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 is true that police departments do not arrest every juvenile engaged in sex work. But, surely, they don't ignore the problem.
So, if there are slightly more than 800 underage arrests a year, where did an estimate as horrible as several hundred thousand come from?
There are, quite simply, no precise numbers on child prostitution.
The "100,000 to 300,000" figure that people like Kutcher and Moore trumpet—the same number that's found its way into dozens of reputable newspapers—came from two University of Pennsylvania professors, Richard J. Estes and Neil Alan Weiner.
But what no newspaper has bothered to explain—and what Moore and Kutcher certainly don't mention—is that the figure actually represents the number of children Estes and Weiner considered "at risk" for sexual exploitation, not the number of children actually involved.
Furthermore, the authors of The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, released in 2001, admitted that their statistics are not authoritative.
"The numbers presented in these exhibits do not, therefore, reflect the actual number of cases in the United States but, rather, what we estimate to be the number of children 'at risk' of commercial sexual exploitation," they wrote, underlining their words for emphasis.
Who, then, is at risk?
Not surprisingly, the professors find that any "outsider" is at risk.
All runaways are listed as being at risk.
Yet the federal government's own research acknowledges that "most runaway/thrown-away youth were gone less than one week (77 percent)"—hardly enough time to take up prostitution—"and only 7 percent were away more than one month," according to the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children 2002, commissioned by the Department of Justice.
According to Estes and Weiner, transgender kids and female gang members are also at risk.
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.
Interviewed for this story, Estes offers an explanation about the risk of living on the border that hardly wins points.
"All you have to do is go to San Diego and look at who fills the San Diego trolley going to Tijuana on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and it's very, very obvious that the kids are on the way to Tijuana to make money, and they come back Sunday totally stocked," he says. "They go there for cheap drugs, cheap money, cheap sex—[Tijuana's] full of everything. And that's using public transit, right to the border station."
Rather than taking a trolley to engage in prostitution in a third-world city like Tijuana, isn't it possible that kids from San Diego might simply want a cold Corona south of the border?
Such broad brushstrokes by professors have not endeared the study to such serious social scientists as David Finkelhor, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and director of Crimes Against Children Research Center. Finkelhor's work is cited in the University of Pennsylvania study, and he helped review the report—not that he could've changed the direction of it.
"As far as I'm concerned, [the University of Pennsylvania study] has no scientific credibility to it," he says. "That figure was in a report that was never really subjected to any kind of peer review. It wasn't published in any scientific journal."
Rigorous peer review, as is required for most scientific publishing, could have really helped the study, he says.
"Initially, [Estes and Weiner] claimed that [100,000 to 300,000] was the number of children [engaged in prostitution]. It took quite a bit of pressure to get them to add the qualifier [at risk]," he says.
Professor Steve Doig, Knight Chair of Journalism at Arizona State University, said the "study cannot be relied upon as authoritative."
As for the supposed number of children being exploited as prostitutes, Doig says, "I do not see the evidence necessary to confirm that there are hundreds of thousands of them."
Doig, who specializes in the analysis of quantitative methodology, was contracted by Village Voice Media to examine the science behind the Estes and Weiner study.
"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."
When asked directly, Estes gives an estimate that is much less dramatic.
How many kids are involved in sex slavery—forcibly taken into the trade and abused?
"That number would be small," Estes acknowledges. "Kids who are kidnapped and sold into slavery—that number would be very small."
When we talk about very small, what sort of number are we talking about?
"We're talking about a few hundred people."
Finkelhor says there's no way to know for sure how many child prostitutes there are in America.