As has been discussed a million times at Tits and Sass there are very few statistics about actual accounts of child sex trafficking. There is however a shockingly high rate of ignorant and misguided moral crusaders equating consensual adult sex work with sex trafficking of children, and using unfounded numbers about child sex trafficking to discredit adult sex workers. Though we here try to discourage such lazy notions because of the increased violence and stigmatization it creates for our work, most mainstream media outlets still publish scandalous statistics on sex trafficking based on little to no science and applaud the efforts of popstars and religious zealots who continue to site said statistics.
It’s incredibly hard to accurately determine the number of underage sex workers and the accompanying details of their life. Nonetheless, researchers Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank decided to tackle this issue head on in New York, by interviewing prostitutes under the age of 18 and then using scientific algorithms to extrapolate total numbers of child-aged sex workers as well as learn characteristics of that population. Lost Boys: New Research Demolishes Stereotype of Underage Sex Worker recently published by SFWeekly* explores the findings of the John Jay study and the unsavory response to their results from non-profits, media, police, and legislators.
The researchers surprised themselves and others by strongly disproving the mythologized child prostitute trope: a tween girl whose every move is dictated by a malicious pimp. Instead, this new data paints a different picture starting with gender. Actually 45 percent of kids who sell sex for money are boys. The average age these younger sex workers start working is not a prepubescent eleven or twelve but fifteen, and only 10 percent were involved with a pimp or madam. Finally, almost all of the youths, 95 percent of them, said they sold sex for money because it was the most stable and sure way to support themselves. The study asserts that the total number of teen sex workers in New York is 3,946.
As described in the article, the backlash to the report was strong, most particularly from child-advocacy and women’s non-profits intent on rescuing victims of sex slavery. In Atlanta, a similar research study was thwarted by a coalition of nonprofits who were outraged by the proposed questions of the survey including questioning both genders and inquiries regarding the motives of young people to enter prostitution. They insisted that no child would ever choose prostitution. Prosecutors also were dismayed by the evidence since it proved that their office, bent on arresting and imprisoning pimps of children, was mostly a waste of time. Finally, most legislators have basically given this research the cold shoulder.
I was struck by several questions while reading the article. Why is the stereotype of the pimped little girl so powerful and important for so many politicians, police, nonprofits and general civilians to hang on to? And what are the consequences of ignoring the new picture of child prostitution?
For politicians, the answer is easy and age-old: money, money, money. The narrative of the pimped little girl brings on the bucks and the votes in Congress. As the article pointed out, the FBI, the only agency keeping track of how many children are rescued from pimps nationally, records an average of 200 a year. The government spends about $20 million a year related to human trafficking with a focus on children, $50 million on homeless shelters for youths, and a separate program to the tune of $189 million dollars of taxpayer’s money provides outreach on the street to kids at risk of sexual exploitation. At $80 million a year, they’re catching 200 kids (who, until very recently, were sent to juvenile detention though new laws in some states decriminalize minors caught in prostitution) At least this is a bipartisan issue; members from both parties are pushing for more legislation to earmark another $12-$15 million to fund six more shelters exclusively for victims of child-aged sex trafficking. Popstars can give tax-deductible donations to the myth all while raising their publicity and media status.
Obviously, there are still girls and boys living terrifying lives under the rule of pimps. As the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center notes, the numbers that most people put out, like a million or 500,000 kids daily are unlikely in light of the new research but there are still populations that this study most likely missed, particularly foreign children and those youths who are forbidden to socialize. The authors of the report agree they surely missed some. But the funding for research on these questions is minuscule compared to the millions spent on saving invisible children. How about we find them first with more dollars spent on research and outreach techniques?
Additionally, I can’t help but think about how sexism is strengthened by the myth of the pimped little girl. Of course it’s the girl as victim—and of course, as with all accounts of sexism, both genders are hurt. The male sex workers are overlooked by nonprofits intent on rescuing girls and their stories get pushed farther and farther under the rug so that do-gooders can pat themselves on the back for their hard work.
Finally, we come to why we’re talking about this here on a site about adult consensual sex work: by hanging on to the stereotype of the pimped little girl, sex for money is defined as horrifically and bestially as possible. Under this narrow minded approach, sex work across the board is criminalized and stigmatized while the bigger issues go unnoticed. The John Jay study documented many young prostitutes discussing where and what they came from, including sexually abusive foster care homes and emergency shelters. These children spoke about brutality, molestation and rape by police. And when discussing their futures they pointed most importantly to the lack of stable housing (emergency shelters have a time limit and anyone who lives in NYC can vouch for the insanity of finding affordable housing). They also pointed to poor job preparation and education services.
So the consequences of hanging on to this myth is that we have one particular type of victim while the complex issues and differences within sex work are ignored, and underlying factors for why teens become prostitutes are overlooked and unchallenged. In the meantime, vulnerable and/or underserved kids are going do what they have to do to survive, while those charged with their protection continue to misidentify them and insist that they are voiceless, choiceless victims. If this research were taken seriously, questions of how to engage the other 90% (boys and girls without pimps) and provide alternate opportunities for them to support themselves would have to be taken seriously. And those are difficult questions to grapple with, especially in a society unwilling to listen to the rather rational reasoning voiced by many of these children for entering sex work.
*SFWeekly is owned by Village Voice Media, which has gotten lots of flack from legislators and clergy for providing the adult classified site Backpage.com. The editor’s note at the beginning of the article concedes they have a stake in the discussion of sex worker rights and statistics. (Wouldn’t it be helpful of all news outlets were transparent about their values and interests?)