Lost Boys

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

Although many kids said they developed buddy-system strategies to stay safe and fed on the street, nearly all wanted a way out:

“I really wanna stop now, but I can’t ’cause I have no source of income since I’m too young,” said a girl who’d begun hooking at age 12. “So it’s like that I have to do it; it’s not like I wanna do it. As I say, I’m only 17, I got a two-year-old daughter, so that means I got pregnant real young. Didn’t have no type of Medicaid. . . . Can’t get a job, have no legal guardian, I don’t have nobody to help me but [friends], so you know, we all in this together.”

In late 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice called on the Center for Court Innovation and John Jay professor Ric Curtis to expand their research to other cities nationwide, backing the project with a $1.275 million federal grant. Now Curtis and Jennifer Bryan, the center’s principal research associate, direct six research teams across the U.S., employing the same in-the-trenches approach that worked in New York City: respondent-driven sampling, or RDS.

Details

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 method was developed in the 1990s by sociologist Doug Heckathorn, now on the faculty at Cornell University, who was seeking a way to count hidden populations. It has since been used in 15 countries to put a number on a variety of subcultures, from drug addicts to jazz musicians. Curtis and his research assistant, Meredith Dank, were the first to use RDS to count child prostitutes.

For the John Jay study, Curtis and Dank screened kids for two criteria: age (18 and under) and involvement in prostitution. All subjects who completed the study’s full, confidential interview were paid $20. They were also given a stack of coded coupons to distribute to other potential subjects, and for each successful referral, they were paid $10. And so on.

RDS relies on a snowball effect that ultimately extends through numerous social networks, broadening the reach of the study. “The benefit of this is that you’re getting the hidden population: kids who don’t necessarily show up for [social] services and who may or may not get arrested,” says Bryan. “It’s based on the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory.”

To calculate their population estimate, the John Jay team first culled the interview subjects who didn’t fit the study’s criteria but had been included for the potential referrals they could generate. The next step was to tally the number of times the remaining 249 subjects had been arrested for prostitution and compare that to the total number of juvenile prostitution arrests in state law-enforcement records. Using a mathematical algorithm often employed in biological and social-science studies, Ric Curtis and his crew were able to estimate that 3,946 youths were hooking in New York.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, calls the New York study significant, in that it “makes the big [national] numbers that people put out—like a million kids, or 500,000 kids—unlikely.”

Finkelhor’s single caveat: While RDS is efficient in circulating through a broad range of social networks, certain scenarios might elude detection—specifically, foreign children who might be held captive and forbidden to socialize.

Still, says Finkelhor, “I think [the study] highlights important components of the problem that don’t get as much attention: that there are males involved and that there are a considerable number of kids who are operating without pimps.”

The John Jay study’s authors say they were surprised from the start at the number of boys who came forward. In response, Dank pursued new avenues of inquiry—visiting courthouses to interview girls who’d been arrested and canvassing at night with a group whose specialty was street outreach to pimped girls. She and Curtis also pressed their male subjects for leads.

“It turns out that the boys were the more effective recruiter of pimped girls than anybody else,” Curtis says. “It’s interesting, because this myth that the pimps have such tight control over the girls, that no one can talk to them, is destroyed by the fact that these boys can talk to them and recruit them and bring them to us. Obviously the pimps couldn’t have that much of a stranglehold on them.”

The same, of course, might be true of the elusive foreign-born contingent Finkelhor mentions.

Curtis and Dank believe there is indeed a foreign subpopulation RDS could not reach. But with no data to draw on, it’s impossible to gauge whether it’s statistically significant or yet another overblown stereotype.

And as the researchers point out, the John Jay study demolished virtually every other stereotype surrounding the underage sex trade.

For the national study, researchers are now hunting for underage hookers in Las Vegas, Dallas, Miami, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area, and interviews for an Atlantic City survey are complete.

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