Sex-trafficking stereotype demolished by new research

Alarmists nationwide in denial

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's decaying Oldsmobile, circa 1992, 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.

Brian Stauffer
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.
Ashlie 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.

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VILLAGE VOICE MEDIA ASKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT OF SENATE BILL 596

If there is not a tsunami of underage prostitutes in America, that is not to say that there are no children trapped in this world. Of course there are.

Yet, as we have pointed out in numerous stories, few resources have been devoted to sheltering the victims.

If you want to help children trapped in underage prostitution, there is something you can do.

U. S. Senate Bill 596 deserves your attention and your support. This legislation would, for the first time, provide federal funding for beds and assistance to underage victims of prostitution.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced SB 596 on March 16, 2011. The key component is six one-year grants of $2,000,000 to $2,500,000 for shelter and counseling.

As you can imagine, a child engaged in prostitution brings a difficult mix of issues to the table including, but not limited to, drug addiction, sexual abuse, and homelessness. These are problems that need sustained attention.

And funding.

In an article published last June ("Real Men Get Their Facts Straight"), we cited the Bridge program in Seattle, which is one of the few efforts in the entire country devoted to housing underage prostitutes. (The Bridge is financed locally.)

"These children, as victims, need more trauma-recovery services, "director Melinda Giovengo told us. "There is evidence that a dedicated residential recovery program, with wraparound mental-health, chemical dependence, and educational and vocational services, provided by well-trained specialists, both on-site and in the community, can help young victims of commercial sexual exploitation in breaking free of the track."

There are fewer than 100 beds scattered across the nation dedicated to these children.

The $15 million proposal from Senators Cornyn and Wyden is a cold, hard number. A fact.

Facts are important if you want to address underage prostitution.

Since 1997 the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for religious groups, prohibitionists, and reformers all over the world to end human trafficking. Yet the proposed funds in SB 596 are the first dollars earmarked to put a roof over the head of victims in America.

By painting the sex-trafficking problem in this country as overwhelming, advocates may actually be hurting the children who truly need help.

Instead of helping victims, states are now passing legislation aimed at suppressing cabaret dancers. Instead of helping victims, prohibitionists are attacking pornography.

Facts are important because facts, not emotion, keep you focused.

HOW TO REACH SENATORS CORNYN AND WYDEN:

Sen. John Cornyn:
The Honorable John Cornyn
United States Senate
517 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-4303
Phone: 202-224-2934

Email: Senator Cornyn doesn't have a direct email address, but you can send him an email if you fill out a contact form with name, address, etc.:

Sen. Ron Wyden
The Honorable Ron Wyden
United States Senator
223 Dirksen State Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-3703
Phone: 202-224-5244

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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. Two were underage, and all three were skittish about climbing into a car with two strangers and a tape recorder.

Dispirited though they may have been, 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 three 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-on-one, 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.

"Out of the two of them, I thought she would have been the catalyst," Dank says now. "But his was the magic coupon."

Within a day her phone was "blowing up" with calls from kids who'd been referred by the homeless man. Almost as quickly word got around that two professors were holding late-afternoon "office hours" at Stuyvesant Park and would pay half the going rate for oral sex in exchange for a brief interview. Before long the researchers found themselves working long past dark, until they'd covered everyone in line or the rats got too feisty.

Nine months later Dank and Curtis had far surpassed their goal, completing interviews with 249 underage prostitutes. From that data, they were able to put a number on the total population of New York's teen sex workers: 3,946.

Most astonishing to the researchers was the demographic profile teased out by the study. Published by the U.S. Department of Justice in September 2008, Curtis and Dank's findings thoroughly obliterated the long-held core assumptions about underage prostitution:

  • Nearly half of the kids—about 45 percent—were boys.
  • Only 10 percent were involved with a "market facilitator" (e.g., a pimp).
  • About 45 percent got into the "business" through friends.
  • More than 90 percent were U.S.-born (56 percent were New York City natives).
  • On average, they started hooking at age 15.
  • Most serviced men—preferably white and wealthy.
  • Most deals were struck on the street.
  • Almost 70 percent of the kids said they'd sought assistance at a youth-service agency at least once.
  • Nearly all of the youths—95 percent—said they exchanged sex for money because it was the surest way to support themselves.
  • In other words, the typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery, and is not held captive by a pimp.
  • Nearly all the boys and girls involved in the city's sex trade are going it alone.
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8 comments
Mmeyer1947
Mmeyer1947

Fact: backpage.com promotes the sale of sex which fuels the flames of sex trafficking. MN is one of the 13 worse states in the US regarding sex trafficking of women, men, girls and boys. Both MN Senators are backing and cosponsoring (as is Representitive Keith Ellision in the House) the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act our nations leading anti slavery and trafficking bill now going through the House and Senate for renewal. Sen Franken also wrote and sponsored important legislation to fight trafficking in Indian Reservations, and, the St Paul Police Departments Trafficking unit recently identified, at the Daybreak Human Trafficking Forum, backpage.com as a leading methods of selling sex in MN. 37 Attorney Generals (including MN) have co-signed a letter to Village Voice Media (owner of backpage.com and City pages) identifying the damage you are doing to enable sex trafficking. backpage.com please be a part of the solution and not the problem.

2wmcg
2wmcg

Good article. The villains of the piece are: (a) well-educated and well-funded, (b) moralistic - they need an unsympathetic figure, a pimp, to personalize their fight against evil when the real problem is lack of family structure & jobs. Such attitudes extend well beyond the sex industry.

Bear
Bear

Many true facts here. However, wonder how vocal Village Voice Media (Owner of City Pages) would have been if 38 Attorney Generals (including Minnesota) had not sent you letter recently pointing out your "ongoing failure to limit prostitution and sexual trafficking on it's web site" backpage.com. I attended Daybreak Human Trafficking forum just two weeks ago in Bloomington and backpage.com was pointed out several times, including St Paul Police Department Sex Trafficking unit, as a key tool used to engage in prostitution. Mn is one of 13 worse offending states when it comes to sex trafficking. This is one of the reasons both of our Senators are supporting and co-sponsoring the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, as is Representative Keith Ellision. It's easy to throw up the 1st amendment or FCC ruling about publications not responsible for 3rd party advertising. However the fact is, for the most part, people employed in prostitution are victims (and treated that way by St Paul Police) and not criminals. Whether boys, girls, women or men your on-line service, bacpage.com,is grossly contributing to the problem. Is a boycott by City Pages advertisers the only means to get you to stop this service?

Tlcprogressive
Tlcprogressive

No matter how we look at the issue of child sexual abuse (which this is really about) a civilized response to the problem would be to pay the expenses for every child to get the support they need to get out regardless of why they are in the sex industry. Attempting to ignore the real issue of sexual abuse and pointing to the pathology of children because we have a society that does not function to protect them is at best disgusting. The Village Voice and City Pages make plenty of revenue from the sale of young people and children that I would not believe any article that attempts to analyze this particular issue. In fact the funding and the revenue of the research firm that funds the Cornell method of research is questionable at best. What is even more amazing about the timing of this article is the lack of coverage of a recent study that came out about sex trafficking in Minnesota on Indian Reservations. I would look at the narrowing of research methods that do not account for new technologies and ways to traffic children and people across state lines and international borders.

Valerie Hurst
Valerie Hurst

Another sad attempt to distract from the fact that Village Voice media makes a lot of $ through its adult services classifieds, which are not monitored enough to exclude underage prostitution. So what if these kids don't technically have pimps? What teenager is going to choose a life of prostitution/manipulation if he or she has any other choice, especially here in America?

zerofor
zerofor

That's the point. The study is saying that a lot of young people DON'T have a choice.

Jeff Friesen
Jeff Friesen

Wow. What a powerful article. It really shines a light on the help industry, especially down south. It is interesting that Oregon is sited as dealing with this in a fact based way, while at the same time the area is put down by the MSM as a haven for pimps. Makes one think about what their motivations could be - maybe a new aged way of hippy punching.

Rbell20620
Rbell20620

Solid, well thought out feature writing that's provocative as hell. Cudoz to the resesrchers, writer and City Pages. You rock!

 
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