Lost Boys

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

• 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.

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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• 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.

Curtis and 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 of 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—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 per 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 may 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 per year to fund six shelters reserved exclusively for underage victims of sex trafficking.

Though 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 of 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.

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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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