Lost Boys: New Research Demolishes the Stereotype of the Underage Sex Worker

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, and 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.

Researchers Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank induced 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.
Ashlei Quinones
Researchers Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank induced 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.
“It was almost like nobody wants to document their existence”: Georgia State University criminologist Mary Finn’s research effort in Atlanta was thwarted by uncooperative advocacy groups, incomplete arrest data and an utter lack of shelter beds for juveniles in crisis.
Courtesy of Mary Finn
“It was almost like nobody wants to document their existence”: Georgia State University criminologist Mary Finn’s research effort in Atlanta was thwarted by uncooperative advocacy groups, incomplete arrest data and an utter lack of shelter beds for juveniles in crisis.

For background articles go to:www.villagevoice.com/sex-trafficking

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, age 16

The first night Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank went looking for child prostitutes in the Bronx back in the summer of 2006, they arrived at Hunts Point with the windows of Curtis' circa-1992 Oldsmobile 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.

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 were, 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 sound bite 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 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 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 which 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 on board 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.

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14 comments
Nate Davis
Nate Davis

Overall, I thought it was a pretty fair article--more so than the title implied. As someone who just spent a year in Manila volunteering with two anti-trafficking organizations, I appreciate any coverage of the issues of trafficking and prostitution, in the hopes that such stories will prompt more people to not only grasp the grim realities, but more importantly, take action.

The phrase "outbreak of denial among child-sex-trafficking-alarmists" in the subtitle, however, I thought was a really cheap, sensationalist ploy for attention, and I thought deeply discouraging, because it implies that underage trafficking and prostitution aren't that big of a deal. As Kathryn previously noted, the sampling methods used in the study should have glaringly obvious caveats; I've read multiple accounts of and met personally a number of victims imprisoned or threatened with violence, for whom walking down the the park to take a survey would've been a laughable impossibility. In addition, while shame plays a much greater role in Asian cultures, I still find it implausible to think that would not be victims who would be too embarrassed to walk up to a couple strange adults and announce "Yes, I'm a prostitute."

However, even if we grant that there are "only" several thousand minors involved in NYC, when you extrapolate that nationwide, that's what, "only" 100,000? 200,000? Which of course raises the question, "What does the number have to be for us to decide it matters?" That we want to do something about it? That helping this invisible 1% is more important than protesting the Wall Street 1%

Red_Eye_Girl_4434
Red_Eye_Girl_4434

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The Myth of Sex Trafficking
The Myth of Sex Trafficking

Where are all the underage children kidnapped and forced against their will by a pimp to have sex with the genreal public for money? How come we don’t see any of the forced victims themselves complaining about it? Why don’t the “millions of forced against their will child victims” talk about how they were kidnapped and forced against their will by a evil pimp to have sex for profit? I would like to have a interview with the “millions of forced against their will raped kidnapped child victims” So I could hear their stories.

Where are they? Why do we only hear from the anti-prostitution groups that received money and grants from the government, and not the millions of victims themselves? If there are Millions of them, Shouldn't the police and public know where they are, and shouldn't we hear the millions of victims speak?

Instead, none are found.

Do all men really love raping children who are kicking, crying and screaming, with no one willing to help? Like the anti prostitution groups say?

Here are some good websites about sex trafficking:

http://bebopper76.wordpress.co...

http://sextraffickingtruths.bl...

http://researchonhumantraffick...

http://sextraffickingvictims.b...

http://sextraffickingintheusa....

http://www.villagevoice.com/se...

http://www.melonfarmers.co.uk/...

Frank
Frank

Frankly, the only items that surprised me was the low percentage using (or being used by) a pimp and the high percentage who had tried to avail themselves of youth services (which apparently failed them). It can hardly be a surprise that most the customers are men, or that nearly half of the prostitutes are boys (I thought it would be more, actually). The sex trade has always been driven by male desire, whether heterosexual or homosexual.

Kathryn
Kathryn

@Liliwanders, I was actually criticizing the reporter rather than the researchers themselves. Respondent driven sampling is a well-respected data collection and sampling method used in numerous similar studies to read\ch "hidden populations". However, the article stresses that because the research found a different population than expected, that people working in anti-trafficking are wrong, when, in fact, it is much more likely that they were unable to reach portions of the community. For instance, if a child (foreign or American) were trafficked or under strict control of a pimp, what is the likelihood that he/she could present for an interview? Slim to none. So no wonder they didn't interview many kids with pimps or who were trafficked, their sampling method targeted kids with freedom of movement, but didn't account for those whose movement is restricted.

Motmaitre
Motmaitre

Again, do you have better data? A basis for a different conclusion? or do you just believe what it is in your interest to believe?

Kathryn
Kathryn

I do not have better data, but that is because better data does not yet exist! There are populations of people that for various reasons cannot or do not want to be found for this type of population based research. Children being held against their will are part of this population. I don't propose to know how many of those children there are, but assuming that because none of them were interviewed, they do not exist just doesn't make sense given the stories from children who have escaped from exactly those situations. We know that trafficking exists, although we do not yet know to what extent. Drawing the conclusion from this research that it does not exist, rather than that the children who are not physically forced to engage in transactional sex were the ones reached makes more sense. The limitations of the study should influence the interpretation of the data, which wasn't the case in this article.

maxinedoogan
maxinedoogan

oh now this publication is being held to a higher standard than other media outlets?

Kathryn
Kathryn

My apologies, you're right that this article was published by news outlets all over the country. My reaction should have been directed at the author, but the news sources that chose to publish it should also bear some responsibility.

RicardoMay
RicardoMay

mу bеst friеnd's brother is making $ 83 per hоur working from home. hе was оut оf his jоb fоr eight mоnths but this october his salary wаs $ 8100 only by wоrking оn thе cоmputer fоr а fеw hоurs a day. for more info go to С А S H S H А R Р . С О М

Kathryn
Kathryn

It is a shame that well-respected news outlets across the country are running this story. As someone who works in Child Protection and has used Respondent Driven Sampling to measure the presence of underaged children being exploited for sex, the interpretation of the data presented is irresponsible and may have major, unjustified, repercussions.

Motmaitre
Motmaitre

So what are the real numbers? If you can;t cite anything, then we must conclude that you;re part of the coterie profiting from general misinformation. Why are you afraid of the truth? Afraid your budget will be cut? Afraid your department headcount will be reduced? Afraid of loss of power, relevance and control?

It's not about you. Remember that.

Kathryn
Kathryn

I'm not afraid of the truth, this report simply fails to mention some of the pitfalls of this kind of data collection, and this method in particular. I've used this method and while it does a very good job of identifying children who have relative freedom of movement and association, it is only as good as the networks between children. If there are children who are not allowed to move around and are not friends with other children in the same situation, they will never be referred and are therefore excluded from the sample population. So consider this a sample of all the children engaged in sex for money who can move around freely, but those tightly controlled by pimps and those who were trafficked and held against their will obviously can't stroll down to Union Square for an interview.

 
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