“It’s between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today,” Ashton Kutcher told CNN’s Piers Morgan on April 18. That, says Kutcher, is how many kids are lost to prostitution in America every single year. “If you don’t do something to stop that, that’s when there is something wrong with you, in my opinion.”
“We want to make a difference with this,” chimed in Kutcher’s wife, Demi Moore. “We don’t want to just come and talk about it. We want to actually see a change, and that’s not going to come by us just, you know, jumping in and doing a little bit and coming and talking.”
In order to “make a difference,” Kutcher and Moore recently launched a series of public service announcements under the banner “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls.” In the spots, Kutcher plays a scruffy doofus who’d rather toss out his smelly socks and put on a pair fresh from the package than do a load of laundry. “Real men do their own laundry,” an off-camera voice booms. “Real men don’t buy girls.”
The message is somewhat bewildering, given the lack of context, but there are more like it, all part of a campaign featuring celebrities Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, and Jason Mraz doing cartoonishly manly things, such as trying to shave with a chainsaw and find a car while blindfolded in a parking lot.
Along with his wife, Kutcher, the titular dude of Dude, Where’s My Car?, has become the public face of an effort to stop underage trafficking since leaving That ’70s Show and Punk’d.
The PSAs have made some observers scratch their heads and others guffaw. Ostensibly about an intense issue—childhood sex slavery—the videos reek of frat-boy humor.
“Is it just me or is there, like, no connection whatsoever between Sean Penn making a grilled cheese with an iron (manly!) and the horrific situation of someone paying for an enslaved 7-year-old to give them a blowjob?” wrote a blogger on TheStir.com.
A blogger for Big Hollywood suggested viewers “sit back and take in a full year’s supply of empty-headed, self-important Hollywood narcissism.”
But the point isn’t that the PSAs are fatuous and silly.
The real issue is that no one has called out Kutcher and Moore for their underlying thesis.
There are not 100,000 to 300,000 children in America turning to prostitution every year. The statistic was hatched without regard to science. It is a bogeyman.
But well-intentioned Hollywood celebrities aren’t the only ones pushing this particular hot button.
The underage-prostitution panic has been fueled by a scientific study that was anything but scientific.
The thinly veiled fraud behind the shocking “100,000 to 300,000 child prostitutes” estimate has never been questioned.
The figure has echoed across America, from the halls of Congress to your morning newspaper, from blogs both liberal and conservative. Google it and you’ll get 80 pages of results.
Last month, the New York Times breathlessly confided, “An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 American-born children are sold for sex each year.”
The Gray Lady was not breaking new ground.
• USA Today: “Each year, 100,000 to 300,000 American kids, some as young as 12…”
• CNN: “There’s between 100,000 to 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States…”
• Media Bistro: “There are an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 victims of child prostitution…”
• Salon: “Roughly 100,000 to 300,000 American children are prostituted each year…”
• Family Court Chronicles: “Nationwide, 100,000 to 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation…”
• Wikipedia: “Anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation…”
• U.N. goodwill ambassador Julia Ormond: “100,000 to 300,000 potentially trafficked…”
• Press TV: “Child trafficking rampant in the U.S. An FBI bulletin shows that 100,000 to 300,000 American children…”
• Orphan Justice Center: “An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children in forced prostitution in the U.S….”
• C-SPAN: “Children in our country enslaved sexually…from 100,000 to 300,000…”
But a detailed review of police files across the nation tells another story.
Village Voice Media spent two months researching law enforcement data.
We examined arrests for juvenile prostitution in the nation’s 37 largest cities during a 10-year period.
To the extent that underage prostitution exists, it primarily exists in those large cities.
Law enforcement records show that there were only 8,263 arrests across America for child prostitution during the most recent decade.
That’s 827 arrests per year.
Some cities, such as Salt Lake City and Orlando, go an entire year without busting a child prostitute. Others, such as Las Vegas, arrest or recover 100 or so per year.
Compare 827 annually with the 100,000 to 300,000 per year touted in the propaganda.
The nation’s 37 largest cities do not give you every single underage arrest for hooking. Juveniles can go astray in rural Kansas.
But common sense prevails in the police data. As you move away from such major urban areas as Los Angeles, underage prostitution plunges.
When the local police data was shared with a leading figure in the struggle against underage prostitution, the research struck her as ringing true.
“The Seattle Police Department totally have a handle on the situation and understand the problem,” says Melinda Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare, which runs a live-in shelter for underage prostitutes in Seattle. “That seems to be a very accurate count and is reflective of what the data shows.”
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.
“All we have in the way of really hard evidence is what the police arrests are,” he says. “They’re way low. They’re certainly not an underestimate, but it seems to me that it’s incumbent on anyone who is writing about the problem to at least include that number on one end of the continuum, because that’s probably the most justifiable number you have.”
Ashton Kutcher owns one of the most-followed Twitter accounts in the world. His @aplusk handle famously beat CNN to a race to 1 million and never slowed down—he’s now at 7 million followers and counting. He is a technically literate, if ill-informed, advocate.
Kutcher made his bones playing the prankster, dummy, and stoner.
Yet he’s become so powerful that Piers Morgan, the British TV personality who replaced Larry King as CNN’s go-to interviewer, had Kutcher and Moore on his show in April to spread the gospel.
Morgan quickly acknowledged Kutcher and Moore’s Twitter throw weight, begging the couple to direct a few new followers toward him.
“It would be completely remiss of me to have two people who are the king and queen of Twitter to not selfishly use you for my own devices and get you to get my follower count up,” he says. “So, just a little favor for little old Piersy, with his half a million followers… If you could just look at the camera and tell your followers—your 10 million followers—to follow good old @PiersMorgan.”
The story of how Kutcher and Moore decided to use their star power to wage a battle against child prostitution helps illuminate how a social problem, of whatever magnitude, becomes a cause and how phony numbers take on the authority of folk wisdom.
The actors were watching TV in bed when they saw a horrifying documentary about sex slavery in some faraway foreign land and decided they needed to get involved.
But how to help?
Sex trafficking is a grim problem, and not one actors know a lot about—even if Moore played a stripper in a movie and has alluded to how she was “manipulated and taken advantage of” by a 28-year-old boyfriend when she was 15 years old.
So Kutcher and Moore did what any savvy Hollywood couple would do, which is call Trevor Neilson. Neilson isn’t a household name, but he’s quickly establishing his Santa Monica, California-based Global Philanthropy Group as the premier charity consultant to the entertainment industry’s biggest and brightest. Neilson is a former Hillary Clinton staffer and Gates Foundation director who has been the subject of glowing profiles in Details and the New York Times.
“The king of Hollywood philanthropy” and his wife and business partner, Maggie, can charge up to $200,000 a year for their services because they’re the best in a new and growing industry. The concept of a celebrity charity consultant is relatively new, but it makes sense, as Hollywood grows ever more concerned about image management. Neilson is the guy Madonna called to help her save face in the debacle surrounding her failed Malawi schools.
The Neilsons cooked up a 140-point “secret sauce” plan of attack for the Demi and Ashton Foundation (known as DNA). The Neilsons’ political connections got the Department of Homeland Security to cast Kutcher and Moore in training videos that teach cops how to spot trafficked sex slaves.
“We went through a significant research process through them,” Maggie Neilson says. “For Demi and Ashton, their strategy is actually pretty complex—there’s a lot of different parts to it—but one thing that became clear through it…was that there was no one working on the demand side, and that’s the side the data was showing more affectable.”
Enter the “Real Men” campaign. The humorous commercials are designed to dampen the supposed appetite for underage prostitutes by suggesting that real men do funny, manly things such as look for their cars in parking lots while blindfolded or play basketball on a broken ankle. “Fake” men presumably hire tot-stitutes.
But if you are a highly paid consultant, mustn’t you pair the juvenile humor with accurate numbers to maintain credibility instead of letting your clients regurgitate the outrageous “100,000 to 300,000” statistic?
Not an easy task, says Maggie Neilson, whose previous work was in the hot, hot, hot area of microfinance. Getting data about sex slavery was not easy, she says: “Versus most social issues I’ve worked on, there is actually a dearth of data—so it was absolutely cobbled together.”
Accuracy is not a major concern for Maggie Neilson.
“All of the core data we use gets attacked all the time,” she says. “The challenge is, it’s that or nothing, right? And I don’t frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000—it needs to be addressed. While I absolutely agree there’s a need for better data, the people who want to spend all day bitching about the methodologies used I’m not very interested in.”
Except the numbers Neilson fed her clients aren’t undercounts masking even more shocking damage. The very police agencies Kutcher and Moore are coaching in videotapes document that the actual number of underage victims detained by law enforcement is slightly more than 800 a year, not 200,000, 500,000, or a million.
Perhaps the numbers will grow after enough cops watch her clients’ video.
In the underage prostitute/trafficking industry, the Neilsons typify those who are not concerned with facts: They know what’s best (or at least what sells).
Former congresswoman Linda Smith—a witness at the Craigslist hearing—not only knows what’s best, but has it on the highest authority.
The devout Smith, who served two terms in Congress representing Washington State, is another major player in the sex-trafficking panic, having testified before Congress that the estimate of 100,000 underage sex slaves in the country is “conservative.”
Smith is the founder of a group called Shared Hope International, an organization that DNA promotes. She, in turn, promotes Kutcher and Moore.
Smith’s worries, however, are not limited to sex trafficking or underage prostitutes.
Instead, she focuses on root cause.
Her organization is committed to “counsel men on the dangers of engaging in the commercial sex markets, especially pornography.”
How far would Smith take such a moral crusade?
As a member of the State Senate in Washington, she sponsored a bill that would have made it illegal for underage kids to have sex with each other. The law was also intended to stop oral sex and “heavy petting,” and it would have included jail time and a fine for the guilty.
“We need to figure out if we can find a way to make it not OK to buy pornography, not OK to fuel that sex industry, because it’s fueling the victimization of the child used in pornography, of the woman in despair used in pornography,” Smith says in one of her own YouTube videos.
“Most of my girls that we rescued, all over, have talked about the pictures taken of them during the time. What do you think those pictures are being used for…the ordinary men who are sitting with you on the bus or the plane? It has to be—the demographics are so many. But then I realized the Devil is having our lunch, because they’re daddies, they’re granddaddies, they’re sons… God has given us great gifts, and the Devil is stealing that from us through this.”
Shared Hope has depended upon contributions from faith-based foundations and the federal government. In 2003 and 2004, Smith took in nearly $1 million in government grants.
In 2006, her organization received $987,228 to facilitate services for “domestic child-sex-trafficking victims.” In fiscal 2005, her group also got $1.9 million from the State Department for an international public-awareness campaign.
In 2000, she helped author the national Trafficking Victims Protection Act. In 2007, Smith authored, with State Department funding, “DEMAND,” an examination of commercial sexual exploitation in four countries, including the United States. In 2009, the Justice Department commissioned her to write “The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children.”
Linda Smith is a cog in a very expensive machine.
To put it in context, consider that from 2001 (the year of the University of Pennsylvania study) through 2004, Congress appropriated $280 million to fight sex trafficking overseas.
In 2005 and 2006, the federal government spent $50 million primarily to fund law enforcement task forces involving U.S. Attorneys, local police, FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents, and various nonprofits. The task forces were created to put an end to sex and labor trafficking in America. Today, there are more than 40 such task forces, from Boston to Anchorage, each typically funded with $450,000 for three-year terms.
In 2010, Congress disbursed over $21 million to nearly 100 groups—including municipalities and local law enforcement agencies—that are fighting sex and labor trafficking.
You never hear in the media from the majority of these folks. But others have clear religious or prohibitionist agendas: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ($4 million), World Relief Corporation of National Association of Evangelicals ($60,000), Polaris Project ($800,000), the Church United for Community Development ($150,000), and Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking ($250,000).
The Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces, also composed of local and federal law enforcement agencies, have investigated child pornography and prostitution cases since 1998. Generally, the units receive tens of millions of dollars annually. As part of the government stimulus package, Uncle Sam handed out $75 million to ICAC groups in 2009.
In the past eight years, Congress has spent $200 million on child pornography in America and another $180 million on all domestic trafficking involving sex or labor.
Ask the feds how many child-sex-trafficking cases they have prosecuted in all this time, however, and you’re hard-pressed to evaluate how far your tax dollars are going. The Department of Justice says it has no way of tabulating how many prosecutions end up in front of a judge.
As astonishing as that seems, the details are worse.
The latest report covers January 2008 to June 2010. Of the 45 Justice Department task forces in operation at that time, 42 reported at least one incident. But an “incident” is merely an allegation or suspicion that was investigated for at least one hour. And nothing more.
Of the 45 teams of DOJ lawyers, Homeland Security and FBI agents, and local law enforcement, only 18 of the task forces kept accurate paperwork.
Those 18 teams confirmed they’d identified 248 children involved in sex trafficking over the 30-month period.
In other words, with the full authority of federal law enforcement, 18 joint task forces were lucky to average eight kids a month—or 100 per year.
Give the 27 non-reporting task forces the benefit of the doubt. If they’d operated at the capacity of the functional 18, they would have added another 150 kids per year.
If all 45 task forces had had the same degree of success, they would, possibly, have located a total of 250 kids per year who were trafficked.
Not 100,000, and certainly not 300,000.
After millions upon millions of dollars, after years of raising awareness, after incalculable effort by religious, civic, and municipal workers, after focused attention from local and federal law enforcement: Why so few cases prosecuted and why so few children rescued?
Jay Albanese, a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, spent four years heading up the Department of Justice’s research division.
“There’s tons of estimates on human trafficking,” says Albanese. “They’re all crap… It’s all guesswork, speculation… The numbers are inherently unbelievable.
“[The latest report] shows 2,500 investigations were begun by the 42 human-trafficking task forces. But only 30 or 40 percent of those have been confirmed as trafficking cases, and only 300 or so are actual arrests. The point is, given the 42 investigative trafficking task forces—and these people have undergone training—the actual number of cases always seems to be just a fraction of these very high estimates.”
He adds, “I wonder if these people putting up these very high estimates are helping or hurting the cause.”
But those grandiose estimates are helping the advocates, like Linda Smith, who have their hands out for government funding or charitable contributions.
“Let’s face it: A study or a story saying several thousand young teens are being exploited in the sex trade has a lot less impact than one suggesting that several hundred thousand are ‘at risk,’ ” says ASU’s Doig. “Researchers, journalists, law enforcement, and politicians alike have incentives to focus on the much bigger number.”
Despite the tidal wave of cash going to nonprofits purporting to raise awareness and task forces hoping to prosecute (with little track record of success), someone’s been left out: the victims.
Whether the number is the 800-plus per year (as indicated by police records) or a higher, not yet documented, number, there is no question that teenagers who exchange cash for sex present a special challenge.
Seattle is one of the few places in the nation with a shelter devoted to underage prostitutes. Despite the obvious need, the city manages the program without federal funding.
“These children, as victims, need more trauma-recovery services,” says Melinda Giovengo, who, as executive director of Seattle’s YouthCare, administers the Bridge Program, a residential center for teen prostitutes.
“There is evidence that a dedicated residential recovery program, with wraparound mental health, chemical dependence, and educational and vocational services, provided by well-trained specialists, both on-site and in the community, can help young victims of commercial sexual exploitation in breaking free from the track.”
Although Congress has spent hundreds of millions in tax-generated money to fight human trafficking, it has yet to spend a penny to shelter and counsel those boys and girls in America who are, in fact, underage prostitutes.
In March of this year, 10 years after Estes and Weiner claimed that 100,000 to 300,000 children were at risk of becoming sex workers, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (a Democrat from Oregon) and John Cornyn (a Republican from Texas) introduced legislation to fund six shelters with $15 million in grants. The shelters would provide beds, counseling, clothing, case work, and legal services. If enacted, this legislation would be the first of its kind.
The bill has yet to clear the Senate or the House.
The lack of shelter and counseling for underage prostitutes—while prohibitionists take in millions in government funding—is only one indication of the worldwide campaign of hostility directed at working women.
In Canada, prostitution is legal.
But under Canadian law, working women are not allowed the safety of a brothel or a bodyguard or a check that would give their whereabouts (for matters of safety).
Prostitutes successfully sued last year seeking to overturn the portion of the law they believed threatened their safety.
Earlier this month, the government’s appeal of that ruling was heard.
The issue wasn’t the legality of prostitution, a given, but whether prostitutes could protect themselves by getting off the street or by hiring security.
As reported June 16 in the National Post: “Prostitution is immoral, argued Ranjan Agarwal, a lawyer representing the Christian Legal Fellowship, the Catholic Rights League, and REAL Women of Canada. But, asked Justice David Doherty, What if sex workers die as a result? Wouldn’t that be harm out of proportion from the intended good?
“No,” Agarwal said. Such an outcome is a ‘side effect,’ and it was better for Parliament to ‘send a signal’ to anyone thinking of entering the sex trade that there was great risk involved.”
Having solved the problem of America’s underage sex trafficking, Demi Moore moved on to Nepal, where she addressed that nation’s problem with juvenile prostitutes. A CNN special on Moore’s appearance in Nepal aired Sunday, June 26.
Statement About Sourcing
Village Voice Media relied predominantly on individual police departments within 37 of the largest cities in the U.S. to furnish us with juvenile prostitution arrest data over the course of the last 10 years.
When that wasn’t possible, either because of incomplete records or because a particular department didn’t track the data for that long a period, we used FBI arrest statistics, in addition to various state and county law enforcement agencies.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 29, 2011