Two of the most commonly promoted “facts” about the human trafficking of children within the United States tell us “100,000-300,000 children are at risk of sex trafficking every year in the United States” and, “the average age of entry into the sex trade is between 12-14 years of age.” Both of these estimates are, in fact, based upon outdated and fuzzy research. Even the authors of the report from which the “100,000-300,000” estimate is based have stated their findings should not be promoted. Yet these myths (and others) persist at an alarming rate.
But a new report (supported in part by the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) gives us fresh information on this topic. And based upon this research effort, the two trafficking myths of at-risk youth and age of entry into the sex trade are seriously challenged.
Youth Involvement in the Sex Trade, is the result of interviewing 949 individuals (respondents), age 13-24, in six regions across the United States: Atlantic City, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Las Vegas, and the San Francisco Bay Area (including Oakland and the South Bay/San Jose area). Researchers focused on the exchanging of sex for money, food, housing, drugs, or other goods. While looking for data on youth involvement in the sex trade, the researchers rightly understood that the issue of youth involvement doesn’t end when the youth turns 18, which is why the interviews included subjects up to age 24. The researchers also factored in arrest data, and examined the intersection of youth with law enforcement and service provision agencies.
As the report relates to the two myths mentioned above, the research found that 77% of those interviewed first exchanged sex for goods under age 18; the average age being 15.8 years.
But the most striking finding suggests that the number of children engaged in the sex trade is 10,506 — far less than the “100,000-300,000” estimate promoted as fact for so long. The researchers acknowledge that this number is not precise: the number could be as low as 4,457 or as high as 20,994.
The researchers were focused on the dynamics of youth involved in the trading of sex for money or goods, not solely those being exploited by a pimp or trafficker. Using a liberal definition of pimp, the researchers believe their data more likely over-estimates the prevalence of pimps. While it is striking that only 15% of respondents reported having a pimp, the researchers make clear the line separating force, fraud, and coercion from complete consensual involvement is hazy: “The population is often involved in complex social relationships that, for a vast majority, does not involve direct coercion, control, or force–but often involves others who find themselves in broadly analogous positions in the underground economy.” (Executive Summary, p. xv)
So what does this mean for those of us involved in the response to trafficking? Do we reduce our efforts because–potentially–far fewer youth are at risk than previously believed? Of course not! We will not rest as long as anyone, anywhere, is at risk of exploitation or enslavement. While all research includes the caveat that the data is only a sampling and that more research is needed, we should take this data to heart as we develop and implement strategies and programs to reduce all forms of trafficking and aid all types of victims.
We should also bury outdated and baseless “facts” that misrepresent the work we do, and often preys on the emotions of donors and others from whom we seek support. This report should be studied by all involved in the response to trafficking.
Note: The two myths described above are among many promoted by well-meaning groups and organizations within the anti-trafficking community. As a result, in The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery, I devote an entire chapter to myths and misconceptions. As an abolitionist community, we need to share with others the best information we have, or explain why we don’t have better information. Using bad data reflects upon our community as a whole. When quoting or promoting data or estimates please make sure your information is reliable and based upon sound research.