Originally published on Turnstylenews.com, a digital information service surfacing emerging stories in news, entertainment, art and culture; powered by award-winning journalists.
By: Charlie Foster
Ashton Kutcher may be wrong, but he may be right. The Village Voice, meanwhile, is definitely wrong, probably lazy, and also just plain mean. If you bear with me, I'll tell you why...
"It's tough to get numbers on this thing," Special Agent Evan Nicholas told me last September.
But this thing - the commercial sexual exploitation of children across the country - is exactly what Nicholas is supposed to be the authority on. He's the supervisor of the FBI's Crimes Against Children Unit and leads its Innocence Lost project. And yet every time I tried to pin him down with an estimate of just how many American kids are involved in the sex industry, he ducked and he dodged.
"You hear estimates of a few hundred girls to hundreds of thousands," he said at the FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. I was there reporting for a Youth Radio-NPR series on teenage sex trafficking in Oakland that aired last December. "The problem you face with showing an exact number, and that's what everybody wants to know... it's difficult to track these children because they are often runaways. It's such a transient population and no one was keeping a record of it."
Nicholas said the FBI is keeping a record now. For one thing, the agency has "recovered over 1,200 children from the streets" since it started organizing nationwide anti-trafficking task forces in 2003. But that's not the number it uses to describe the scope of the problem. In 2005, FBI Director Robert Mueller testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that "over 300,000 children per year are forced into prostitution."
Photo Credit: Brett Myers/Turnstyle
That number is the target of a recent cover story in The Village Voice, the latest of several recent news reports to claim that law enforcement, politicians, advocacy groups and reporters have overestimated the number of child sex trafficking victims in the US. In January, The Oregonian uncovered how local politicians had misrepresented stats to bring attention (and federal money) to Portland as a trafficking hub. Later that month, The Dallas Morning News made the case that police consistently exaggerate warnings that teenage prostitutes will swarm to cities that host the Super Bowl.
But of these reports, The Village Voice article "Real Men Get Their Facts Straight" has probably garnered the most publicity. That's in no small part because the paper set out to diss Ashton Kutcher, a man who has 7 million Twitter followers. Kutcher, along with his wife Demi Moore, last year launched an ad campaign called "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" to bring attention to domestic trafficking. Like countless news outlets, he has used a range of 100,000 to 300,000 when estimating how many kids are involved. And like all those news outlets, he may never have actually read the report that calculated those numbers - a 2001 study by social scientists at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Voice points out that the study estimated only the number of children who are "at risk" of commercial sexual exploitation, not the actual number currently trafficked. And it takes Kutcher, et al. to task for not clarifying. Kutcher has responded with a series of Tweets attacking Village Voice Media for the adult classifieds in its alternative weekly and on its website BackPage.com.
"It is true that Village Voice Media has a stake in this discussion," write the Voice editors in a sidebar to the article. "But the facts speak for themselves."
I'm someone who is obsessive-compulsive about fact-checking, even to the point of ridiculousness. (Just as an example: the Voice identifies Ashton Kutcher as the "titular dude of Dude, Where's My Car?" But in that movie, he plays the owner of the car and the one posing the titular question to his friend, played by Seann William Scott. Ergo, Scott's the titular dude, not Kutcher. It's a technicality, maybe, but not one I'd personally let slide...) All that to say, I am inclined to double-check whenever someone presents me with a set of facts, particularly the self-speaking kind.
I've been aware of the controversy over the 100,000-to-300,000 estimate since last summer, which is one reason I visited Special Agent Nicholas in D.C. And when he wouldn't give me a firm number, I consulted professors at the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center - the same experts the Voice reporters use in their article to tear down the UPenn study's credibility. After talking to a senior researcher about the Center's National Juvenile Prostitution Study it became clear that they were interested in only one data set: the number of minors arrested for prostitution. She claimed that it was the only reliable source for their survey and recommended that I report the US total for juvenile prostitution arrests as part of my range. In 2003, the most recent year surveyed, that national number was 1,400.
Which is absurdly low, of course.
Why? Take Oakland, for example, as Youth Radio's investigation did. If you were to look at just the number of juveniles arrested each year during anti-prostitution operations, the average number of sexually exploited minors in the city each year would stand at 48. You would likely see more than that many girls waving at cars on the corners of Oakland's International Blvd in one hour.
The inherent flaw with this approach is that it relies solely on police enforcement to identify the problem.
"If you go by arrest records alone, that's completely off," said Barbara Loza-Muriera, who coordinates publicly funded community groups in Oakland's Alameda County. "Because underage girls are more often than not arrested for other things -- and the prostitution part is either unidentified or unaddressed."
Loza-Muriera said there are other sources of data in Oakland. County-funded community programs that work with at-risk youth, a majority of them in the city, reported serving 258 sex trafficking victims in 2009. And when I spoke with her last fall, Loza-Muriera said the network of community groups had started to standardize the way social workers classify and track sexually exploited kids, in order to get more accurate counts. She predicted the new numbers would be substantially larger.
And there are still other ways to collect data on trafficked youth that are scientifically grounded. In a 2008 study, researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice recruited a small group of sex-trafficked teens from community groups around New York City. They gave these youth coupons to hand out to other young people in the sex industry. They redeemed their coupons with the researchers and recruited more - all told, the researchers encountered 249 youth. Then, using a standard "capture-recapture" calculation that ecologists use to measure the populations of birds and other species, the team came up with a scientifically bona fide total of 3,769 in New York City.
The Village Voice would have you believe that 88, the city's recent average for underage prostitution arrests, is the only scientifically derived number available. And in this fashion, the Voice surveyed the arrest records of 37 cities across the US to calculate its own national number. Calling it "Actual Underage Arrests Yearly Across America," it totals a mere 827.
Meanwhile, if you look at the John Jay study of New York, the number of youth served by Oakland's community groups, and several other rigorous studies, a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how those regional studies might expand proportionally to the rest of the country falls nicely, by coincidence or not, between 100,000 and 300,000. In Youth Radio's series, we felt comfortable estimating "over 100,000" and footnoting the FBI's Director Mueller. We did not include a lower range of 1,400.
"If you're not looking for this problem, you're not going to see it," said Special Agent Evan Nicholas of the FBI, shortly before our interview ended. He elaborated: "You throw 100 agents at a problem, it's going to get bigger. You put a couple agents on it, you're not going to see anything."
It's one more reason why you won't see the scope of child sex trafficking by looking only at arrest records. They're a record of arrests. They may also be a record of how many resources a city is devoting to anti-trafficking. But they are not a record of this under-the-radar population of youth. Youth who are sometimes hustling alone or sometimes pimped or sometimes sold by a family member. Youth who are out on the streets or locked inside a house or locked inside a jail for charges unrelated to prostitution. Youth who, as Special Agent Nicholas told me, are "everywhere... not just in Oakland... not just in the major cities, like Atlantic City or Las Vegas or New York. It's everywhere. It's a problem that's facing all communities. It's a problem that's facing all the cities across the country."
Nicholas said there are major cities without anti-trafficking task forces. Not because their town lacks a sex trade, but because of politics - their elected officials don't want to be known as having a child prostitution problem.
"It's because these are throwaway kids," said Nicholas. "It's hard to track them. They know how to runaway, they know how to move around the system and disappear. And no one wants to admit they exist. That's the biggest problem with it. Nobody cares about them."
He may be a Tweeting celebrity, but Ashton Kutcher seems to care. And even if he doesn't, it's besides the point - the point that none of these children will be helped by settling for numbers that are a meager representation of the reality they face. To do so is journalistically lazy and scientifically unsound.