Friday, July 1, 2011

16 reasons you shouldn't trust the village voice's estimates of child prostitutes in the US

In case you missed it, the Village Voice published on 29 June of this year an article entitled "Real Men Get Their Facts Straight", basically attacking Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore's anti-child prostitution campaign by attacking their estimates for the number of "kids [that] are lost to prostitution in America every single year" (emphasis in original). The article is co-authored by Martin Cizmar, Ellis Conklin, and Kristen Hinman. The disputed number is 100,000 to 300,000 kids per year and, if the Village Voice is to be believed, that statistic comes from a single study by Richard J. Estes and Neil Alan Weiner, both professors at the University of Pennsylvania. The study was entitled The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico and was released in 2001.

While admitting "There are, quite simply, no precise numbers on child prostitution," (emphasis in original) the Village Voice nevertheless declares definitely and in absolute, no uncertain terms that
There are not 100,000 to 300,000 children in America turning to prostitution every year. The statistic was hatched without regard to science. It is a bogeyman.
Based on an examination conducted by the three Village Voice reporters of "arrests for juvenile prostitution in the nation's 37 largest cities during a 10-year period" conducted over 2 months, the record yielded 8,263 arrests "for child prostitution during the most recent decade" or about 827 arrests per year.

In their Statement about Sourcing, the authors describe their methodology thusly,
Village Voice Media relied predominantly on individual police departments within 37 of the largest cities in the U.S. to furnish us with juvenile prostitution arrest data over the course of the last 10 years. When that wasn't possible, either because of incomplete records or because a particular department didn't track the data for that long a period, we used FBI arrest statistics, in addition to various state and county law enforcement agencies.
Here's 16 reasons you shouldn't trust the Village Voice's statistics on child prostitution in the United States.

1. The review by the reporters took 2 months of requests, compiling, and interviews to complete. Why did the Village Voice publish the article on 29 June 2011? Easy. Publicity. They decided to pick a fight with Ashton and Demi and criticize a 10 year old study just days after the U.S. State Department released the Trafficking in Persons Report 2011 on 27 July. Sex trafficking and child prostitution already have sizzle because they are salacious, but the release of the report primed the public. The Village Voice wanted to sell ad space and generate click-throughs. What better way to do that than by taking pot shots at high profile celeb Ashton Kutcher?

2. That estimate of 827 arrests per year for child prostitution... hey, guess what? That's not peer reviewed either. On the playground they used to say when you point fingers you got 3 more pointing back at you.

3. Notice that the Village Voice is only counting arrests per year in 37 major US cities for child prostitution. That number obviously has some correlation to the total number of kids entering prostitution each year in the United States but those numbers are not the same and shouldn't be confused as equivalent. The reporters try to sidle around that major problem by saying
It is true that police departments do not arrest every juvenile engaged in sex work. But, surely, they don't ignore the problem.
The remainder of this list will focus on the problems of estimating the number of kids entering prostitution each year in America by focusing on arrests reports for child prostitution in 37 major US cities.

4. The Village Voice doesn't give a clear accounting of what offenses fall under "arrests for child prostitution." Are the police including only arrested streetwalkers? Escorts? A mom trying to sell her teenage daughter's virginity to a neighbor? Her son's on Craigslist? Soliciting an undercover cop who's made up to look like a teenager and other "To Catch A Predator" type stings? Clearly, arrest records are under-inclusive when a raid on a brothel that yields 2 arrests for the proprietors but rescues 3 or more child prostitutes

5. If the arrest records primarily include johns, or persons arrested for having sex, attempting to have sex, or soliciting sex from an underage prostitute, the Village Voice assumes in it's 827 arrests per year estimate that the number of arrested johns is roughly proportional to the number of children entering prostitution each year instead of 2 or 3 or 10 times as large. The reporters provide no statistical reason to correlate these numbers in a roughly 1 to 1 fashion, they simply do, asserting that
The nation's 37 largest cities do not give you every single underage arrest for hooking. Juveniles can go astray in rural Kansas. But common sense prevails in the police data. As you move away from such major urban areas as Los Angeles, underage prostitution plunges.
But common sense is not fact. And I have a number of reasons to doubt that numbers counted in 37 major US cities give a clear picture of child prostitution throughout the entire US.

6. Giving Village Voice the benefit of the doubt, the statistics they are reporting are based on police records of "underage arrests for hooking" or "actual number of underage victims detained by law enforcement"; i.e. what's being counted are the numbers of kids arrested for offering sex for money. So kids rescued from brothels, massage parlors, etc. don't count unless they are charged with a criminal offense. Parents offering or actually selling their kids don't count. A girl who sells her 7 year old sister for a sex at a party doesn't count. In other words, a lot of incidents of child prostitution are not being included in the Village Voice's estimate of children entering prostitution each year in the United States.

Or, to put it another way, the Village Voice wants to treat the issue of children in prostitution like mini-adults. They are casting the image of child prostitute as Iris (Jodi Foster) in Taxi Driver and merely considering the number of children arrested for "hooking," not the total number of children in prostitution, many who enter and are abused through vectors other than streetwalking.

7. Using arrest records of underage prostitutes as the basis of an estimate (or an attack on an estimate) of the total number of child prostitutes in America means believing that the police arrest more than 1 out of 11 children being prostituted. Do you believe the police catch more than 1 out of 11 adult women engaged in prostitution either full or part time in Las Vegas or New York City? What about the number of women who have done it only once or just a few times? Being a child being prostituted doesn't mean hustling full time on the streets like Iris but the Village Voice article seems to want to make you believe that (from the article: "forcibly taken into the trade and abused"). And since most jurisdictions have enhanced penalties for crimes involving children, especially sex crimes, child prostitution is likely to be less open and therefore less easy for police to catch than adult prostitution.

8. The study is far from comprehensive. It only polled the 37 biggest US cities and only their arrest reports. It doesn't even bother to attempt to extrapolate from those numbers to the remainder of American cities, let alone smaller towns, hamlets, villages, rural areas, and such. I'll repeat. These are only the arrest records for 37 US cities and does not include an estimate for the remainder of the US territory and population. Regardless of what the Village Voice might think, not everything happens in NYC, especially crime. Pretending that child prostitution is only a serious issue in the biggest American cities is not only foolish, it's arrogant and irresponsible.

At least the Real Men Don't Buy Girls campaign addresses all men everywhere, regardless of what their zip code or telephone prefix is. And on another positive note, the message is about changing behavior, meaning it's not ok to buy children in Cambodia or Thailand for sex, either.

9. I was born and spent the first 14 years of my life in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is flat and there isn't a whole lot to do there. Oklahoma City, the capital and largest city in Oklahoma, barely eeks into the top 37 biggest US cities at 31. Oklahoma has a major problem with child prostitution.

I saw a news report a number of years ago about a Love's gas station along a stretch of Interstate 35 in Oklahoma that was pretty much close to nothing else. I've stopped at the station a few times on my way to and from Kansas City and North Dakota. This station services a lot of truck drivers hauling goods north to south and vice versa along a major traffic artery. And this particular station had a reputation for child prostitutes.

The underage prostitutes "serviced" the truckers in the cabs of their trucks. The prostitute or the pimp would approach the driver while he stopped for fuel, a snack and coffee, a bathroom break, some rest, or whatever. Numerous arrests were made here.

Guess what? This gas station wasn't in Oklahoma City, it was in the middle of nowhere. That's not one of the 37 biggest cities in the US. And who knows if arrests focused on arresting the drivers or the prostitutes? Either way, these child prostitutes weren't counted by the Village Voice. And neither would the countless other (100s? 1000s?) child prostitutes servicing truck drivers hauling goods back and forth along the miles and miles and miles of interstate highways that criss cross America each and every year.

10. A 2009 report by the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center entitled Shattered Hearts describes the problems of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of Native American women in Minnesota, a problem invisible to the public because of a lack of news coverage and nearly impossible to measure because of jurisdictional intricacies as applied to Native Americans living within certain territories and cultural barriers.

Stories of floating brothels stocked with Native American on Duluth harbor for decades illustrate the intergenerational nature of the abuse. Elders in the Native community don't like to discuss the topic, meaning the community often keeps silent and blind to the abuse. Even though the total size of the Native American population may be small, with estimates as high as 60 percent of girls experiencing some form of sexual exploitation before they turn 19, hundreds and possibly thousands of Native American child prostitutes exist.

Again, focusing on arrest records only in the 37 biggest American cities ignores a substantial number of children entering prostitution each year. And with other closed communities in the US, including orthodox religious and tight-knit migrant groups, there is the possibility of child prostitution in the form of sexual abuse and exploitation invisible to arrest records.

11. By focusing on arrest records for child prostitutes, one-off types of situations of sexual abuse and exploitation are not counted. Here I'm think of a parent or guardian who sells a child, perhaps their virginity, to another person. How extensive is this problem in America? We don't know and the Village Voice doesn't even pretend to measure this form of child prostitution. They want the kidnapped kids and the streetwalkers, not a teenager being exploited by an unfit adult parent or guardian.

12. Gender bias is likely masking the true extent of child prostitution in the US. Unfortunately, a lot of boys who have been prostituted are too ashamed, scared, etc. to admit what has happened to them to authorities. And police may not be trained to discern when a boy has been the victim of trafficking or sexual exploitation because a lot of the training focuses on identifying female victims. Without a more accurate sense of the number of boys trafficked and prostituted, any statistics on the number of kids entering prostitution each year in the US are discounting the severity of the problem.

13. The Village Voice's estimate relies on the fact the police are correctly identifying and arresting every child who is the victim of being prostituted they come across. Some children may be picked up for loitering who are prostitutes. Or a child taken into custody with an adult may be initially arrested for a curfew violation and the adult for statutory rape. Remember, these are arrest records, not what the children (or adults) are ultimately charged with or convictions.

14. The Village Voice's estimate relies on the fact the police are correctly identifying the child's age when they arrest them for prostitution. Unfortunately, as the report "Wrong Kind of Victim?" prepared by Anti-Slavery International shows for the UK, the police do not always correctly identify the age of the victim. I fail to see how this difficulty could fail to jump the pond to American police stations.

15. Because of the international nature of trafficking, many child victims of prostitution may not be counted because they are arrested and/or processed for immigration law violations, not reported as arrested for underage prostitution. To compound this problem, a child trafficked for some form of labor exploitation (debt bondage in a garment factory, agriculture, or domestic servitude) may also be subjected to sexual abuse by the person(s) who exerts control over them as well. While the labor exploitation may be seen as primary and thus authorities classify the crime as slavery, this form of abuse also constitutes child prostitution as well.

16. The Village Voice statistic only includes children arrested in America's 27 biggest cities; it doesn't include children trafficked out for prostitution. I'm not trying to raise the specter of white slavery here. But children of Mexican parents who were born or resided in America could, for instance, be trafficked across the border to Boy's Town in Nuevo Laredo and prostituted. Not only would such incidents not be counted because they do not happen on American soil but also because prostitution is legal in the destination country or at least not anti-prostitution laws are not vigorously enforced. The extent of this possibility is unknown.

What the Village Voice does is focus on the "at risk" label for child prostitutes that appeared in the 2001 study by Estes and Weiner and then proceed to attack the weakest elements, presenting straw man arguments.

For instance, they point out "at risk" kids include all runaways (77% of whom return home within a week), transgender kids, and female gang members. They also quote Estes referring to teens taking the trolley to Tijuana over the weekend and labels them all as "at risk" even though, as the Village Voice points out, most of them are probably crossing the border to drink illegally and maybe do drugs. I took particular offense to the following passage
So are kids who live near the Mexican or Canadian borders and have their own transportation. In the eyes of the professors, border residents are part of those 100,000 to 300,000 children at risk of becoming whores. (emphasis added)
The strong moral undertones seems a poor fit with the last half of the article's scathing attacks on Linda Smith, her organization Shared Hope International, and the blunt assertion that groups such as Real Men Don't Buy Girls are inflating child prostitution numbers to get federal and state funding, thereby directly robbing dollars from support organizations who provide food, clothing, a bed, medical care, and counseling to victims.

Speaking of tone, the ad hominem attacks on Ashton ("the titular dude from 'Dude, Where's My Car?'", "since leaving That 70's Show and Punk'd", "technically literate, if ill-informed", "Kutcher made his bones playing the prankster, dummy, and stoner") are inappropriate for a serious article and smack of just as much of immature, "frat boy" antics as the Real Men Don't Buy Girls the reporters make fun of. The reporters even go after Demi, writing
Sex trafficking is a grim problem, and not one actors know a lot about—even if Moore played a stripper in a movie and has alluded to how she was "manipulated and taken advantage of" by a 28-year-old boyfriend when she was 15 years old.
And they ridicule Ashton and Demi's seriousness about the issue, writing
The actors were watching TV in bed when they saw a horrifying documentary about sex slavery in some faraway foreign land and decided they needed to get involved.
If Ashton's responses to the Village Voice via twitter (@aplusk) were sarcastic and biting, it's Cizmar, Conklin, and Hinman who first slung muck.

Obviously, at risk youth doesn't tell us how many kids actually are prostituted each year in America. But neither does the police arrest records of the 37 biggest American cities. The Village Voice goes to David Finkelhor, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and director of Crimes Against Children Research Center, whom, because they are unable to resist another dig, the reporters describe as a "serious social scientist" (implying the other side is not). Notice the reporters also declined to tell us what Estes and Weiner teach or what positions they may hold. It's a cheap rhetorical technique meant to impugn their credibility and bolster the other side's.

Finkelhor (notice I refer to him the same way as Estes and Weiner) says "As far as I'm concerned, [the study] has no scientific credibility to it" because it was "not subjected to any peer review" and "wasn't published in any scientific journal." Fair enough. It's his opinion, after all, and he doesn't actually provide any reasons to doubt the accuracy of the estimate. He does mention he had to pressure Estes and Weiner to add the qualifier "at risk" to the report.

The strongest refutation of the study comes from Professor Steve Doig, Knight Chair of Journalism at Arizona State University and specialist in "the analysis of quantitative methodology." He says "the study cannot be relied upon as authoritative" because
"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."
What's important to note is that Doig doesn't dismiss the accuracy of the 100,000 to 300,000 per year estimate. He says the methodology used to arrive at it by Estes and Weiner "doesn't magically produce a solid number." Epistemology is different than truth; just because the route taken there doesn't guarantee the right answer doesn't therefore mean the answer is wrong.[1]

Finkelhor admits "there's no way to know for sure how many child prostitutes there are in America."
"All we have in the way of really hard evidence is what the police arrests are," he says. "They're way low. They're certainly not an underestimate, but it seems to me that it's incumbent on anyone who is writing about the problem to at least include that number on one end of the continuum, because that's probably the most justifiable number you have."
Let me reiterate that point for you again. Neither Finkelhor nor Doig says 100,000 or more children are not lost to prostitution each year. They don't believe the The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico proves it. But the Village Voice forms conclusions its own experts decline to make and runs with them against their own admission that "There are, quite simply, no precise numbers on child prostitution" (emphasis in original).

This is, quite simply, a sensationalist story attacking a prominent celebrity couple and their campaign to gain eyeballs. There's a B plot about religious creep and "devout Smith" crusading against porn, kids having sex with each other, oral sex, and heavy petting. But the trio wraps up the story in righteous tones, claiming to finally stand up for the real victims and criticizing groups for inflating numbers and having "their hands out for government funding or charitable contributions" and thus depriving trauma-recovery and support services from funding in a zero-sum game.

I don't know why the Senate bill sponsored by Wyden and Cornyn to fund six shelters and provide "beds, counseling, clothing, case work, and legal services" hasn't cleared the Senate and moved to the House yet. The Village Voice would have you believe the vote's hung up on Ashton and Demi's 100,000+ per year estimate.

[1] The article also quotes Jay Albanese, a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, who says all the "human trafficking" studies (not just the ones on child prostitution) are "crap" and "all guesswork, speculation... The numbers are inherently unbelievable." Without more than an assertion, Albanese's opinion is subject to the same judgment he reserves for human trafficking studies.

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  1. Great post. Glad someone is still sane on the topic :)

  2. Oh, thank god. I posted on VV for a bit until I realized that three or four of the people there were literally just trolling. At that point, there was no point in going back to try to discuss anything. No point in giving them any traffic.

    The problem with VV's report is also that they do not take human trafficking as a problem in its entirety.

    They found 400 people right there. The problem with using only arrest records, also, is that you can arrest one pimp who has 50-200 girls, yet it only counts as one arrest. Of the 400 Thai people who were rescued, only 6 people were arrested for trafficking.

    VV's numbers are far, far, far more deceptive than the ones used by Kutcher. DOJ has stated that studying human trafficking is incredibly diffcult, and that kind of study takes some serious funding.

    In NYC alone, the NIJ found evidence of 4,000 humans who have been trafficked, yet only a few have been arrested. The people who are actually trafficked are not arrested. They are "rescued" and then deported.

    It's incredibly frustrating to see how many Americans posting on VV can't look beyond their own borders and realize that most of the victims of human trafficking in the U.S. are not U.S. citizens or U.S. children.

  3. You are arguing a straw man if you think anybody is saying the 827 figure represents the entirety of underage trafficking in the US. Those numbers likely represents a real figure in the low thousands, perhaps as many as ten thousand.

    But sorry, do you really think the real figure is several orders of magnitude higher than the arrest figures? In the hundreds of thousands? And that this widespread and heinous crime is almost completely hidden to law enforcement? If that's what you believe, you crossed the line in the kind of nonsense perpetuated during the missing children/Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of the 80s and 90s.

  4. Curious, do you realize that you're guessing with much less information than the scholars, crime enforcement agencies, and organizations that have actually researched this for decades? Somehow, I'm just supposed to take your word for it that you THINK it's in the low thousands. What proof do you have of that at all? You are hanging your hat on ONE number suggested by a *2* month research attempt in ONLY 37 cities in the US. Yet somehow, your number is right while theirs is just a filthy lie. Do you not see how ridiculous that sounds?

    Do a quick search on human trafficking arrests on google. Just recently 400 Thai people were freed from a human trafficking ring where only 6 people were arrested. Those 400 people already account for HALF of the numbers cited by VV. That's one arrest where only 6 people got arrested. They were moving those people into states like Kentucky and Mississpi and Washington. Likely places that VV never looked at.

    In the Attorney General's Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of the U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons Fiscal Year 2007, a recent study done in NYC identified at least 4,000 victims of human trafficking just in that city. Since most human trafficking are here for labor, not sex, it's actually very unlikely that they're in a place like NYC because there's very little manual labor or manufacturing industries there. That's why most arrests have been made in places like Maryland, Texas, and southern California.

    Here's the other issue. The only numbers that VV posted was 827. That's the number that readers will read and see. Many people will simply skim the article and others will only remember the printed number. It's also a very false number to present and to begin with because it represents arrests, NOT the number of victims of human trafficking. In fact, most of the news stories don't even report the number of actual victims involved. It just reports the number of arrests made.

    Okay, so let's just assume for a moment that all the lying organizations and governments are actually telling the truth and the extrapolated numbers based on the data they have been gathering for years are actually right. What do you think is worse? Kutcher claiming that 100,000-300,000 people are victims of human trafficking in the U.S. or VV citing that he's horribly overstating the number and putting out the number 827?

    By the way, do you have any idea why there's no comprehensive studies done by the DOJ? They do not get enough funding to do it. WIC got $7.3 BILLION in funding in 2009. The PROPOSED budget cut in 2010 was for $500 million. That's twice the money that is put towards combating human trafficking in just the proposed cut alone. So think about that when you keep whining about how much is being spent on human trafficking.

    People who get WIC help eat better than me or my children do, and I work 40 to 60 hours a week. Human trafficking victims work even harder and get even less. You really think that fighting human trafficking isn't worth 1/1000th of what we spend on people who are happy to live off the government teat?

    And before you and your VV cronies come over here whining about these numbers, you can look them all up yourselves, and you will find them verified.

  5. @ Dalaena I got frustrated at the VV site, too. Nobody there (1) reads all that carefully to see the article actually says it doesn't bother counting anything but kids who get arrested for prostitution in the 37 largest cities or (2) wants to do anything but take shots at celebrities.

    As for the pimp arrest point, I agree and that's why I made it my #4 point :) The link about prostituted kids along major traffic routes points to a FAQ for an organization in Oklahoma. They cite a raid at OK truck stops called "Stormy Nights" that rescued 23 girls. Based on the way VV counted numbers, these girls wouldn't have been included since they (1) weren't in one of the 37 largest US cities and (2) we're arrested for child prostitution, they were rescued.

  6. @iamcuriousblue I don't know what the number of kids being sexually abused for profit in the US is. Neither does VV but it's definitely way more than 827. And, sadly, neither do the police and they admit they can't investigate all allegations or easily determine when a child has been trafficked or prostituted if they aren't arresting them on the street.

    Notice, I didn't say the 100,000 to 300,000 estimate is correct, either, only that the VV has severely underestimated the problem and then used that poor estimate to make person attacks on Ashton and Demi, connect the DNA Foundation to an anti-sex crusader to impugn its credibility, and then tried to claim the "high ground" by saying its the only party in the argument "concerned about the victims." Ashton's recent blog response actually shows DNA Foundation had supported the Wyden-Cornyn bill, contrary to what VV asserted.

    Do I think it's invisible to police because they are evil, paid off, or incompetent? No. But I do think they are stretched very thin, overworked, underpaid, and not well trained enough to recognize the problem. In fact, if you ask them, they'll admit the same thing. And, as I pointed out in 15 and Dalaena has stated, human trafficking for sex is also part of the problem that's being missed because victims are being processed for immigration or other legal violations and the sexual exploitation isn't being recognized.

    I think the other issue here is that the definition of "child prostitution" isn't really clear. The way the VV has counted the numbers, based on arrest statistics of kids picked up for underage prostitution, they are only looking at a very small facet of the problem. These are likely to be kids on the street rather than in brothels. I think they know they're making this assumption when they say the problem is going to be less and less prevalent as you move away from cities (i.e. the "rural Kansas" comment). But advocates on the issue, myself included, recognize that streetwalking like Jodi Foster's Iris character in Taxi Driver isn't the only way or even the most common way that prostituting kids happens.

    If the police don't recognize the kid as underage at first when they arrest, it wouldn't be counted in the VV estimate. If the kid is rescued instead of arrested, they wouldn't be counted. Raids on brothels or during transportation are likely to yield large numbers of victims. If they are arrested during transportation, they will likely be taken into custody for an immigration violation, not child prostitution, even if that was the intended outcome AND had been happening to them before. This is a fatal flaw in the VV methodology.

    All of the 100,000 to 300,000 stuff is kind of moot now. Ashton admitted he misspoke. The study the VV cites as the origin of that statistic only claimed that 100,000 to 300,000 kids were at risk each year of being sexually exploited, not that that many new victimizations happened.

    But what remains is that the VV statistic of 827 being abused in America is way, way, way too low. I think, at the very least, we can agree on that. Nice allusion to the Satanic Ritual Abuse fiasco. If you noticed, I said I didn't want to rouse the specter of white slavery rings kidnapping American teens by the droves and taking them overseas. I'm not irrational. I prepared a 16 point analysis pointing to the flaws in the way that the VV re-presented the analysis they undertook and had Doig look over. They took arrest records of kids in 37 cities and asserted that that represents an estimate for the whole US for all forms of child sexual abuse for profit. It's myopic and I have strong reasons to believe it's myopic.


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