Lost Boys

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

"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."

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."

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

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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 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, awarding 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.

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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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