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 that point, Finn recounts, a Juvenile Justice Fund board member angrily objected, insisting that no child would engage in prostitution by choice. Throughout the debate that ensued, not a single representative from the Atlanta advocates’ contingent uttered a syllable of support for Finn’s approach.

Curtis stepped in, noting that Finn’s methodology made sense in light of his preliminary findings.

The group wasn’t having any of it.

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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.

“The members of the collaborative felt the data couldn’t be accurate—that maybe that’s the case in New York, but it’s certainly not how it is here in Atlanta,” Finn recalls. “That’s when I sensed that they had far more invested—that there was a reason to be so standoffish, to resist so aggressively or assertively, that I wasn’t privy to. What was clear to me was the silence of everyone else: There was some issue of control and power.”

To this day, Finn says, she’s not sure what was behind the hostile reception. But she does provide some compelling historical context.

Back in the late 1990s, she explains, Atlanta women had galvanized to prevent child prostitution. One juvenile-court judge in particular provided a catalyst when she instituted a screening process in her courtroom that was aimed at identifying kids who were engaging in prostitution.

The only children who were questioned about sex work were girls. Boys were never screened.

“The problem was very narrowly defined from the outset,” says Finn.

“I’m a feminist scholar,” she goes on. “I understand the importance of these advocates—who are predominantly women, predominantly concerned about the plight of girls—wanting to retain that focus on that issue. But as a researcher, knowing that this is labeled as ‘child exploitation,’ and knowing that there are numbers in other cities showing boys are being victimized, I had to argue that this was maybe a small but significant population we had to look at.”

Finn soon found herself facing a dilemma on the research front as well.

When Curtis and Dank put out the call for underage sex workers in New York, they were confident they’d be able to find space in an emergency shelter if they encountered an interview subject who appeared to be in immediate peril. Atlanta, on the other hand, was equipped with no emergency shelters for homeless youths. In the absence of any such backstop, Finn concluded, it would be unethical to go hunting for kids to interview.

So she went with Plan B: interviewing law-enforcement agents and social workers; examining arrest records; and mining a countywide database of child-sexual-abuse cases.

Despite the less-than-satisfactory secondary-source approach, Finn figured she’d have plenty of data to mine. After all, she’d seen breathless media reports of trafficking in Atlanta. “The overall market for sex with kids is booming in many parts of the U.S. In Atlanta—a thriving hotel and convention center with a sophisticated airport and ground transportation network—pimps and other lowlifes have tapped into that market bigtime,” blared a 2006 New York Times story.

“I walked in thinking: This is going to be a huge priority for any agency that is dealing with at-risk youth. I mean, goodness, this must be at the top of their agenda for training, protocol—all of it.”

On the contrary, Finn found that most organizations, whether nonprofit or government run, were not systematically documenting cases of child prostitution. Apart from 31 juvenile arrests police had made over a four-year period, there were virtually no numbers for her to compile.

“It was almost like nobody wants to document their existence,” Finn says. “Whether it’s because they don’t want to label the youth, or they don’t want other agencies to know they’re aware of them because then the call comes—‘Well, what are you doing about it?’—I just don’t know. It was very odd. The environment we were seeing in the media just looked so different from the environment we walked into.”

In September 2008, just as Finn was preparing a summary of her scant findings, the Juvenile Justice Fund announced an ongoing statewide study based on “scientific probability methods,” whose results to date pointed to “a significant number of adolescent girls being commercially sexually exploited in Georgia, likely ranging from 200 to 300 girls, on the streets, over the Internet, through escort services, and in major hotels every month from August 2007 to May 2008.”

Published in 2010, the final report was nearly as ambiguous, though there were more—and even bigger—numbers. According to the Justice Fund’s “scientific research study,” underwritten with money from the Anderson Family Foundation, each month in Georgia, 7,200 men pay underage girls for 8,700 sex acts, “with an average of 300 acts a day.” The report’s authors updated their 2008 stat, increasing their underage-hooker count to 400.

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