Lost Boys

New research demolishes the stereotype of the underage sex worker—and sparks an outbreak of denial among child-sex-trafficking alarmists nationwide

Lost Boys

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, 16


The first night Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank went looking for child prostitutes in the Bronx in the summer of 2006, they arrived at Hunts Point with the windows of Curtis' 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.

Researchers Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank encouraged hundreds of New York's underage sex workers to open up about their "business."
Their findings upended the conventional wisdom—and galled 
narrow-minded advocates
Ashlie Quinones
Researchers Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank encouraged hundreds of New York's underage sex workers to open up about their "business." Their findings upended the conventional wisdom—and galled narrow-minded advocates
Jennifer Bryan of the Center for Court Innovation is helping to expand the John Jay College study nationwide using the same methodology, which has generated reliable census data on a vast range of subcultures, from drug addicts to jazz musicians
Caleb Ferguson
Jennifer Bryan of the Center for Court Innovation is helping to expand the John Jay College study nationwide using the same methodology, which has generated reliable census data on a vast range of subcultures, from drug addicts to jazz musicians

Details

EDITOR'S NOTE: Village Voice Media, which owns this publication, owns the classified site Backpage.com. In addition to used cars, jobs and couches, readers can also find adult ads on Backpage; for this reason, certain activists and clergy members have called attention to the site, sometimes going so far as to call for its closure.

Certainly we have a stake in this discussion. And we do not object to those who suggest an apparent conflict of interest. We sat quietly and did not respond as activists held symposiums across America—from Seattle to Miami—denouncing Backpage. Indeed, we were never asked for response.

But then we looked at the "science" behind many of these activists' claims, as well as the media's willingness, without question, to regurgitate a litany of incredible statistics. In the interest of a more informed discussion, we decided to write.

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But after spending several hours sweating in the muggy August air, the professor and his Ph.D. 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 may 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 3 million—when crafting a soundbite 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 College 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 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 onboard 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 of 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:

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2 comments
john
john

I love the in depth nature of this article, though I have one quibble, mostly with the researchers.

With so much space dedicated to debunking myths and assumptions regarding underage prostitution, I'd assume there would be a similar amount of research done on the trafficked foreign women/girls/boys who end up here. A single paragraph was dedicated to this, only to state in a resigned way that it is difficult to gather info on these types. Well that is kind of obvious! Why can't the researchers who pinpointed the non-existent disparity between boy/girl prostitutes, and proved the lack of pimps employ a few interpreters and go about collecting info with their coupon books? I'd suggest starting with any of the Asian speaking populations (Vietnamese might be big), Spanish speaking populations as well. These, IMO, are the areas most at risk-being that the language barrier and cultural homogeneity in areas cover up and hide much, and law enforcement/outside world are hesitant to even step in.

The article is great, especially in the way that it gives a refreshing look at a problem from an angle so few even want to look at. Why do the young prostitutes *want* to get into this trade? The answer to that question reflects so terribly on those "in charge," and this is the reason for the massive backlash (in Atlanta). The last point about permanence hits me a bit personally, being subjected to upheaval isn't gonna be fixed by more temporary "solutions." The problem of sticking to erroneous assumptions and false facts is that the problem never is addressed, thus never coming to a resolution...or close to one.

20ftJesus
20ftJesus

Someone should show this to Yvette Cabrera over at the Orange County Register so she can learn how to report properly on child sex trafficking.

Kudos to Kristen. Well done.

 
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