Lost Boys

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

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, calls the New York study significant, in that it "makes the big [national] numbers that people put out—like 1 million kids or 500,000 kids—unlikely."

Finkelhor's single caveat: While RDS is efficient in circulating through a broad range of social networks, certain scenarios might elude detection—specifically, foreign children who might be held captive and forbidden to socialize.

Still, says Finkelhor, "I think [the study] highlights important components of the problem that don't get as much attention: that there are males involved, and that there are a considerable number of kids who are operating without pimps."

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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The John Jay study's authors say they were surprised from the start at the number of boys who came forward. In response, Dank pursued new avenues of inquiry—visiting courthouses to interview girls who'd been arrested and canvassing at night with a group whose specialty was street outreach to pimped girls. She and Curtis also pressed their male subjects for leads.

"It turns out that the boys were the more effective recruiter of pimped girls than anybody else," Curtis says. "It's interesting because this myth that the pimps have such tight control over the girls, that no one can talk to them, is destroyed by the fact that these boys can talk to them and recruit them and bring them to us. Obviously, the pimps couldn't have that much of a stranglehold on them."

The same, of course, might be true of the elusive foreign-born contingent Finkelhor mentions.

Curtis and Dank believe there is indeed a foreign sub-population RDS could not reach. But with no data to draw on, it's impossible to gauge whether it's statistically significant or yet another overblown stereotype.

And as the researchers point out, the John Jay study demolished virtually every other stereotype surrounding the underage-sex trade.

For the national study, researchers are now hunting for underage hookers in Las Vegas, Dallas, Miami, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area, and interviews for an Atlantic City survey are complete.

Curtis is reluctant to divulge any findings while so much work remains to be done, but he does say early returns suggest the scarcity of pimps revealed by the New York study appears to not be an anomaly.

A final report on the current research is scheduled for completion in mid-2012.

"I think the study has a chance to dispel some of the myths and a lot of the raw emotion that is out there," says Marcus Martin, the Ph.D. who's leading the Dallas research crew. "At the end of the day, I think the study is going to help the kids, as well as tell their story."

* * *

At the end of the day, if the work Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank began in New York is indeed going to help the kids, it will do so because it tells their story. And because it addresses the most difficult—and probably the most important—question of all: What drives young kids into the sex trade?

Dallas Police Department Sergeant Byron Fassett, whose police work with underage female prostitutes is hailed by child advocates and government officials including Senator Wyden, believes hooking is "a symptom of another problem that can take many forms. It can be poverty, sexual abuse, mental abuse—there's a whole range of things you can find in there.

"Generally, we find physical and sexual abuse or drug abuse when the child was young," Fassett continues. "These children are traumatized. People who are involved in this are trauma-stricken. They've had something happen to them. The slang would be that they were 'broken.'"

Fassett has drawn attention because of his targeted approach to rescuing (rather than arresting) prostitutes and helping them gain access to social services. The sergeant says that because the root causes of youth prostitution can be so daunting to address from a social-policy standpoint, it's easy—and politically expedient—to sweep them under the proverbial rug.

And then there are the John Jay researchers' groundbreaking findings. Though the study could not possibly produce thorough psychological evaluations and case histories, subjects were asked the question: "How did you get into this?"

Their candid answers revealed a range of motives and means:

• "I can't get a job that would pay better than this."

• "I like the freedom this lifestyle affords me."

• "My friend was making a lot of money doing it and introduced me to it."

• "I want money to buy a new cell phone."

Though the context is a different one, Dank and Curtis have, not unlike Fassett, come to learn that their survey subjects' responses carry implications that are both daunting to address and tempting to deny or ignore.

For example, the John Jay study found that when asked what it would take to get them to give up prostitution, many kids expressed a desire for stable, long-term housing. But the widely accepted current social-service model—shelters that accommodate, at most, a 90-day stay—doesn't give youths enough time to get on their feet and instead pushes them back to the streets. The findings also point to a general need for more emphasis on targeted outreach, perhaps through peer-to-peer networks, as well as services of all kinds, from job training and placement to psychological therapy.

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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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