Sunday, July 3, 2011

more reasons not to trust the village voice's estimates of the number of "child prostitutes" in america

In case you missed it, on 29 June the Village Voice published an article titled "Real Men Get Their Facts Straight" in which they argued the number of children being exploited sexually for profit in the US each year is only about 827 based on a survey conducted of arrests of minors for prostitution in the 37 largest US cities. This number is much lower than the 100,000 to 300,000 estimate that Ashton Kutcher provided during his appearance on CNN's Piers Morgan show. The debate got heated via twitter and Ashton pointed out that Village Voice Media owns both the Village Voice and, a site known to facilitate in prostitution. It had earlier been brought to court and accused of knowingly promoting child prostitution through its online service.

Ashton then proceeded to target the Village Voice's advertisers, asking them to withdraw ads from the media company in protest the company's lack of vigorous policing to prevent exploitation of children through its services. In other words, Ashton decided to hit VV where it hurt: their bottom line.

The Village Voice shot back via twitter The feed confirmed several things about the original Village Voice story; things those siding with the paper have often downplayed or ignored.

VV sticks by its original assertion that the number of child victims of sexual exploitation for profit is a little over 800 per year. It uses its survey of arrest records of children arrested for prostitution in the 37 largest US cities and what they assert is a lack of phone calls or internet searches, I assume reporting abuse, to confirm its belief that the number is around 800 instead of 100,000 to 300,000 a year.

You can add this as number 17 to the reasons not to trust the Village Voice's estimate of the number of "child prostitutes" in America. Their statistic is generated by aggregating the arrest records over the past 10 years and then dividing by 10 to give a rough estimate of the number of kids being exploited per year. However, since awareness raising and training should hopefully make the public more aware and thus more likely to report suspected abuses and training should make police more able to identify victims and support them (the intent of campaigns like Real Men Don't Buy Girls and an activity the VV attacks), the report should have provided stats for each year to show how arrests were actually trending. Instead, the Village Voice gives an average per year which would hide the successes or failures of awareness raising campaigns.

The use of something like rescue numbers to supplement the arrest records would also provide a picture of how effective awareness raising and training were. If arrests declined as rescues went dramatically up, we could say that awareness and training were effectively helping victims instead of criminalizing and penalizing them. Peer review of the Village Voice report most likely would have addressed this. In fact, an even-handed report on the estimate would have done the same. As it is, you can see arrests per year on the interactive map they provide but if you want aggregate data, to link it to awareness or training initiatives in the city, police spending, demographic changes in the city, or anything else, you're on your own. But the Village Voice wanted sensationalism, not serious data.

Why for instance, does Detroit have 20 arrests in 2002, but 7 or fewer every other year? why did the numbers go from 0-1 arrest per year 2000-2002 in Dallas, the jump to 4-5 over 2003-2004, double to 9 in 2005, and then double again in 2006 to 18, and then jump up to nearly 30 a year until 2009, the last year for which data was collected? Does this represent more children being exploited in the city or the public and law enforcement better able to recognize the signs of exploitation? Some cities are trending up in arrests while others are trending down. Does that mean fewer exploited teens in NYC (109 in 2000 down to 49 in 2009) or does that mean instead of arresting them, NYPD is recognizing the signs of abuse and sending more and more rescued kids to shelters and support organizations?

The picture the Village Voice paints for you is of a static 800 or so children being sexually exploited each year for money. The statistics they provide on their website simply don't support that assertion. More kids are arrested in some years than others in the same city. Why? In another 10 years, as awareness raising continues and training for police becomes more sophisticated, will we see more arrests? Or will we see fewer arrests of children, more kids in shelters and support programs, and more traffickers and pimps in court and behind bars? The Village Voice statistics muddy the picture with unexplained trends.

I'm not going to lie. This is hard stuff to figure out. To understand just what the raw arrest records for children being arrested for child prostitution over the past 10 years in America's 37 largest cities indicate requires a lot of further investigation into a lot of other potentially complicated factors. The Village Voice obviously didn't do this, especially in just 2 months time. Cizmar, Conlin, and Hinman's statistic misrepresents as stagnant a portrait of child exploitation in America that's defined by dynamism.

(A very important side note: Much is made by the Village Voice over consent and choice of the sex worker. As a society, we should condemn sex work by children universally. In Europe, treaties and conventions explicitly state that a child can never consent to be trafficked or to exploited for sex work. I would hope US law is on the same page.)

For clear evidence of the severe undercounting of the Village Voice study, check out the interactive map they created. Very catchy. Very persuasive. Very wrong.

Notice there are no stats captured for Oklahoma. In 2004, operation Stormy Nights rescued 23 girls being prostituted at truck stops throughout Oklahoma. They didn't show up in the Village Voice count. And the problem with children being prostituted at truck stops isn't just confined to Oklahoma. Hundreds of girls are rescued in operations like Stormy Nights. And yet, year after year, the supply of children to be sexually abused for profit doesn't seem to diminish.

Another major problem with the Village Voice estimate is revealed in its remark that the "root causes" or "children hooking" are "homelessness and drug use." The problem is with definition. The only facet of the problem they want to see and bother to count is streetwalking which they link very strongly with runaways. I made this point before when I said they think every child prostitute walks and talks like Jodi Foster's character Iris in Taxi Driver. Homelessness and drug use are not the root causes of human trafficking for sexual and labor exploitation. They aren't the root causes of being sold by your mother, father, or sister. It's certainly part of the problem but it's not the only problem.

And as for the allegation that DNA Foundation wants to inflate numbers to get government funding while ignoring efforts at support for victims, Ashton tweeted his exchange with Senator Wyden's Press Office which acknowledges the longstanding support of the DNA Foundation. Obviously the reporters three didn't bother to interview Ashton, Demi, or the DNA Foundation before they ran with their story. Otherwise a simple question like "what do you think about the Wyden-Cornyn bill's inclusion in the TVPRA" might have turned up this avenue of work of the DNA Foundation. But unfounded, unexplored accusations are the hallmark of publicity seeking, not solid journalism. He also points them to Gems Girls and Cast, two organizations the DNA Foundation supports who provide shelter and support to victims.

But the real kicker comes from the Village Voice responding to Ashton's comments about backpage dot com. The Village Voice lumps Ashton together with Linda Smith, the crusader against oral sex and porn they conjured as the boogeyman in the article and use to insinuate an anti-sex shadow agenda behind organizations working to end child sexual exploitation. VV insinuates that the real aim is "targeting of legal adult freedoms."

Several problems. First, outside of certain counties in Nevada, prostitution is not legal in the United States. Perhaps we have stumbled upon the secret agenda of Cizmar, Conklin, and Hinman or perhaps the Village Voice more generally. I'm sure they didn't mean that that's what is meant to do because aiding and profiting from prostitution are both illegal, too. Remember when craigslist shut down it's erotic services ads and pledged before Congress they wouldn't restart them? Yeah, that's because they became aware they were being used to facilitate prostitution and many of the ads were offering children and trafficked persons who did not consent or choose to be in sex work.

Second, even in countries where prostitution is legal, the use of services like are known to be avenues for sexually exploiting children and trafficked persons. I'm aware of the problem in both the UK and Israel.

I don't want to delve too deeply into a debate about freedom and I'm not saying that NGOs don't lump consenting prostitutes in with persons who have been trafficked, exploited, forced, or abused. But to say, as the Village Voice did, that all efforts to combat sexual exploitation and human trafficking are just a smokescreen to take away adult freedoms is inaccurate and a wee bit desperate.

Ashton recently admitted that he misspoke on the Piers Morgan show when he said that 100,000 to 300,000 children were being trafficked every year in the US. He admits there aren't any solid statistics but supports efforts for a comprehensive study. And he also presses the Village Voice over its profiting off of sexual exploitation of children and trafficked people through the use of backpage dot com.

As far as I know, the Village Voice has not responded yet.

So where does that leave us? Ashton has backed off the 100,000+ estimate of children being sexually exploited in the US each year. And yet the Village Voice number is a major underestimate based on flawed methodology and the Village Voice continues to make money off its backpage dot com service even though many of the persons "contracting" through it are not consenting either because of age or coercion. A comprehensive study of sexually exploited children for profit in the US has not been undertaken since the 2001 study by University of Pennsylvania professors Estes and Weiner.

I encourage you to let the Village Voice know you don't agree with their statistics or their stance. Use the hashtag

#getyourfactsstraight @villagevoice

to demand they improve their id verification on backpage dot com to prevent children and trafficked persons from being exploited through their service. Demand they use that US$20 million profit from the service to fund a comprehensive study to measure the extent of children being exploited sexually for profit in the US. You can link to Ashton's blog response or any of the links or arguments in this blog post or the previous "16 reasons you shouldn't trust the village voice's estimates of child prostitutes in the US".

Don't let the Village Voice diminish the number of children being sexually exploited and abused for profit each year in the US and then slink off after the damage is done. As the Village Voice pointed out with the 2001 study, without awareness raising and public pressure, things don't move forward and false statistics get repeated again and again. They want to lowball the harm at "merely" 827 kids per year. Don't let them downplay the harm that's being done to children and trafficked people and hide behind "freedom" and "consent" when the people we're talking about have neither. I encourage you to keep the momentum building.

Thank you.

To support the efforts of the DNA foundation:

I would also direct your attention to:


  1. You start out with a lie and then descend into a junk analysis.

    The Village Voice NEVER claimed to provide an estimate of the number of child prostitutes in America.

    It focused solely on proving Ashton data was a lie - and it succeeded.

    Even the researcher Ashton quoted as his source says the data is being misused. Estes' research was on children "at-risk" whereas Ashton conflated that into children "actually engaged."

    Ultimately, it seems you didn't bother to read the Village Voice article before writing your poorly considered screed.


    Serious issue deserve the truth. In other words, don't be a Kelso.

  2. Wow, thanks for trying. Glad you actually read my article rather than parroting the VV. Really, "screed?" How original you are...

    You assume I agreed with Ashton's estimate in the first place. Try re-reading this article and my previous one. Go ahead, READ. I never endorse 100,000+ as the number of children being sexually exploited for money in American every year. In fact, I specifically say I don't know what the number is but it's substantially higher than the VV estimate of 827. But again, thanks for trying, robot.

    They repeat several times that it's an estimate of the number of child prostitutes in the article and repeat the same assertion in their twitter replies to @aplusk .They equate over and over again the arrest records of children for prostitution in America's 37 biggest cities as the extent of exploiting children sexually for money in the US. And what I pointed out is that equation is just plain wrong.

    Quoting them from twiiter:

    "@aplusk During a mass panic you would expect hotline calls or 'net searches? But where are the 300,000 victims? Police only find 800/year."
    (that would be 800 victims)

    From the article:

    "We examined arrests for juvenile prostitution in the nation's 37 largest cities during a 10-year period.

    To the extent that underage prostitution exists, it primarily exists in those large cities.

    Law enforcement records show that there were only 8,263 arrests across America for child prostitution during the most recent decade.

    That's 827 arrests per year.

    Some cities, such as Salt Lake City and Orlando, go an entire year without busting a child prostitute. Others, such as Las Vegas, arrest or recover 100 or so per year.

    Compare 827 annually with the 100,000 to 300,000 per year touted in the propaganda.

    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."

    They assert that all that matters are the big cities because the amount of trafficking and exploitation going on in rural Kansas is insignificant. Do you remember that part of the original article? And yet reports from Minnesota and Oklahoma after the 2001 Estes and Weiner study show sexual exploitation of children for profit happening in rural areas. Lots of it.

  3. (cont.)

    Article quoting Melinda Giovengo:

    "'"That seems to be a very accurate count and is reflective of what the data shows.'"
    (the 800 numer is asserted to be correct)

    And again from the article:

    "So, if there are slightly more than 800 underage arrests a year, where did an estimate as horrible as several hundred thousand come from?"

    What's the lie I start out with? That 827 per year is too low? And what's junk analysis? The facts, figures, an analysis I'm providing actually delving into the what's being counted and what's being missed with arrest records. It's easy to bandy around empty words without any support.

    All my articles focus on is proving that the VV is grossly underestimating the number of children being sexually exploited in the US per year. And I succeeded. I never wedded myself to the 100,000+ as you assumed I did.

    You try to be clever, but where you actually say something coherent (i.e. that Estes says it's an estimate of at-risk), I agree with it AND INCLUDE IT IN MY ARTICLE. Proof that you didn't read and think but simply cut and pasted some generic response.

    You're right, serious issues deserve truth. Not VV intentionally downplaying the problem to protect their backpage dot com revenue and generate some cheap publicity by picking a fight with a celebrity.

    The maturity level exhibited by both the reporters and yourself is astounding. Besides ad hominem attacks, do you have anything to say? Can you show me a flaw in my analysis? Saying there is doesn't make it so.

  4. Keep in mind, if a truly comprehensive study found that just 25,000 (a quarter of 100k), or 10,000 (a tenth), or 5,000 (1/20th), or even just 2,500, I would be correct to say the VV substantially underestimated the number of kids being sexually exploited for profit in the US each year. Not technically correct. Correct.

    2,500 would be 3x as many kids being harmed per year than the VV estimates. That's a significant number.

    It would be one thing to say that Ashton misquoted the findings of the Estes & Weiner study from 2001. It's an entirely different kettle of fish to insist that arrests of kids for prostitution in America's 37 biggest cities equals the problem of children being sexually exploited for profit in the US as the VV repeatedly does.

    The VV only counted up arrests of kids for prostitution in 37 cities over 10 years and averaged to get to the magical number of 827 victims per year. They don't extrapolate to the rest of the country; they say that's unnecessary because the number of victim there is insignificant. They don't consider how social trends or training may impact arrests, causing them to go up or down. To assert anything else means misreading the original VV article, the methodology it clearly lays out, and ignoring Professor Doig, the only statistician in the bunch.

    The VV estimate is plainly and simply wrong.

    MAKE OVER $10,000 PER WEEK.