The problem is that the claim is based on a seriously flawed methodology--the numbers presented to news outlets as hard statistics are actually based on guesses. The researchers look at photographs posted to online classifieds sites like Craigslist and Backpage and guess who looks under 18.
Beth Schapiro, president of the Schapiro Group, sent us a letter today defending her study. Here's her letter in its entirety:[jump]
For 27 years, The Schapiro Group has been carefully and meticulously conducting strategic research for a variety of government, corporate, and non-profit clients - distinguished organizations that profoundly influence how communities work and thrive.
In a subject area where most research involves educated guesswork, The Schapiro Group has pioneered empirical, replicable research methodologies for studying the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC).Beginning in 2007 with a first-of-its-kind statewide tracking study of CSEC victims in Georgia, The Schapiro Group has a track record of developing innovative, common sense methodologies to better understand this hard-to-measure social phenomenon. In an area with no proven methodology, The Schapiro Group developed a series of logical assumptions upon which to base an admittedly conservative count of the number of young females being prostituted. Findings from The Schapiro Group studies are providing policymakers, law enforcement, and social service agencies with important insights for combating the formidable CSEC problem.
The Schapiro Group's research has documented a major shift toward the Internet and escort services, and away from street solicitation, for procurement of underage girls. So it would come as no surprise that those with a commercial interest in this marketplace might seek to try and undermine the research.
This appears to be the case in the story published by Village Voice Media Holdings, the same company that owns Backpage.com. The Backpage website has an "Escorts" section that contains ads in which females use thinly-veiled language to advertise their sexual services and the rates for those services. Because Backpage charges a fee for and stands to profit from each posting, recent estimates are that Village Voice Media Holdings earns millions of dollars annually from all of these "escort" ads across the nation.
As the article notes at the outset, "Certainly we have a stake in this discussion." The writer made that abundantly clear by beginning our interview openly expressing his "skepticism" toward the research. Any doubts about his objectivity were confirmed by the overwhelmingly negative tone of the article. With an intent to trash, not explain, the research, it's not surprising that the article is replete with "bogus," "fake," "junk," and other words that reveal his true agenda.
We encourage any reporter with questions about whether or not children are prostituted on Internet classifieds websites to check with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The problem of prostituted children on Internet websites is well-documented fact.Had the writer done his homework on The Schapiro Group, he might have learned of our legacy of solid, scientific studies performed by our highly talented team of applied social research experts. He also would have learned that we are not in the business of telling clients what they want to hear; rather, our clients and our interests are best served when we tell them where the data lead us. Researchers at The Schapiro Group use methodological rigor to reveal information our clients need to know - regardless of how that information aligns with what anyone presumes the findings will show. On this research topic specifically, we have documented both increases and decreases in the incidence of prostituted children both online and on the streets over the years. Though given his name and contact information, the writer did not speak with nationally recognized CSEC expert Michael Shively, PhD, Senior Associate at Abt Associates Inc., a private research firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Bethesda, Maryland. After reviewing our research, Dr. Shively concluded:
"The Schapiro Group has done a good job of discussing responsibly the inherent difficulties and the limitations of their method, and at each step it looks like they have made reasonable assumptions in interpreting and extrapolating from observations. I think their estimates are conservative. Without firmer data, we have to make our best guesses and reasonable assumptions and proceed from there. And I have no reason to believe that their assumptions are skewed to try to inflate the prevalence of exploited children. The Schapiro Group's body of research is one of the best efforts I've seen to fill a gap - and they have used some creative methods to do so. Until a government or a foundation decides to invest in truly definitive, national research on the size and characteristics of the illegal commercial sex market, we are all left to piece together with less than ideal data an understanding of how many children and adults are selling sex, how much of commercial sex solicitation is online versus the streets, the proportion of the market indoors versus outdoors, and what proportion of those selling sex are compelled and/or minors, and thus victims of trafficking."
The Georgia House of Representatives just passed some of the most progressive legislation in the country on the subject. As award-winning journalist Ann Woolner recently noted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this legislation represents a major cultural shift in perceptions about the prostitution of teenagers.
For the record, as president of The Schapiro Group, I am very proud of the firm's contribution to this cultural shift. We stand fully behind our work - work which puts us on the front line of one of the most critical issues of our time. In finding a solution to some unusual research barriers, I'm proud that we're making an important contribution to addressing this very serious issue.
Beth Schapiro, PhD
The Schapiro Group, Inc.