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Child Sex Trafficking: Setting the Record Straight

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There are a few things in life I know in that 'beyond a shadow of a doubt' way. One is that children shouldn't be sold for sex.

When a Village Voice reporter called, challenging a statistic commonly used in child sex trafficking discussions, I told the truth, which is that when you work on social issues, perfect data is often, at best, hard to come by. I've worked on many issues and have yet to come across the kind of current, comprehensive, reliable data I depended on daily when I worked in the private sector.

After all, who is supposed to monitor, collect, analyze and disseminate it? Cash-strapped governments? Nonprofit organizations that work their hearts out every day and spend every last penny helping people? No -- it is simply not an area of work for which great resources exist. As just one example, in 2007 the official estimated number of people living with AIDS decreased by six million due to a methodology change. Does that mean that people should subsequently have put less effort into HIV/AIDS work? I don't think so.

For sex-slavery, the gross underreporting of the crime is obvious and easily explained... and I will get to that in a minute. Government officials, sex-slavery activists such as Ashton Kutcher and media including the New York Times, USA Today and CNN have used the 100,000-300,000 statistic in question because, to date, it's been the best estimate there was to work with.

I explained all of this to the Village Voice reporter who subsequently wrote a critical article about Ashton and my company's work fighting child-sex slavery and, instead of acknowledging this obvious fact, he used quotes out of context to make it sound like there is some intentional deceit or cavalier disregard when one makes decisions based on admittedly imperfect data.

For those of us who work on these issues, we don't do so once a problem gets to a certain size. We do it because it's the right thing to do. I repeatedly asked the reporter at what numeric level he would find the child sex-slavery problem worth addressing. He didn't have an answer. Having met many of the courageous girls who have survived this crime, as well as the nonprofit and law enforcement officers who work on it every day, I would argue the answer is one. Maybe it's because I am the mother of two daughters, but I would argue that you don't wait for perfect data to exist while children are systemically raped for profit each day.

A lot of people think that had they lived during past atrocities -- the Holocaust, legalized U.S. slavery -- they would have done something about it. They would have gotten involved. I know two people who learned that modern-day slavery exists and decided to fight it with everything they have; Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore formed their DNA Foundation and put their time, money, hearts and celebrity on the line. And while anyone is entitled to disagree with their positions and methods, most of them do so from their couches (and, by the way, the Village Voice mocked DNA's Real Men Don't Buy Girls campaign, but it achieved exactly what the campaign set out to do -- it started a conversation about the demand side of sex slavery, breaking through to a mainstream audience and raising awareness of the crime to unprecedented levels).

During the 4th of July weekend, I ended up in many backyard BBQ conversations about the Village Voice article. Everyone agreed that the Village Voice's position was bizarre and the consistent question was, "Why pick this fight? Even if you despise Ashton Kutcher, why criticize him for taking action on such universally agreeable issue?"

Here's why; A year ago, there were two mainstream, heavily-trafficked places you could still post sex ads online, touting the youth of the victims -- Craigslist and the Village Voice's Backpage. Places that most of us think of as where we sell our old futons, but where a booming profit center is actually sex sales. Every one of the hundreds of sex slavery survivors I've met or seen interviews with was sold on one of these two sites. Not a few of them. Every single one.

After many U.S. Attorneys General began discussing their concerns with Craigslist last summer, Craigslist -- laudably -- closed that section of their website. I'm guessing they lost a lot of money as a result, but they did the right thing. Backpage -- owned by the Village Voice -- still has not. So perhaps a preemptive strike against Ashton Kutcher and a position that "it's not really THAT big of a problem" were strategic, profit-protecting moves on their part?

The other question I was repeatedly asked this weekend was, "Now that I know this problem exists, how can I get involved?"

Here are just a few options:

- Encourage the Village Voice's advertisers to divest their support of the website until they change their online practices. Here is one example.

- Support the amazing groups that fight this crime and support survivors -- CAST, Children of the Night, FAIR Fund, GEMS Girls, The DNA Foundation, Polaris, The Rebecca Project, just to name a few. And they don't just need money. Many need phone operators and other volunteer services.

- Educate yourselves. Vanity Fair and the New York Times have recently written great articles. All of the organizations listed above feature videos and articles on their websites.

- Encourage your mayor and law enforcement representatives to get involved as the Seattle Mayor and Chief of Police have.

- Or, if you are like Demi and Ashton, get creative and figure out your own way -- the way that works best for you.

Finally, for those of you really interested in the data methodology, here are some recent pieces from Change.org and The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) which point out some obvious facts which the Village Voice ignored. You can also check out the FBI's 2001-2007 juvenile arrests for prostitution and commercial vice, which show 1,500 per year rather than the 827 the Village Voice reported. I don't defend the Estes study as perfect, but I also don't defend inaction.

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