By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
"It's between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today," Ashton Kutcher told CNN's Piers Morgan on April 18. That, says Kutcher, is how many kids are lost to prostitution in America every single year. "If you don't do something to stop that, that's when there is something wrong with you, in my opinion."
"We want to make a difference with this," chimed in Kutcher's wife, Demi Moore. "We don't want to just come and talk about it. We want to actually see a change, and that's not going to come by us just, you know, jumping in and doing a little bit and coming and talking."
In order to "make a difference," Kutcher and Moore recently launched a series of public service announcements under the banner "Real Men Don't Buy Girls." In the spots, Kutcher plays a scruffy doofus who'd rather toss out his smelly socks and put on a pair fresh from the package than do a load of laundry. "Real men do their own laundry," an off-camera voice booms. "Real men don't buy girls."
The message is somewhat bewildering, given the lack of context, but there are more like it, all part of a campaign featuring celebrities Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, and Jason Mraz doing cartoonishly manly things, such as trying to shave with a chainsaw and find a car while blindfolded in a parking lot.
Along with his wife, Kutcher, the titular dude of Dude, Where's My Car?, has become the public face of an effort to stop underage trafficking since leaving That '70s Show and Punk'd.
The PSAs have made some observers scratch their heads and others guffaw. Ostensibly about an intense issue—childhood sex slavery—the videos reek of frat-boy humor.
"Is it just me or is there, like, no connection whatsoever between Sean Penn making a grilled cheese with an iron (manly!) and the horrific situation of someone paying for an enslaved 7-year-old to give them a blowjob?" wrote a blogger on TheStir.com.
A blogger for Big Hollywood suggested viewers "sit back and take in a full year's supply of empty-headed, self-important Hollywood narcissism."
But the point isn't that the PSAs are fatuous and silly.
The real issue is that no one has called out Kutcher and Moore for their underlying thesis.
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.
But well-intentioned Hollywood celebrities aren't the only ones pushing this particular hot button.
The underage-prostitution panic has been fueled by a scientific study that was anything but scientific.
The thinly veiled fraud behind the shocking "100,000 to 300,000 child prostitutes" estimate has never been questioned.
The figure has echoed across America, from the halls of Congress to your morning newspaper, from blogs both liberal and conservative. Google it and you'll get 80 pages of results.
Last month, the New York Times breathlessly confided, "An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 American-born children are sold for sex each year."
The Gray Lady was not breaking new ground.
• USA Today: "Each year, 100,000 to 300,000 American kids, some as young as 12..."
• CNN: "There's between 100,000 to 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States..."
• Media Bistro: "There are an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 victims of child prostitution..."
• Salon: "Roughly 100,000 to 300,000 American children are prostituted each year..."
• Family Court Chronicles: "Nationwide, 100,000 to 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation..."
• Wikipedia: "Anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation..."
• U.N. goodwill ambassador Julia Ormond: "100,000 to 300,000 potentially trafficked..."
• Press TV: "Child trafficking rampant in the U.S. An FBI bulletin shows that 100,000 to 300,000 American children..."
• Orphan Justice Center: "An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children in forced prostitution in the U.S...."
• C-SPAN: "Children in our country enslaved sexually...from 100,000 to 300,000..."
But a detailed review of police files across the nation tells another story.
Village Voice Media spent two months researching law enforcement data.
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.
When the local police data was shared with a leading figure in the struggle against underage prostitution, the research struck her as ringing true.
"The Seattle Police Department totally have a handle on the situation and understand the problem," says Melinda Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare, which runs a live-in shelter for underage prostitutes in Seattle. "That seems to be a very accurate count and is reflective of what the data shows."