Lies, damned lies and statistics

We’ve all heard the claim from moralists, feminists, anti-sex crusaders, well-meaning but ignorant people who lack critical thinking skills, and unquestioning media outlets like CNN:  “There are 100,000-300,000 trafficked child sex slaves in the United States right now, and the average age at which prostitutes enter the profession is 13”.  But though it maybe that, as Huxley put it, “Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth” in the mind of the average person, it has approximately zero effect on physical reality and the actual number of “sex-trafficked children” in the U.S. could fit into the average school auditorium…perhaps even into one classroom.

The original source of both bogus figures was a non-peer reviewed 2001 University of Pennsylvania study by Richard Estes and Neil Weiner which used highly questionable methodology to guesstimate that “as many as 100,000-300,000 children and youth [of both sexes] are at risk for sexual exploitation” of one kind or another.  Note that even if we accept the shaky methodology (e.g., automatically considering all adolescents living within 50 miles of the Canadian or Mexican borders as “at risk”), this guess is for BOTH sexes, for “children and youth” (not just children), and most importantly represents those at risk of some form of “exploitation”, not currently involved in one specific form (sex trafficking).  Estes and Weiner rank types of “exploitation” by frequency, and domestic and international “sex trafficking” are second and third from the bottom.  Even these highly biased and excitable gentlemen believed that “sex trafficking” affected only a tiny part of their “youth at risk”; Estes himself recently stated that “Kids who are kidnapped and sold into slavery—that number would be very small…We’re talking about a few hundred people.”  And that “average age of 13” thing?  It was an estimate of the average age of entry of underage prostitutes, not all prostitutes, and their published figures don’t back it up; the actual figure is 16.  As I explained in a December essay, the true average for all prostitutes is about 24.

One would think that even a gullible person would balk at the idea that over 1% of all American teenage girls were “enslaved”, but no; they just keep repeating it, and get belligerent and defensive if anyone questions their “estimates” and argue that it’s impossible to know the “real number”.  In this sole respect they are correct; as long as prostitution is criminalized there is no way to get an accurate estimate.  But in New Zealand, our trade is no longer criminal and so an accurate study could be made; it found that 210 of the country’s 5932 prostitutes (in other words, 3.54%) were underage.  Assuming that the same percentage of women (0.285%) are prostitutes in both countries (a reasonable enough assumption) we arrive at a figure of 443,323 whores in the U.S., of which 15,694 are underage…a far cry from 300,000.  Is there any supporting evidence for either figure?  As it turns out, there is; the National Taskforce on Prostitution estimates that roughly 15% of all prostitutes are streetwalkers, a number slightly higher than New Zealand’s 11% and similar the 10-20% claimed by a recent Canadian study, plus several others.  So if my estimate is correct, there should be about 66,500 streetwalkers in the country; a long-term study from the ‘90s estimated 70,000, which means my numbers are probably about as close as we’re going to get this side of decriminalization.

So, if there are about 16,000 underage hookers in the U.S., what fraction of those are coerced?  A recent study of underage streetwalkers in New York City by John Jay College found that only 16% of them were coerced in any way; 84% of them had never even met a pimp.  Applying that figure to my estimate gives us about 2500 coerced, underage prostitutes in the United States; about 1% of the figure so beloved by trafficking alarmists, but very much in line with Estes’ “few hundred”, especially when one considers that “trafficked” girls are only a fraction of “coerced” ones.  My math, though based on educated guesses, has a lot more resemblance to reality than that favored by the alarmists and fits in nicely with accepted figures.

Nor am I the only one demolishing these absurd scare stories; on June 29th the Village Voice published an article which examined police records in the 37 largest American cities to find that there were only 8263 arrests for underage prostitution in the past decade…an average of 827 a year.  Furthermore, the article quoted a number of experts who panned the Estes & Weiner study; the University of New Hampshire’s Dr. David Finkelhor said “As far as I’m concerned, [the University of Pennsylvania study] has no scientific credibility to it…That figure was in a report that was never really subjected to any kind of peer review.  It wasn’t published in any scientific journal…Initially, [Estes and Weiner] claimed that [100,000 to 300,000] was the number of children [engaged in prostitution].  It took quite a bit of pressure to get them to add the qualifier [at risk].”  And Professor Steve Doig of Arizona State said the “study cannot be relied upon as authoritative…I do not see the evidence necessary to confirm that there are hundreds of thousands of [child prostitutes].”  He also said, “Many of the numbers and assumptions in these charts are based on earlier, smaller-scale studies done by other researchers, studies which have their own methodological limitations.  I won’t call it ‘garbage in, garbage out.’  But combining various approximations and guesstimates done under a variety of conditions doesn’t magically produce a solid number.  The resulting number is no better than the fuzziest part of the equation.”

Obviously, none of this sinks into the skulls of trafficking fanatics, whose attitude can be summed up by this quote from the “celebrity charity consultant” to trafficking gurus Ashton Kutcher & Demi Moore; she told the Village Voice reporter “I don’t frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000—it needs to be addressed.  While I absolutely agree there’s a need for better data, the people who want to spend all day bitching about the methodologies used I’m not very interested in.”  Presumably it would still “need to be addressed” if the number were 827, so why not just say 827?  Because, of course, that wouldn’t justify pouring millions down police department and NGO toilets instead of spending it on programs to help actual underage prostitutes (as opposed to phantom multitudes of “trafficked children”):  as the article explains, “…though Congress has spent hundreds of millions in tax-generated money to fight human trafficking, it has yet to spend a penny to shelter and counsel those boys and girls in America who are, in fact, underage prostitutes.  In March of this year…[two senators] introduced legislation to fund six shelters with $15 million in grants. The shelters would provide beds, counseling, clothing, case work, and legal services.  If enacted, this legislation would be the first of its kind…[it] has yet to clear the Senate or the House.”

For prostitutes, these lies have another, more direct effect:  by distorting the scale of the problem by at least two orders of magnitude, and by magnifying what is usually a simple, if unfortunate reality of human nature (the tendency for one person to exploit another by means of trickery or manipulation) into an international criminal conspiracy, the prohibitionists succeed in whipping up anti-whore fervor in the name of “rescuing” us…by hunting us down, persecuting our customers, closing down our advertising venues, ruining our lives and painting us as mental defectives who don’t know our own minds and can therefore not be trusted to make our own decisions no matter how old we are.  With “rescuers” like that, who needs pimps?

About Maggie McNeill:
"Maggie McNeill" is a former librarian, stripper, escort, and madam who writes an increasingly-popular blog called The Honest Courtesan in which she discusses various and sundry topics related to harlotry.
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