Lost Boys

New research demolishes the stereotype of the underage sex worker—and sparks an outbreak of denial among child-sex-trafficking alarmists nationwide

At the behest of advocates who work with pimped girls, along with a scattering of U.S. celebrities who help to publicize the cause, the bipartisan Senate tag team of Oregon’s Ron Wyden, a Democrat, and John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican, is pushing for federal legislation that would earmark another $12 million to $15 million a year to fund six shelters reserved exclusively for underage victims of sex trafficking. (In an editorial published this past July, Village Voice Media expressed its support for the initiative, now folded into the pending Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.)

Although the language of the bill is gender-neutral, some advocates point to the disproportionate influence wielded by groups who direct their efforts exclusively at pimped girls. They worry that anti-sex-trafficking funding might increasingly ignore boys and transgender youths, not to mention kids of any gender who aren’t enslaved by a pimp but sell sex on their own volition.

Jennifer Dreher, who heads the anti-trafficking program at Safe Horizon, a New York nonprofit whose Streetwork Project has targeted juvenile prostitutes and homeless youths since 1984, says if federal lawmakers took the time to read the John Jay report, they would better grasp the complexity of the issue.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Village Voice Media, which owns this publication, owns the classified site Backpage.com. In addition to used cars, jobs and couches, readers can also find adult ads on Backpage; for this reason, certain activists and clergy members have called attention to the site, sometimes going so far as to call for its closure.

Certainly we have a stake in this discussion. And we do not object to those who suggest an apparent conflict of interest. We sat quietly and did not respond as activists held symposiums across America—from Seattle to Miami—denouncing Backpage. Indeed, we were never asked for response.

But then we looked at the "science" behind many of these activists' claims, and the media's willingness, without question, to regurgitate a litany of incredible statistics. In the interest of a more informed discussion, we decided to write.

“We have been seeing and talking about this population for so long, but that kind of tug-at-your-heartstrings narrative was the only one focused on,” Dreher says, referring to the stereotype of the pimped little girl.

Certainly those girls are out there, Dreher says, and they’re in need of help and compassion. But they’re only a small segment of the underage population commercially exploited for sex. If you want to eradicate the scourge, argues Dreher, “Then you have to recognize the 90 percent of other types of people that this John Jay College study found.”

Ric Curtis couldn’t agree more. “All of the advocates are focused on girls,” he fumes. “I’m totally outraged by that—I can’t tell you how angry I am about that. The most victimized kids that I met with were the boys, especially the straight boys. I felt so bad for those who have no chance with the advocates.”

More than three years after publishing his study, the researcher still smarts from the cold shoulder that greeted his work.

“[Initially] there were a lot of people enthusiastic in Washington that we found such a large number,” he recounts. “Then they look more closely at my findings. And they see, well, it wasn’t 300 kids under the yoke of some pimp, in fact, it was half boys, and only 10 percent of all of the kids were being pimped. And [then] it was a very different reception.”

Dank, who now researches human trafficking and commercial sex at the nonpartisan Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., is equally baffled at the study’s lack of traction outside the halls of the Justice Department.

“We’re not denying that [pimped girls] exist,” she emphasizes. “But if you were to take all the newspaper, magazine, and journal articles that have been written on this, you’d come away saying, ‘Oh, my God! Every child-prostitution incident involves a pimp situation!’ It’s this huge thing. Where really, at the end of the day, yes, that is an issue, but we’re at the point where we need to look beyond this one subgroup of the population and look at commercial sexual exploitation of children as a whole.”

About a year after the John Jay study commenced, the Justice Department set its sights on Atlanta and awarded a $452,000 grant to Mary Finn, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University. Finn’s 2007 study had two goals: first, to calculate the population of the metro area’s underage sex workers. And second, to evaluate the work of an assemblage of government agencies and nonprofits that had joined forces to combat child prostitution.

The coalition Finn was to assess had formed several years prior with $1 million in Justice Department funding. Heading it up: the Juvenile Justice Fund, a child-advocacy agency allied with the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, and the Harold and Kayrita Anderson Family Foundation. The trio of nonprofits had commissioned a child-prostitution survey whose alarming findings were destined to be regurgitated nationwide by an unquestioning media—and whose methodology, in turn, would be exposed as entirely bogus and discounted by a veritable who’s who of child-prostitution researchers.

To kick off the project, Finn arranged a meeting with representatives of the collaborative and invited Curtis along to help break the ice. It seemed like a good idea: Curtis had accrued a wealth of experience thanks to his one-year head start, and the researchers would ultimately share their findings in a final report. But what was intended as an exercise in diplomacy quickly devolved into a debacle.

The get-together began to unravel when Finn explained that the Justice Department’s guidelines required her team to gather its data without regard to gender or motive—in other words, that they would be calculating the prevalence of commercial sex among both boys and girls and that both trafficking and so-called survival sex were fair game.

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