Lost Boys

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

Curtis is reluctant to divulge any findings while so much work remains to be done, but he does say early returns suggest that the scarcity of pimps revealed by the New York study appears not to be an anomaly.

A final report on the current research is scheduled for completion in mid 2012.

“I think that the study has a chance to dispel some of the myths and a lot of the raw emotion that is out there,” says Marcus Martin, the PhD who’s leading the Dallas research crew. “At the end of the day, I think the study is going to help the kids, as well as tell their story.”

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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.

At the end of the day, if the work Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank began in New York is indeed going to help the kids, it will do so because it tells their story. And because it addresses the most difficult—and probably the most important—question of all: What drives young kids into the sex trade?

Dallas Police Department Sergeant Byron Fassett, whose police work with underage female prostitutes is hailed by child advocates and government officials including Senator Wyden, believes hooking is “a symptom of another problem that can take many forms. It can be poverty, sexual abuse, mental abuse—there’s a whole range of things you can find in there.

“Generally we find physical and sexual abuse or drug abuse when the child was young,” Fassett continues. “These children are traumatized. People who are involved in this are trauma-stricken. They’ve had something happen to them. The slang would be that they were ‘broken.’”

Fassett has drawn attention because of his targeted approach to rescuing (rather than arresting) prostitutes and helping them gain access to social services. The sergeant says that because the root causes of youth prostitution can be so daunting to address from a social-policy standpoint, it’s easy—and politically expedient—to sweep them under the proverbial rug.

And then there are the John Jay researchers’ groundbreaking findings. Although the study could not possibly produce thorough psychological evaluations and case histories, subjects were asked the question: “How did you get into this?” Their candid answers revealed a range of motives and means:

• “I can’t get a job that would pay better than this.”

• “I like the freedom this lifestyle affords me.”

• “My friend was making a lot of money doing it and introduced me to it.”

• “I want money to buy a new cell phone.”

Although the context is a different one, Dank and Curtis have, not unlike Byron Fassett, come to learn that their survey subjects’ responses carry implications that are both daunting to address and tempting to deny or ignore.

For example, the John Jay study found that when asked what it would take to get them to give up prostitution, many kids expressed a desire for stable, long-term housing. But the widely accepted current social-service model—shelters that accommodate, at most, a 90-day stay—doesn’t give youths enough time to get on their feet and instead pushes them back to the streets. The findings also point to a general need for more emphasis on targeted outreach, perhaps through peer-to-peer networks, as well as services of all kinds, from job training and placement to psychological therapy.

Regarding that last area of treatment, Curtis believes that kids who have made their own conscious decision to prostitute themselves might need more long-term help than those who are forced into the trade by someone else.

“Imagine if you take a kid off the street and put them in therapy,” he says. “Which do you think is easier to deal with: the kid who’s been enslaved by another human being or the one who’s been enslaved by him- or herself—who only have themselves to blame? In my view, healing those kids is a steeper hill than the one who can point to somebody and say, ‘He did that to me, I’m not that kind of person,’ and who can deflect the blame.”

Which raises the question: Who’s willing to pay the freight to guide kids up that hill?

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