Activists and law enforcement officials often claim that hundreds of thousands or even millions of children are trafficked and forced into prostitution in the U.S., conjuring up images of innocent young girls being snatched from their loving families and coerced into a lifetime of drugs, STDs and perversion by greedy and heartless pimps.
This appalling scenario is so universally upsetting to Americans that Congress has easily raised millions of dollars to fight the problem, while a cottage industry of nonprofits has arisen to assist in the efforts.
The problem is that almost none of this scenario is true.
Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank, from the anthropology department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, spent two years carefully interviewing prostitutes in the Bronx, in the first accurate survey of youth prostitution. They completed interviews with 249 underage prostitutes and used that data to extrapolate a total population of 3,946 teen sex workers in New York. Their study was covered last week in the San Francisco Weekly.
If New York has less than 4,000 underage hookers, it is very unlikely that there is anywhere close to a million teen prostitutes nationwide. However, it is not just the total numbers that advocates and law enforcement have wrong. Virtually every assumption they have about youth prostitution is false, rooted in bias and stereotypes rather than evidence.
Here are Some of the Study’s findings:
Approximately 45% of teen prostitutes were boys
Only 10% of all teen prostitutes had pimps
45% got into the “business” through friends
Over 90% were native born
Most started hooking at age 15
Most serviced men
Nearly every one of them (95%) did it because it was the surest way to earn a living
Who are the Pimps?
In the 60s, the term Poverty Pimp arose to describe people and groups that benefited unduly by acting as the “voice” for poor people or other disadvantaged groups. Poverty Pimps typically are beneficiaries of government funding and charitable donations, and maintain their funding as long as it looks like they are doing something to help the poor. Contrary to their stated goals, however, they tend to be more invested in the maintenance of the status quo than in actually ending poverty, since ending poverty would make their jobs obsolete.
A similar industry has arisen around advocating for exploited youth. It likewise benefits from the maintenance of the status quo. We can think of these organizations and individuals as Exploited-Youth Advocacy Pimps.
The federal government spends roughly $20 million per year on public awareness, victims' services and police work on human trafficking, with much of that focusing on the pimping of children. Another $186 million is spent annually to provide street outreach to kids who may be at risk of commercial sexual exploitation. Much of this money goes directly to nonprofit advocacy groups. Yet, according to FBI records (see the S.F. Weekly article) only 200 kids are rescued from pimps annually, a roughly $1 million per year investment per rescued child.
While it might be argued that these prevention efforts also help keep some children from getting trafficked into prostitution in the first place, it is still an extraordinarily large sum of money to be spending if it is ignoring 90% of the children working the streets.
Puritanism, Homophobia and Sexism Feed the Teen Prostitution Hysteria
Though only a small subset of teen hookers (10%) are exploited by actual pimps, the Exploited-Youth Advocacy Pimps benefit most by perpetuating the fantasy that they all are. This stereotype suits Americans’ puritanism, homophobia and paternalism quite well, and helps maintain a steady funding stream from donors horrified by the image of naïve tween girls being enslaved and raped by sleazy men.
So long as the children are initiated into the profession and manipulated by child traffickers, they can be seen as innocent victims, deserving of adult guidance and support. So long as they are exploited girls, people can feel smug and proud that they are protecting their honor and innocence, and not inadvertently supporting trollops and homosexuals. If girls were doing it “voluntarily,” even to support themselves, they must be enjoying it and would therefore be incorrigible sluts, whereas boys voluntarily turning tricks must be queer. After all, a boy who didn’t want it wouldn’t do it, right? He would fight back, even against an adult pimp twice his size.
Curtis and Dank’s results, not surprisingly, were denied and challenged by many teen advocates and law enforcement officials.
A Purely New York Phenomenon?
Roughly one year after Curtis began his Bronx study, according to the Weekly, he partnered up with Mary Finn, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University, to examine teen prostitution in the Atlanta area and to evaluate the work of a coalition nonprofits working to combat child prostitution, including the Juvenile Justice Fund, a child-advocacy agency allied with the Atlanta Women's Foundation and the Harold and Kayrita Anderson Family Foundation.
The coalition objected to Finn’s methodology because it looked at all possible motives for prostitution, not just coercion and trafficking. One Juvenile Justice Fund board member insisted to Finn that no child would engage in prostitution by choice. They suggested that maybe kids hooked by choice in New York, but never in Atlanta.
In a similar denial of reality, an Atlanta juvenile-court judge instituted a screening process in her courtroom back in the 1990s that was aimed at identifying teen prostitutes. However, only girls were questioned about sex work, never boys.
When Finn tried to find documentation of teen prostitution in the Atlanta area, she found virtually no data by any of the agencies that were supposedly combating the problem. It was as if no one wanted any real data because it might undermine their hypotheses and assumptions (or they were all just plain incompetent). The only data she could find by any agency were 31 juvenile prostitution arrests recorded by the police over a four-year period, suggesting that teen prostitution was not actually that common in Atlanta.
If the Facts Don’t Fit, Fabricate New Facts
In 2008, the Juvenile Justice Fund launched a statewide study based on "scientific probability methods," which showed "a significant number of adolescent girls being commercially sexually exploited in Georgia, likely ranging from 200 to 300 girls. However, even these trumped up numbers were insufficient to meet the prurient demands of their funders, so they fluffed up the numbers more, publishing a report in 2010 claiming that 7,200 men were paying underage girls for 8,700 sex acts monthly in Georgia, "with an average of 300 acts a day."
The local papers aped back the bogus statistics, bolstering them with the equally bogus claim that they were based on a scientific study. In reality, the data were produced by the Shapiro Group, a public relations firm hired by the Justice Fund, using scientifically dubious methods (see here for details). Of course, PR firms have the goal of shaping public opinion for their clients, not illuminating reality. However, the papers did not mention any of this.
Why Are Teens “Voluntarily” Selling Themselves?
Perhaps the saddest and most intractable part of this story is that almost all teen prostitutes are doing it out of financial necessity. Many are straight boys, turning tricks with men not because they are latent homosexuals, but because men are the ones paying for sex, and getting paid is the objective. However, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, 90% of teen prostitutes “choose” this line of work because it is the only way to survive on the streets. To feed and house themselves, they need an income, and there are few decent jobs out there for teenagers, especially homeless teens.
This begs the question of why youth are living on the streets in the first place. This is the bigger story.
Kids live on the streets primarily because they have been kicked out of their homes or because their homes are so dangerous and unbearable that living on the streets is preferable. Some kids are there because they were being raped or abused at home, in foster care, or in group homes. Others are there because their families refused to (or were incapable of) caring for them. Some may actually be gay youth who were kicked out by homophobic parents.
Certainly youth homelessness could be mitigated by opening more group homes and shelters for teenagers. However, many of those living on the streets were being abused in group homes and shelters, so we also need much better screening, training and monitoring for the adults working there.
However, the bigger problem is the child abuse that goes on routinely in so many homes. For every teen who escapes such a life to live on the streets or become a prostitute, there are many more who suffer the abuse for years, sometimes even dying from it.
The fact is that children are far more likely to be murdered, maimed or sexually abused by a family member than by a stranger or another teenager. More than 6,000 children were murdered by adults in the last decade, according FBI statistics quoted in Mike Males’ “Let Our Kids Shoot Back.” Males also references The Administration for Children and Families’ Child Maltreatment 2008 report which documented 70,000 cases of violent and sexual abuses of youths age 12-17, and 1,344 killings of children under 18, inflicted by parents and caretakers in 2008 alone.