Larry King as CNN’s go-to interviewer, had Kutcher and Moore on his show in April to spread the gospel.
Morgan quickly acknowledged Kutcher and Moore’s Twitter throw weight, begging the couple to direct a few new followers toward him.
“It would be completely remiss of me to have two people who are the king and queen of Twitter to not selfishly use you for my own devices and get you to get my follower count up,” he says. “So, just a little favor for little old Piersy, with his half a million followers… If you could just look at the camera and tell your followers—your 10 million followers—to follow good old @PiersMorgan.”
The story of how Kutcher and Moore decided to use their star power to wage a battle against child prostitution helps illuminate how a social problem, of whatever magnitude, becomes a cause and how phony numbers take on the authority of folk wisdom.
The actors were watching TV in bed when they saw a horrifying documentary about sex slavery in some faraway foreign land and decided they needed to get involved.
But how to help?
Sex trafficking is a grim problem, and not one actors know a lot about—even if Moore played a stripper in a movie and has alluded to how she was “manipulated and taken advantage of” by a 28-year-old boyfriend when she was 15 years old.
So Kutcher and Moore did what any savvy Hollywood couple would do, which is call Trevor Neilson. Neilson isn’t a household name, but he’s quickly establishing his Santa Monica, California-based Global Philanthropy Group as the premier charity consultant to the entertainment industry’s biggest and brightest. Neilson is a former Hillary Clinton staffer and Gates Foundation director who has been the subject of glowing profiles in Details and the New York Times.
“The king of Hollywood philanthropy” and his wife and business partner, Maggie, can charge up to $200,000 a year for their services because they’re the best in a new and growing industry. The concept of a celebrity charity consultant is relatively new, but it makes sense, as Hollywood grows ever more concerned about image management. Neilson is the guy Madonna called to help her save face in the debacle surrounding her failed Malawi schools.
The Neilsons cooked up a 140-point “secret sauce” plan of attack for the Demi and Ashton Foundation (known as DNA). The Neilsons’ political connections got the Department of Homeland Security to cast Kutcher and Moore in training videos that teach cops how to spot trafficked sex slaves.
“We went through a significant research process through them,” Maggie Neilson says. “For Demi and Ashton, their strategy is actually pretty complex—there’s a lot of different parts to it—but one thing that became clear through it…was that there was no one working on the demand side, and that’s the side the data was showing more affectable.”
Enter the “Real Men” campaign. The humorous commercials are designed to dampen the supposed appetite for underage prostitutes by suggesting that real men do funny, manly things such as look for their cars in parking lots while blindfolded or play basketball on a broken ankle. “Fake” men presumably hire tot-stitutes.
But if you are a highly paid consultant, mustn’t you pair the juvenile humor with accurate numbers to maintain credibility instead of letting your clients regurgitate the outrageous “100,000 to 300,000” statistic?
Not an easy task, says Maggie Neilson, whose previous work was in the hot, hot, hot area of microfinance. Getting data about sex slavery was not easy, she says: “Versus most social issues I’ve worked on, there is actually a dearth of data—so it was absolutely cobbled together.”
Accuracy is not a major concern for Maggie Neilson.
“All of the core data we use gets attacked all the time,” she says. “The challenge is, it’s that or nothing, right? And I don’t frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000—it needs to be addressed. While I absolutely agree there’s a need for better data, the people who want to spend all day bitching about the methodologies used I’m not very interested in.”
Except the numbers Neilson fed her clients aren’t undercounts masking even more shocking damage. The very police agencies Kutcher and Moore are coaching in videotapes document that the actual number of underage victims detained by law enforcement is slightly more than 800 a year, not 200,000, 500,000, or a million.
Perhaps the numbers will grow after enough cops watch her clients’ video.
In the underage prostitute/trafficking industry, the Neilsons typify those who are not concerned with facts: They know what’s best (or at least what sells).
Former congresswoman Linda Smith—a witness at the Craigslist hearing—not only knows what’s best, but has it on the highest authority.
The devout Smith, who served two terms in Congress representing Washington State, is another major player in the sex-trafficking panic, having testified before Congress that the estimate of 100,000 underage sex slaves in the country is “conservative.”
Smith is the founder of a group called Shared Hope International, an organization that DNA promotes. She, in turn, promotes Kutcher and Moore.
Smith’s worries, however, are not limited to sex trafficking or underage prostitutes.
Instead, she focuses on root cause.
Her organization is committed to “counsel men on the dangers of engaging in the commercial sex markets, especially pornography.”
How far would Smith take such a moral crusade?
As a member of the State Senate in Washington, she sponsored a bill that would have made it illegal for underage kids to have sex with each other. The law was also intended to stop oral sex and “heavy petting,” and it would have included jail time and a fine for the guilty.
“We need to figure out if we can find a way to make it not OK to buy pornography, not OK to fuel that sex industry, because it’s fueling the victimization of the child used in pornography, of the woman in despair used in pornography,” Smith says in one of her own YouTube videos.
“Most of my girls that we rescued, all over, have talked about the pictures taken of them during the time. What do you think those pictures are being used for…the ordinary men who are sitting with you on the bus or the plane? It has to be—the demographics are so many. But then I realized the Devil is having our lunch, because they’re daddies, they’re granddaddies, they’re sons… God has given us great gifts, and the Devil is stealing that from us through this.”
Shared Hope has depended upon contributions from faith-based foundations and the federal government. In 2003 and 2004, Smith took in nearly $1 million in government grants.
In 2006, her organization received $987,228 to facilitate services for “domestic child-sex-trafficking victims.” In fiscal 2005, her group also got $1.9 million from the State Department for an international public-awareness campaign.
In 2000, she helped author the national Trafficking Victims Protection Act. In 2007, Smith authored, with State Department funding, “DEMAND,” an examination of commercial sexual exploitation in four countries, including the United States. In 2009, the Justice Department commissioned her to write “The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children.”
Linda Smith is a cog in a very expensive machine.
To put it in context, consider that from 2001 (the year of the University of Pennsylvania study) through 2004, Congress appropriated $280 million to fight sex trafficking overseas.
In 2005 and 2006, the federal government spent $50 million primarily to fund law enforcement task forces involving U.S. Attorneys, local police, FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents, and various nonprofits. The task forces were created to put an end to sex and labor trafficking in America. Today, there are more than 40 such task forces, from Boston to Anchorage, each typically funded with $450,000 for three-year terms.
In 2010, Congress disbursed over $21 million to nearly 100 groups—including municipalities and local law enforcement agencies—that are fighting sex and labor trafficking.
You never hear in the media from the majority of these folks. But others have clear religious or prohibitionist agendas: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ($4 million), World Relief Corporation of National Association of Evangelicals ($60,000), Polaris Project ($800,000), the Church United for Community Development ($150,000), and Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking ($250,000).
The Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces, also composed of local and federal law enforcement agencies, have investigated child pornography and prostitution cases since 1998. Generally, the units receive tens of millions of dollars annually. As part of the government stimulus package, Uncle Sam handed out $75 million to ICAC groups in 2009.
In the past eight years, Congress has spent $200 million on child pornography in America and another $180 million on all domestic trafficking involving sex or labor.
Ask the feds how many child-sex-trafficking cases they have prosecuted in all this time, however, and you’re hard-pressed to evaluate how far your tax dollars are going. The Department of Justice says it has no way of tabulating how many prosecutions end up in front of a judge.
As astonishing as that seems, the details are worse.
The latest report covers January 2008 to June 2010. Of the 45 Justice Department task forces in operation at that time, 42 reported at least one incident. But an “incident” is merely an allegation or suspicion that was investigated for at least one hour. And nothing more.
Of the 45 teams of DOJ lawyers, Homeland Security and FBI agents, and local law enforcement, only 18 of the task forces kept accurate paperwork.
Those 18 teams confirmed they’d identified 248 children involved in sex trafficking over the 30-month period.
In other words, with the full authority of federal law enforcement, 18 joint task forces were lucky to average eight kids a month—or 100 per year.
Give the 27 non-reporting task forces the benefit of the doubt. If they’d operated at the capacity of the functional 18, they would have added another 150 kids per year.
If all 45 task forces had had the same degree of success, they would, possibly, have located a total of 250 kids per year who were trafficked.
Not 100,000, and certainly not 300,000.
After millions upon millions of dollars, after years of raising awareness, after incalculable effort by religious, civic, and municipal workers, after focused attention from local and federal law enforcement: Why so few cases prosecuted and why so few children rescued?
Jay Albanese, a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, spent four years heading up the Department of Justice’s research division.
“There’s tons of estimates on human trafficking,” says Albanese. “They’re all crap… It’s all guesswork, speculation… The numbers are inherently unbelievable.
“[The latest report] shows 2,500 investigations were begun by the 42 human-trafficking task forces. But only 30 or 40 percent of those have been confirmed as trafficking cases, and only 300 or so are actual arrests. The point is, given the 42 investigative trafficking task forces—and these people have undergone training—the actual number of cases always seems to be just a fraction of these very high estimates.”
He adds, “I wonder if these people putting up these very high estimates are helping or hurting the cause.”
But those grandiose estimates are helping the advocates, like Linda Smith, who have their hands out for government funding or charitable contributions.
“Let’s face it: A study or a story saying several thousand young teens are being exploited in the sex trade has a lot less impact than one suggesting that several hundred thousand are ‘at risk,’ ” says ASU’s Doig. “Researchers, journalists, law enforcement, and politicians alike have incentives to focus on the much bigger number.”
Despite the tidal wave of cash going to nonprofits purporting to raise awareness and task forces hoping to prosecute (with little track record of success), someone’s been left out: the victims.
Whether the number is the 800-plus per year (as indicated by police records) or a higher, not yet documented, number, there is no question that teenagers who exchange cash for sex present a special challenge.
Seattle is one of the few places in the nation with a shelter devoted to underage prostitutes. Despite the obvious need, the city manages the program without federal funding.
“These children, as victims, need more trauma-recovery services,” says Melinda Giovengo, who, as executive director of Seattle’s YouthCare, administers the Bridge Program, a residential center for teen prostitutes.
“There is evidence that a dedicated residential recovery program, with wraparound mental health, chemical dependence, and educational and vocational services, provided by well-trained specialists, both on-site and in the community, can help young victims of commercial sexual exploitation in breaking free from the track.”
Although Congress has spent hundreds of millions in tax-generated money to fight human trafficking, it has yet to spend a penny to shelter and counsel those boys and girls in America who are, in fact, underage prostitutes.
In March of this year, 10 years after Estes and Weiner claimed that 100,000 to 300,000 children were at risk of becoming sex workers, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (a Democrat from Oregon) and John Cornyn (a Republican from Texas) introduced legislation to fund six shelters with $15 million in grants. The shelters would provide beds, counseling, clothing, case work, and legal services. If enacted, this legislation would be the first of its kind.
The bill has yet to clear the Senate or the House.
The lack of shelter and counseling for underage prostitutes—while prohibitionists take in millions in government funding—is only one indication of the worldwide campaign of hostility directed at working women.
In Canada, prostitution is legal.
But under Canadian law, working women are not allowed the safety of a brothel or a bodyguard or a check that would give their whereabouts (for matters of safety).
Prostitutes successfully sued last year seeking to overturn the portion of the law they believed threatened their safety.
Earlier this month, the government’s appeal of that ruling was heard.
The issue wasn’t the legality of prostitution, a given, but whether prostitutes could protect themselves by getting off the street or by hiring security.
As reported June 16 in the National Post: “Prostitution is immoral, argued Ranjan Agarwal, a lawyer representing the Christian Legal Fellowship, the Catholic Rights League, and REAL Women of Canada. But, asked Justice David Doherty, What if sex workers die as a result? Wouldn’t that be harm out of proportion from the intended good?
“No,” Agarwal said. Such an outcome is a ‘side effect,’ and it was better for Parliament to ‘send a signal’ to anyone thinking of entering the sex trade that there was great risk involved.”
Having solved the problem of America’s underage sex trafficking, Demi Moore moved on to Nepal, where she addressed that nation’s problem with juvenile prostitutes. A CNN special on Moore’s appearance in Nepal aired Sunday, June 26.
Statement About Sourcing
Village Voice Media relied predominantly on individual police departments within 37 of the largest cities in the U.S. to furnish us with juvenile prostitution arrest data over the course of the last 10 years.
When that wasn’t possible, either because of incomplete records or because a particular department didn’t track the data for that long a period, we used FBI arrest statistics, in addition to various state and county law enforcement agencies.
Women’s Funding Network sex trafficking study is junk science
Schapiro Group data wasn’t questioned by mainstream media
By Nick Pinto
published: March 23, 2011
ATTORNEYS REPRESENTING CRAIGSLIST told Congress on September 15 that the ubiquitous web classifieds site was closing its adult section.
Under intense scrutiny from the government and crusading advocacy groups, as well as state attorneys general, owner Craig Newmark memorably applied the label “Censored” in his classifieds where adult advertising once appeared.
During the same September hearing of a subcommittee of the House Judiciary, members of Congress listened to vivid and chilling accounts regarding underage prostitution.
The congressmen heard testimony from half a dozen nonprofit executives and law enforcement officials. But the most alarming words of the day came from Deborah Richardson, the chief program officer of the Women’s Funding Network. She told legislators that juvenile prostitution is exploding at an astronomical rate.
“An independent tracking study released today by the Women’s Funding Network shows that over the past six months, the number of underage girls trafficked online has risen exponentially in three diverse states,” Richardson claimed. “Michigan: a 39.2 percent increase; New York: a 20.7 percent increase; and Minnesota: a staggering 64.7 percent increase.”
In the wake of this bombshell revelation, Richardson’s disturbing figures found their way into some of the biggest newspapers in the country. USA Today, the Houston Chronicle, the Miami Herald, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the Detroit Free Press all repeated the dire statistics as gospel.
The successful assault on Craigslist was followed by a cross-country tour by Richardson and the Women’s Funding Network.
None of the media that published Richardson’s astonishing numbers bothered to examine the study at the heart of Richardson’s claim. If they had, they would have found what we did after asking independent experts to examine the research: It’s junk science.
After all, the numbers are all guesses.
The data are based merely on looking at photos on the Internet. There is no science.
Eric Grodsky, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota who teaches about proper research construction, says that the study is fundamentally flawed.
“The method’s not clean,” Grodsky says. “You couldn’t get this kind of thing into a peer-reviewed journal. There are just too many unanswered questions about their methodology.”
Ric Curtis, the chairman of the Anthropology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, led a Justice Department-funded study on juvenile prostitution in New York City in 2008. He’s highly skeptical of the claims in the Women’s Funding Network’s study.
“I wouldn’t trust those numbers,” Curtis says. “This new study seems pretty bogus.”
In fact, the group behind the study admits as much. It’s now clear they used fake data to deceive the media and lie to Congress. And it was all done to score free publicity and a wealth of public funding.
“We pitch it the way we think you’re going to read it and pick up on it,” says Kaffie McCullough, the director of Atlanta-based anti-prostitution group A Future Not a Past. “If we give it to you with all the words and the stuff that is actually accurate—I mean, I’ve tried to do that with our PR firm, and they say, ‘They won’t read that much.'”
A FUTURE NOT a Past is a product of the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, the Juvenile Justice Fund, and Harold and Kayrita Anderson’s foundation. To measure the amount of juvenile prostitution in the state, the consortium hired the Schapiro Group, an Atlanta business-consulting operation.
The Schapiro Group members weren’t academic researchers, and had no prior experience studying prostitution. In fact, the group was best known for research paid for by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives. The study found—surprise—that membership in the Chamber of Commerce improves a business’s image.
The consultants came up with a novel, if not very scientific, method for tabulating juvenile prostitutes: They counted pictures of young-looking women on online classified sites.
“That’s one of the first problems right there,” Grodsky says. “These advertisers are in the business of making sales, and there’s a market for young-looking women. Why would you trust that the photographs are accurate?”
In other words, the ads, like the covers of women’s magazines, are relentlessly promoting fantasy. Anyone who has tried online dating understands the inherent trouble with trusting photographs.
Even if the person placing the advertisement is the one in the picture, there’s no telling how old the photo is, says David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
“How do you know when the pictures were taken?” Finkelhor asks. “It’s not illegal for an 18-year-old who’s selling sex to put up a picture of herself from when she was 16.”
And if, for the sake of argument, the photos were an accurate portrayal, how do you train those viewing the photographs to guess the correct age?
In fact, you don’t.
Before conducting its full study, the Schapiro Group tested the accuracy of its method in a sample of 100 observers. At one point, the 100 observers are described as a “random sample.” Elsewhere, they are described as “balanced by race and gender.”
These 100 adults were shown pictures of teenagers and young adults whose ages were known, and were asked to guess whether they were younger than 18.
“The study showed that any given ‘young’ looking girl who is selling sex has a 38 percent likelihood of being under age 18,” reads a crucial passage in the explanation of methodology. “Put another way, for every 100 ‘young’ looking girls selling sex, 38 are under 18 years of age. We would compute this by assigning a value of .38 to each of the 100 ‘young’ girls we encounter, then summing the values together to achieve a reliable count.”
This is dense gibberish posing as statistical analysis.
When the team went on to conduct its full statewide study, it simply treated this 38 percent success rate as a constant. Six new observers were then turned loose to count “young-looking” sex ads on online classifieds sites like Craigslist and Backpage.
That total count was then multiplied by .38 to come up with a guesstimate of how many children were being trafficked.
“This is a logical fallacy,” says Steve Doig, the Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State University, who reviewed the study at our request. “Consider this analogy: Imagine that 100 people were shown pictures of various automobiles and asked to identify the make, and that 38 percent of the time people misidentified Fords as Chevrolets. Using the Schapiro logic, this would mean that 38 percent of Fords on the street actually are Chevys.”
But the Georgia sponsors were happy with the results—after all, the scary-sounding study agreed with what they were saying all along. So the Women’s Funding Network paid Schapiro to dramatically expand the study to include Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Texas. (Georgia’s Kayrita Anderson sits on the board of the Women’s Funding Network)
The Women’s Funding Network says it would ultimately like to have the study running in all 50 states.
The count of online classifieds featuring “young women” is repeated every three months to track how the numbers change over time. That’s the source of the claim of a 64 percent increase in child prostitution in Minnesota in a matter of months.
But that’s not how a scientific study is supposed to work, says Finkelhor.
“They don’t tell you what the confidence intervals are, so these changes could just be noise,” he says. “When the Minnesota count goes from 102 to 112, that’s probably just random fluctuations.”
There’s a more fundamental issue, of course.
“The trend analysis is simply a function of the number of images on these sites,” Finkelhor says. “It’s not necessarily an indication that there’s an increase in the number of juveniles involved.”
Despite these flaws, the Women’s Funding Network, which held rallies across the nation, has been flogging the results relentlessly through national press releases and local member organizations. In press releases, the group goes so far as to compare its conjured-up data to actual hard numbers for other social ills.
“Monthly domestic sex trafficking in Minnesota is more pervasive than the state’s annually reported incidents of teen girls who died by suicide, homicide, and car accidents (29 instances combined); infants who died from SIDS (6 instances); or women of all ages murdered in one year (37 instances),” reads the study.
Of course, those other figures are rigorously compiled medical and law-enforcement records of actual documented incidents, so it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison.
The police who tally many of those actual statistics—as well as records of real face-to-face encounters with juvenile prostitutes—don’t seem to be very impressed by the statistics put forward by the Women’s Funding Network.
“The methodology that they used doesn’t really show the numbers that back it up,” says Sgt. John Bandemer, who heads the Vick Human Trafficking Task Force in St. Paul. “We take it with a grain of salt.”
THE EXPERTS WE consulted all agreed the Schapiro Group’s published methodology raises more questions than it answers. So we went to the Schapiro Group to ask them.
Beth Schapiro founded the Schapiro Group in 1984, starting out mostly with political consulting. The bulk of the group’s work, Schapiro says, consists of public opinion research. In 2007, the group installed its own phone-banking center, and the group’s website advertises services ranging from customer satisfaction surveys to “voter persuasion calls.”
Counting hard-to-find exploitation victims wasn’t exactly in the company’s repertoire when it was asked by A Future Not a Past to devise a study on juvenile prostitution in 2007, but Schapiro jumped at the opportunity.
The Georgia studies included efforts to count juvenile prostitutes on the street, at hotels, and in escort services, but they also marked the debut of the problematic online classifieds study that would later be reproduced in other states.
In a phone call this month, Schapiro insisted that her study was the first effort ever to try to scientifically determine the number of juvenile prostitutes—a claim that would likely surprise the authors of dozens of previous studies, several of which are footnoted in her own report.
When we asked Schapiro and Rusty Parker, the leader of the classifieds study, to fill in some of the missing pieces in their methodology, they had a hard time coming up with straight answers. In fact, Parker couldn’t remember key information about how he constructed the study. When asked where he got the sample pictures used to calibrate the all-important 38 percent error rate, he wasn’t sure.
“It was a while back,” he says. “I forget exactly where we got them from.”
Parker was equally fuzzy on how the researchers knew the ages of the people pictured in the control group.
“Um…I’m afraid I do not remember,” he says.
You might say that this is important information. The Schapiro group has been telling the world that it cracked the alchemical code that transforms dumb guesses into hard statistics, and that the magic number is .38. But the leader of the study can’t remember the procedure he followed to get that number.
Neither Schapiro nor Parker had any answers when asked if there was any empirical reason to believe their two critical assumptions: that online photos always represent what the prostitutes actually look like, and that the six handpicked observers conducting the state studies have exactly the same error rate as the initial test batch of 100 random citizens.
Instead, Schapiro beat a hasty retreat, saying the study results shouldn’t be read as actual incidents of prostitution.
“We’re the first to tell you, this is not a precise count of the number of girls being prostituted,” Schapiro said. “We make no bones about that.”
Of course, a precise count of the number of girls being prostituted is exactly what the statistics are being presented as in the media, in press releases, and in Schapiro’s own study. When this is pointed out, Schapiro reverses herself.
“Well, yes, these are specific numbers,” Schapiro backpedals. “And yes, they are hard numbers, and they are numbers that we stand completely behind.”
This is the kind of cognitive whiplash you have to endure if you try to follow Schapiro down the rabbit hole. The numbers have the weight of fact and can properly be cited as actual incidents of juvenile prostitution, she insists. But when pressed to justify the broad and unsupported assumptions of her study, she says the study is just a work in progress and the numbers are only approximations.
Schapiro’s grasp on empirical rigor is such that when asked point-blank to choose between her two contradictory interpretations—estimates or facts—she opts for “all of the above.”
“I would square the circle by saying that you can look at them both ways,” she says.
Any reporter who had read the methodology of the Schapiro report would have been left with doubts, and any reporter who followed up would probably have been treated to the same baffling circuit of non-answers. The fact that the study’s findings continue to be rebroadcast in news outlets across the country suggests that not one reporter has bothered to read the study about which they are writing.
“You see this kind of thing a lot, unfortunately,” says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute who writes frequently about statistics. “The kind of skepticism that reporters apply to a statement by a politician just doesn’t get applied to studies.”
David Finkelhor at the Crimes Against Children Research Center says he understands the pressure on reporters to cite figures when they’re writing about juvenile prostitution, but it’s something they need to resist, because despite what groups like the Women’s Funding Network would have you believe, there simply are no good statistics.
“You have to say, ‘We don’t know. Estimates have been made, but none of them have a real scientific basis to them,'” Finkelhor says. “All you can say is, ‘This is the number the police know about, and we think there are more than that, but we don’t know how many more.'”
IN HER OWN online photos, the woman who commissioned the Schapiro Group study looks to be in her 50s, with blue eyes, graying hair, and a taste for dangly earrings.
Kaffie McCullough first approached the Schapiro Group about conducting a study of juvenile prostitution in Georgia in 2007 when, as director of A Future Not a Past, she realized that having scientific-sounding numbers makes all the difference in the world.
In early 2007, McCullough approached the Georgia Legislature to ask for money for a regional assessment center to track juvenile prostitution.
“We had no research, no nothing. The legislators didn’t even know about it,” she recalls. “We got a little bit. We got about 20 percent of what we asked for.”
Later that year, the first Schapiro Group counts were made, and when McCullough returned to the Legislature the following session, she had the study’s statistics in hand.
“When we went to the Legislature with those counts, it gave us traction—night and day,” she says. “That year, we got all the rest of that money, plus we got a study commission.”
McCullough touts the fundraising benefits of the study whenever she can. Since the Schapiro study was picked up for replication nationwide by the Women’s Funding Network, McCullough has acted as a sort of technical consultant for state groups as they debate whether to invest money in the project. Whenever she’s asked, McCullough tells the local groups that the money they spend will come back to them with hefty dividends.
“I would say, ‘The research costs money, but we’ve been able to broker—I don’t know what it is now, I think it’s over $1.3, $1.6 million in funding that we never would have gotten,'” McCullough says.
McCullough initially maintained that she stands by the Schapiro Group study, in part because she has been told that “it is the same scientific methodology that science has been using for a long time to measure endangered species.”
But when pressed on whether she really believes that counting Internet photos is reliable, she grants the sex-work industry isn’t exactly the gold standard of truth in advertising.
“That’s absolutely correct,” she says. “That’s part of how that business operates: It’s a bait-and-switch.”
And given the tricky nature of the photographs, she admits that counting pictures isn’t exactly a precise way to measure juvenile prostitutes.
“I can’t guarantee that any picture that four of those six people said looked young—that may not be the girl that you’d get if you called up,” she concedes.
Asked if she has any reason to believe that the six observers in the study have the identical 38 percent error rate as the 100 random citizens who were the initial test subjects, she allows that it might be worth revisiting that question.
The basic truth is that the study exists in service of the advocacy, and if news outlets present the Schapiro Group’s numbers as gospel, it certainly doesn’t hurt the advocates’ cause.
Admitting that there isn’t any authoritative scientific count of juvenile prostitution, as Finkelhor recommends, isn’t an option in McCullough’s book. She recalls an early presentation she made in Nebraska, when a politician gave her a piece of advice that stuck.
“He said, ‘If you all as a movement don’t start having numbers, you are going to lose the money,'” McCullough recalls. “‘How can you justify millions of dollars when there are only hundreds of victims that you’re actually serving?'”
EDITOR‘S CONCLUSION: Last week, on March 16, the drumbeat continued in the U.S. Senate with a briefing on domestic minor sex trafficking that featured Hollywood actress Mira Sorvino and the startling statistic that 100,000 children are trafficked for sex annually in America.
Trafficking, in labor and sex, became a defining issue in the administration of President George W. Bush. But as an investigation by the Washington Post in 2007 revealed, victims in the sex trade were difficult to come by.
Today, advocates have shifted media attention to allegations of trafficking in children.
But facts to suggest a plague of underage perversion simply do not exist despite claims to the contrary.
In a deficit-obsessed Congress, there is a long line of those seeking tax dollars to raise awareness of trafficking: government agencies, nonprofits, religious groups, the well-intentioned, as well as abolitionists opposed to everything from pornography to adult services.
It is no surprise that some seek to use children as a wedge.
Responsible parties prosecute predators and rescue victims. Not everyone with a microphone is responsible.
The challenge of keeping children out of the hands of exploiters is real but solutions are not clear in an atmosphere of hyped hysteria.
A future not a past – audio interview with Kaffie McCullough on why she used made up bogus child sex trafficking, human trafficking, sex slavery study.
CNN leads the media’s mass paranoia over a nonexistent epidemic
By Tony Ortega
published: July 06, 2011
I remember the last couple of mass panics. Do you?
There was the daycare scare of the 1980s, when we were told that child molesters had infiltrated childcare centers across the country. From the beginning of the panic, with the infamous McMartin Preschool trial (which ended in zero convictions), it should have been obvious that there was something hard to believe about the media reports of this nationwide crime epidemic.
Toddlers who had been hypnotized reported that they were being flown to Mexico to be sexually abused, killed, eaten, and then magically restored before Mom and Dad could pick them up (that is actual testimony from one particularly incredible trial that did, in fact, send a Texas couple to prison).
Gripped by mass fear, it took the public some time to wake up from that fever dream. About the same time, America was hyperventilating over another nonexistent threat: satanic cults that, experts swore, were sacrificing thousands of victims across America.
Remember that one? I’m sure Geraldo Rivera does.
We’ve panicked in other ways since those days, but if we tended to see terrorists everywhere after 9/11, at least there was vivid evidence that we had become a target.
But even that threat is fading. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are receding fast from public consciousness. Our economy is gradually crawling back. Crime remains at record lows. A new presidential campaign is only in its earliest stages.
What’s there to panic about today?
A small group of political activists is quite ready to provide the answer. In the second decade of the 21st century, we are being told that there’s a widespread, growing, and out-of-control problem to fear in our country. And it has a catchy name: “trafficking.”
In cities across America, we are told over and over, like a mantra, that “100,000 to 300,000” underage sex slaves have been stashed away from public view, with more joining them every day. It’s a problem growing so quickly that the United States soon will be no better than Moldova or Nepal in regard to child sex trafficking. Why go to the Third World looking for this nightmare when our cities and suburbs are bursting with children in bondage?
Feel that panic in your chest? Must have been what Geraldo experienced. Now, step back and take a deep breath.
As we showed in our cover story last week, the newest panic is like the ones that preceded it—an emotional reaction, based on good intentions, but grounded in bogus information.
The actual data behind this “epidemic” is wanting in the extreme. It involves guesses by activist professors, junk science by nonprofit groups trying to extract money from Congress, and manipulation by religious groups hiding their real agendas about sex work.
And one of the most visible enablers in this national fantasy has been young CNN reporter Amber Lyon.
Lyon is best known for ambushing Craigslist founder Craig Newmark last year, questioning him about what are known as “adult ads.” At the time, Craigslist was heavy with such ads. Having cornered the timid Newmark—who has told people he’s a borderline Asperger’s case—it didn’t take much for the aggressive Lyon to reduce Newmark to catatonia with her questions about Craigslist’s facilitating the enslavement of young girls across the country.
Under pressure by the attorneys general of several states, Newmark initiated a lawsuit in South Carolina, which he won. (In fact, he won every time he went to court.) But facing the further pressure of congressional hearings about its sex ads, Craigslist dropped its adult sections last fall. (You can still find the ads on the site, if you know where to look.)
Lyon has been known to tell people that her ambush of the meek Newmark resulted in the shuttering of “the Walmart of child sex trafficking.” Now, she has set out to take down a new target: Village Voice Media.
Seven years ago, the people I work for were smart enough to start Backpage.com, a competitor to Craigslist. While other newspapers were doing little more than publicly condemning Newmark for the way Craigslist has, for years, eaten into their classified-ads revenue, we decided to fight back. That’s just how we operate.
Backpage.com has since inherited some of the adult business that left Craigslist. The Village Voice itself has been taking such ads since the mid-1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, the adult business was a large part of the paper. Today, it’s a smaller presence in the print edition, and the Voice‘s website has no adult advertising—that business appears only at Backpage.com.
Backpage.com is not a newspaper. It’s an Internet bulletin board where people can place ads for anything from rental apartments to bicycles to lawnmowers. And, yes, it’s a place where adults can post notices so that other adults can contact them.
What happens when two adults find each other through Backpage.com? I couldn’t tell you. The whole point of Backpage.com is that we aren’t involved after two consenting adults find each other through the community bulletin board, which exists solely so that people can freely express themselves—sometimes in ways that make other people uncomfortable. We’re First Amendment extremists that way. Always have been.
We’ve spent millions of dollars putting in place strict policies and monitoring services to make sure that it is only adults finding each other through Backpage.com‘s adult pages. Not only do we have security specialists making constant searches for keywords that might indicate an underage user, but we’re quick to cooperate with law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when we find suspicious ads. In some cases, our reports about suspicious ads have resulted in underage runaways being traced and recovered—as opposed to the underground economy of bus stations and street corners where kids are truly invisible.
Backpage’s 123 employees, who screen about 20,000 ads every day, alert NCMEC when they find something suspicious, who in turn contacts law enforcement. That process triggered 230 reports last month. For more on how quickly and often Backpage reports problems, see Caleb Hannan’s story at our sister paper, Seattle Weekly.
Underage prostitution is a persistent problem in this country, but as we established in last week’s cover story, it exists at a level that is nothing like what is being trumpeted by Amber Lyon on the behalf of activists who want to put us out of business. Lyon and other journalists—even the New York Times—may repeat uncritically the figure of “100,000 to 300,000” underage prostitutes, but as we showed last week, that number is based on a flimsy study by a couple of activist professors who included in that figure runaways (most of whom are back home in a week) and any teen who happens to live near an international border, supposedly putting them “at risk.”
Using official law enforcement data, we showed that underage prostitution arrests are closer to 800 per year for the entire country—a number that has not increased over the past decade. Far from a widespread and rapidly growing problem, this is, instead, a small problem that stays about the same size because its underlying causes—drug addiction and teen homelessness—are not targeted with federal funds the way scaremongering is.
In December, we sent information to CNN about what we’re doing to keep Backpage.com‘s adult pages for adults only as Amber Lyon prepared a sensationalistic piece about the mythic hundreds of thousands of underage American sex slaves, for whom she wanted us to appear responsible.
We subsequently pointed out to CNN that we had, in fact, provided Lyon with a two-page, single-spaced data sheet about what we’re doing to keep underage users out of Backpage.com‘s adult pages. In a later rebroadcast of her piece about us, her legal department forced Lyon to tack on this correction: “Backpage.com sent us a statement in late December saying, ‘Backpage.com is committed to preventing those who are intent on misusing the site for illegal purposes.’ And they went on to say that they implemented new safety measures to that end, which are listed on the company blog. There is evidence these measures have had some results. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Backpage reported 30 suspicious ads in 2010. And in the first month of 2011, they reported 65.”
Well, that was something. But Lyon’s reporting has been manipulative, at best. When you watch her special, “Selling the Girl Next Door,” it should be obvious that Lyon is less interested in learning how Backpage.com actually operates than she is in making viewers squirm about sex. In one segment, she talks to the women working at a legal brothel in Nevada. In another, she talks to men who are undergoing counseling for paying for sex—none of them with underage girls. Each of these segments is intended simply to make viewers see sex work in the worst possible light. And that’s no accident.
At the end of her broadcast, Lyon’s sources are singled out for “special thanks.” The list includes several Atlanta-area foundations, deep in the Bible Belt, that have done as much as anyone to create the current panic about a nonexistent epidemic of sexual slavery.
We recently found out that Lyon is even closer to these groups than you could tell from a list at the end of her broadcast.
It’s not unusual for reporters, after working with helpful sources, to feel that they’ve become friends. It’s happened to me and just about every other journalist I know. But as professionals, we know that it’s important to keep some distance from the sources we rely on for information.
Someone forgot to mention that to Lyon, apparently.
On May 4, FAIR Fund, one of the sources thanked in CNN’s special, held a fundraiser in Washington’s City Tavern Club.
The event’s emcee was Amber Lyon, and she didn’t seem at all uncomfortable helping a source raise money. We know because we sent a reporter to watch and videotape her performance.
“Hello, everyone, and thank you all for coming tonight to ‘Pearls of Purpose.’ And my name is Amber Lyon, and I’m an investigative and documentary reporter with CNN. This is just an amazing gala and an amazing way to really celebrate the empowerment of young girls all around the world,” she said to the gathered crowd.
It wouldn’t be a Lyon appearance without the required mantra: “Somewhere around, anywhere from, 100,000 to 300,000 American children are being trafficked,” she told her audience. “It’s an honor to be here tonight hosting this. I’m definitely proud to be supporting FAIR Fund.”
I emailed Lyon, asking her to explain how she could help a source raise money while continuing to use it as a source for stories. I was also curious how much money her event had raised, with tickets ranging from $125 to $250 a plate.
“We are declining your request for an interview” is how she responded.
That surprised me. Lyon clearly has ridden her fame for how bravely she stood up to mild-mannered Craig Newmark. I didn’t expect her to duck some straight questions about her involvement in a semireligious crusade.
Meanwhile, CNN has made trafficking its pet issue. The problem is, the network seems to draw almost no distinction from what Demi Moore finds in Nepal and what is actually happening here in the United States. That’s just bad journalism. But it’s what happens when an organization takes on a cause, regardless of the facts.
Article Link: http://www.villagevoice.com/sex-trafficking/
Super Bowl prostitution: 100,000 hookers didn’t show, but America’s latest political scam did.
Pete Kotz: From the Dallas Observer newspaper
published: March 03, 2011
Had elected officials done even the slightest research, they would have known it was myth. But this had little to do with protecting women and children. Think of it as a combination religious revival and political scam.
Politicians, women’s groups, cops and child advocates were predicting that up to 100,000 hookers would be shipped into Dallas for the Super Bowl. It would be akin to the invasion of Normandy—with silicone and come-hither poses at no extra charge.
Yet someone forgot to tell America’s prostitutes they had an appointment with destiny. The arrest numbers are now in. The hookers failed to show.
It was folly from the outset, of course. To buy the hype, you had to believe that the NFL’s wealthiest fans stuffed their carry-on luggage with searing libidinal hunger. Though by day they pretended to be mercantile saints from the pages of the Wall Street Journal, they were actually marauding sex fiends. Their plot: Turn Hilton hot tubs into naked versions of the New York Stock Exchange.
And if that wasn’t enough to scare the good citizens of Dallas, women’s groups slathered the plot with surplus outrage. Up to 38,000 of these hookers would be child sex slaves, according to a study by the Dallas Women’s Foundation. They’d presumably been kidnapped en masse while waiting in line at the mall Cinnabon, then shipped to Dallas for deflowering by venture capitalists and frozen-food barons.
America’s human trafficking epidemic was coming to North Texas. The Super Bowl would be ground zero.
Conveniently, the same people making the claims reserved the roles of hero for themselves. Worry not, good people of Dallas: They would repel the infidels at the city gates.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott puffed his chest and promised dozens of extra bodies. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security linked arms with 13 state and local police agencies in a task force. Even the airline industry leaped in, training flight attendants to spot the indentured.
Linda Smith, a former Washington congresswoman and founder of Shared Hope International, announced her date with gallantry in The Dallas Morning News. “Now that I know it, I have no choice but to stand and fight,” she said. “This is just brutal, brutal slavery of girls.”
Deena Graves, executive director of the Christian group Traffick911, took it even further, framing the clash as nothing short of Jesus vs. Depravity. God Himself had naturally anointed her as His general.
“We believe, without a doubt, that God gave us the Super Bowl this year to raise awareness of what’s happening with these kids,” she told the Morning News.
But since they hadn’t bothered to do the research, they would be forced to clash swords with an imaginary foe. Such is the burden of the selfless crusader.
From Germany to Miami, the same hysteria precedes every big sporting event, be it the Super Bowl, the World Cup, or the Olympics. The only difference is that Dallas, befitting its perch as buckle of the Bible Belt, jacked up the decibels.
Before every big game, church bells ring of a massive hooker invasion. Incurious newspapers parrot the claims;a five-minute Google search being too much trouble. Then politicians and activists climb aboard.
The recipe for civic panic is placed in the oven, set for baking to a charred husk.
Yet when each event ends with just a handful of arrests, police admit the invasion was nothing more than myth. The panic whimpers away to seclusion, only to resurrect itself just in time for the next big show.
Detectives from Dallas to Plano, Forth Worth to Irving saw no spikes in sex traffic or signs of the occupiers.
“Everybody else is talking about special operations, the AG comes in talking about special operations, but this is what we do,” says Sergeant Byron Fassett, head of the Dallas PD’s human trafficking unit. “We didn’t have to do a special operation. We do special operations all the time, and this was one of them.”
In other words, it was just another week of playing cat and mouse with the world’s oldest profession.
Arlington, host to the game, unleashed extra manpower and bagged an impressive 59 arrests. But it found scant evidence of erotic hordes. Of the 100,000 supposedly Lone Star-bound hookers, Deputy Chief Jaime Ayala says, only 13 were found by his guys. Their busts largely involved rousting the local talent.
ICE Spokesman Carl Rusnok says there were 105 prostitution arrests metro-wide. But what was billed as a bare-naked onslaught fell rather short. Just to reach three figures, ICE had to include 12 Class C misdemeanors—the legal equivalent of a speeding ticket.
Rusnok hints at more nefarious busts for human trafficking, but he refuses to provide names, charges or anything else that would allow for verification.
The 38,000 teen slaves also proved elusive. Police managed to find just two—and they were Texas-grown.
Anthony Winn, a 35-year-old degenerate from Austin, had been pimping out a 20-year-old woman when he decided to peddle her 14-year-old sister as well.
The trio showed up in Dallas for the big game. But the older sister objected to the selling of the younger one. So when Dallas police encountered them on the street, the women quickly ratted out Winn.
In Grapevine, another local was busted for chauffeuring a 17-year-old hooker on her rounds.
Meanwhile, church groups and activists were out en masse. But if they were truly aligned with God, He preferred they stick to generating headlines and hurling logs on the flames of panic. He apparently neglected to grant them the power of rescue. As far as anyone can tell, not one of their tips led to an arrest. Had anyone bothered to ask police in previous Super Bowl cities, they would have told you this would happen. There’s zero evidence that American hookers have ever traveled like Spanish armadas.
As for widespread sex slavery, this too is a myth. The U.S. government has known it for years.
Like most industrialized countries, the feds began worrying about human trafficking in the late ’90s, a fear born from the slavery problems of the Third World. At the time, evidence from police suggested it was an insidious, though relatively rare, crime. But that didn’t stop politicians and activists from declaring it a pandemic.
Out of thin air, they began to trumpet that 50,000 people were being forcibly trafficked in America each year. The
Clinton administration declared jihad. President George W. Bush dilated the war, creating 42 Justice Department task forces countrywide.
But when you weld a fabricated enemy, meager scalp counts leave boasting a challenge. Just like the soldiers of pre-Super Bowl Dallas, they had braced themselves for imaginary strife.
Six years into his presidency, Bush had burned through $150 million on the fray. But of the 300,000 supposed victims during that time, the Justice Department managed to find just 1,362. Less than half were actual sex slaves. An even smaller number were underage prostitutes.
That’s because human trafficking, as defined by the government, isn’t solely about sex. It’s usually about forced labor. Think of the Chinese man made to work in a kitchen to reimburse a snakehead’s smuggling fee. Or the Mexican kid forced to toil on a Kansas farm.
By the time anyone realized all that money was flowing for naught, no one was brave enough to tighten the spigot. In Washington, it’s far better to waste millions than give the appearance you don’t care about kids.
Steve Wagner knows this. He worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, serving as director of the Human Trafficking Program under Bush. He threw millions of dollars at community groups to aid victims. Yet as he told the Washington Post in 2007, “Those funds were wasted….They were available to help victims. There weren’t any victims.”
Ten years into the war, one might assume intellectual honesty would sand down the rhetoric. But the opposite is happening. The fight’s simply moved away from protecting women and children. It’s now a holy war for the sanctity of revenue streams.
The church and women’s groups who profited from battle are loath to acknowledge they spent the past decade doing little more than polishing their guns. So forgive them for worrying.
Recession has made donations harder to field. D.C.’s coming austerity means grants will be macheted. That’s left the nonprofit world in a panic.
It isn’t easy to get donors and congressmen to slap down checks for the time-honored fight against prostitution, runaways and kids seeking the fascinating life of a crack head.
So women’s and children’s groups simply decided to change their PR. Suddenly, prostitution was no longer about prostitution. It was all about sexual slavery and human trafficking. And they began blowing up their numbers with helium.
But maybe Traffick911′s Deena Graves is right. Perhaps God has called her and others to fight demons unseen by the re st of us. It’s just that he hasn’t given them the power to find all those victims. He does work in mysterious ways, after all.
–With Reporting by Patrick Michels
Sex Trafficking of Children: What are the Numbers?
By Brenda Zurita