The Unthinkable Is Happening in Our Own ‘Backyard’
Jenna Elfman

A counterpoint:

Most of the scary articles about sex trafficking are larded with inflated figures and phony statistics that don’t survive any serious analysis. For example, you will often read that the average sex worker enters the trade at 13, a mathematical impossibility which appears to have originated as a misrepresentation of the average age of first noncommercial sexual contact (which could include kissing, petting, etc.) reported by underage girls in one 1982 study as though it were the age they first reported selling sex. The actual average age at which they began prostitution was 16. And though the number was already dubious when applied to underage prostitutes, it became wholly ludicrous when applied to all sex workers.
Another common claim is that there are 100,000 to 300,000 children locked in sex slavery in the U.S. (For just a few examples, see here, here, here, here, and here. ) That number is a distortion of a figure from a 2001 study by Richard Estes and Neil Weiner of the University of Pennsylvania, which estimated that number of “children, adolescents and youth (up to 21) at risk of sexual exploitation.” (Emphasis added.) “Sex trafficking” was the least prevalent form of “exploitation” in their definition. Other forms included stripping, consensual homosexual relations, and merely viewing porn. Moreover, two of the so-called “risk factors” were access to a car and proximity to the Canadian or Mexican border. In a 2011 interview, Estes himself estimated the number of legal minors actually abducted into “sex slavery” was ” very small . . . {w}e’re talking about a few hundred people.”
To the extent that it exists, coerced sex work is of course abominable, and it should be prosecuted. But the media needs to be far more skeptical of the claims of anti-sex worker activists, including those that advocate from government perches. Uncritically repeating exaggerated claims and fabricated data may seem innocuous — after all, what harm could there be in drawing more attention to the issue? But when all sex work is illegal, consensual, of-age sex workers are far more reluctant to report coercion, abusive pimps, and underage prostitutes for fear of being arrested themselves. This makes actual sex trafficking more difficult to discover.
These moral panic proclamations and exaggerated or fabricated statistics are coming from activists who want stricter laws to criminalize prostitution, thus pushing it further underground. Spreading their message will only make actual sex slavery more difficult to detect.


Some additional reading. Here are a couple articles that discuss results from a study of underage sex workers in New York City and Atlantic City, NJ that run counter to the narrative in the original “The Unthinkable is Happening in Our Own ‘Backyard’” post. The first article goes into detail about recruitment of minors into sex work and their relationship with pimps.

Pimps played a small role in both initiation and more generally in the operations of street prostitution markets in both New York and Atlantic City. This was particularly the case for minors, who generally earned less than sex workers over 18, and were therefore less interesting to pimps. Roughly half of our respondents in New York and the vast majority in Atlantic City did not know a full-time pimp at the time of their interview. Only about 10 percent of sex workers 16 to 24 years of age in Atlantic City were minors, of whom only two had a professional pimp. Those who self-identified as having a pimp typically described relationships that were more mutual and easier to leave than the stereotypes suggest.
There are, of course, violent and otherwise abusive pimps: approximately 5 percent of the pimps in the pimp study described such an approach to pimping. Among the 14 percent of female sex workers in the New York Sex study who had pimps, we estimate that approximately 10–15 percent faced such systematic abuse. In Atlantic City we were able to identify three such relationships between a young sex worker and a pimp. These findings suggest that roughly 2 percent of all the sex workers whom we interviewed, across both cities, were in a relationship with a predominantly abusive, violent pimp.
Overall, though, we found a clear pattern of increasing, rather than decreasing, levels of young sex workers’ autonomy over time. As the sex workers in our survey became more experienced, more mature, and more accustomed to the dangers of customers and law enforcement, their pimp’s authority typically receded and a more equal relationship developed, or the sex worker simply left the pimp. Similarly, most of the pimps whom we met were realistic about the limits of their authority and did not want to lose the source of their livelihood. At all levels, pimps were constantly faced with the danger of being abandoned for another pimp, an escort agency, or independent work.
We recognize that situations of oppression and captivity do exist among this population, and we have identified a few in our findings. However, they were rare enough in a statistically representative sample in New York City and an intensive ethnographic census in Atlantic City to question the degree to which the dominant narratives of underage sex trafficking and resultant policies can protect the majority of vulnerable youth engaged in commercial sex markets.

The second article discusses the study’s finding with other experts and concludes:

[T]he pimp-focused approach will fail to reach the vast majority of underage sex workers who want to leave but have no adult forcing them to stay. “We haven’t really nailed down what works to get these kids back in the mainstream,” she says. “Many of them are quite disaffected. They’ve been thrown away by their families. The street has become a life they can negotiate relatively well. They’re not banging on our doors.”

The problem of dysfunctional families and creating viable alternatives for young people seeking to escape abusive family situations is more complex than a simplistic picture of the evil stranger preying on innocent youth. We like to externalize threats and deny internal dysfunction not only in our ‘backyard’ but under our own roofs. But by doing so we only obscure and distract from real solutions to the problems young people face and what makes them vulnerable.

The reason that unattributed statistics on sex trafficking should be viewed skeptically are many. For one, there are no reliable numbers, which is a problem when trying to assess any illegal underground activity. Second, it is in the self-interest of organizations devoted to fighting sex trafficking to use high numbers since donations and grant funding depend on presenting a picture not only grave but vast in scope. This leads to not only statistics that have no basis in fact but also outright fabrications of stories of purported underage sex workers, as with the Somaly Man scandal:

Another of Mam’s biggest “stars” was Meas Ratha, who as a teenager gave a chilling performance on French television in 1998, describing how she had been sold to a brothel and held against her will as a sex slave.
Late last year, Ratha finally confessed that her story was fabricated and carefully rehearsed for the cameras under Mam’s instruction, and only after she was chosen from a group of girls who had been put through an audition. Now in her early 30s and living a modest life on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Ratha says she reluctantly allowed herself to be depicted as a child prostitute: “Somaly said that…if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well.”
She, like Pross, was never a victim of sex trafficking; she and a sister were sent to AFESIP in 1997 because their parents were unable to care for all seven of their children.

The third reason why such sex trafficking figures should be viewed skeptically is that many anti sex trafficking organizations are devoted to not only ending coercive sex trafficking but also consensual adult sex work. As a result, they routinely conflate the two. The many ways that such organizations and governments play fast and loose with the definition and statistics surrounding sex trafficking are illustrated in this article.

Finally, for a set of very interesting articles on the moral agenda and squeamishness around sexual autonomy that underlie much of the popular narratives on this subject — resulting in children and adult women being merged into a uniform mass of silent passive victims — go to the always excellent A Paper Bird.