By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
There are, for instance, the state-run group homes for orphans and kids whose families have kicked them out:
"He was like, you know, the little leeches that linger around," said a girl who told of being picked up by a pimp outside the group home where she resided at age 15. "And I was sittin' on my steps, and I was cryin' because they're givin' you allowance—$20-sumpin' dollars a week—and then you're not allowed to do certain types a jobs because you have a curfew. And if you miss curfew, they shippin' you somewhere else. So it was like I was just at my rope's end. And the things that he was sayin' to me, it sounded good."
And the potential pitfalls of the foster-care system:
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.
"My mother died, and I was placed in foster homes," said a girl who started hooking at age 15. "My foster father would touch me, and I ran away. I ended up coming to New York, and I was on the streets; nobody wanted to help me. And I ran into this girl, and she was, like, 38 when she passed away last year, but she taught me everything I know. She taught me how to do what I have to do—but not be stupid about it—to play it right and be smart."
Not to mention youth homeless shelters:
"I've been raped at Covenant House three times," one young man stated. "It was by guys in the men's ward."
(The three other youths interviewed for the study who spoke specifically about the New York-based nonprofit, whose mission is to care for kids in crisis, made no mention of sexual assault; they described the shelter as a place where kids shared knowledge about how to sell sex and/or characterized it as a popular place for pimps looking to recruit.)
One recurring theme is economic desperation:
"The fact that people think that I'm doing it because I want to—I mean, I get replies all the time on email, and they tell me, 'You know, why don't you just get a job?'" reported a boy with three years' experience selling sex. "Well, no shit, Sherlock! Honestly! I don't know, I would like someone to be able to offer me something."
Law-enforcement personnel, the kids say, are not always helpful:
"One cop said, 'You're lucky I'm off-duty, but you're gonna suck my dick or I'ma take you in,'" a transgender youth stated. "This has happened to me about eight times."
"Police raped me a coupla times in Queens," said a female who had worked as a prostitute for four years. "The last time that happened was a coupla months ago. But you don't tell anybody; you just deal wit' it."
Though many kids said they developed buddy-system strategies to stay safe and fed on the street, nearly all wanted a way out:
"I really wanna stop now, but I can't 'cause I have no source of income since I'm too young," said a girl who'd begun hooking at age 12. "So it's, like, that I have to do it; it's not like I wanna do it. As I say, I'm only 17; I got a 2-year-old daughter, so that means I got pregnant real young. Didn't have no type of Medicaid. . . . Can't get a job, have no legal guardian; I don't have nobody to help me but [friends], so you know, we all in this together."
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In late 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice called on the Center for Court Innovation and John Jay professor Ric Curtis to expand their research to other cities nationwide, backing the project with a $1.275 million federal grant. Now Curtis and Jennifer Bryan, the center's principal research associate, direct six research teams across the U.S., employing the same in-the-trenches approach that worked in New York City: respondent-driven sampling (RDS).
The method was developed in the 1990s by sociologist Doug Heckathorn, now on the faculty at Cornell University, who was seeking a way to count hidden populations. It has since been used in 15 countries to put a number on a variety of subcultures, from drug addicts to jazz musicians. Curtis and his research assistant, Meredith Dank, were the first to use RDS to count child prostitutes.
For the John Jay study, Curtis and Dank screened kids for two criteria: age (18 and under) and involvement in prostitution. All subjects who completed the study's full, confidential interview were paid $20. They were also given a stack of coded coupons to distribute to other potential subjects, and for each successful referral, they were paid $10. And so on.
RDS relies on a snowball effect that ultimately extends through numerous social networks, broadening the reach of the study. "The benefit of this is that you're getting the hidden population: kids who don't necessarily show up for [social] services and who may or may not get arrested," says Bryan. "It's based on the 'six degrees of separation' theory."
To calculate their population estimate, the John Jay team first culled the interview subjects who didn't fit the study's criteria but had been included for the potential referrals they could generate. The next step was to tally the number of times the remaining 249 subjects had been arrested for prostitution and compare that to the total number of juvenile prostitution arrests in state law-enforcement records. Using a mathematical algorithm often employed in biological and social-science studies, Curtis and his crew were able to estimate that 3,946 youths were hooking in New York.