Lost Boys: New child-sex-trafficking research demolishes the stereotype of the underage sex worker

And sparks an outbreak of denial among child-sex-trafficking alarmists nationwide.

Lost Boys: New child-sex-trafficking research demolishes the stereotype of the underage sex worker
Brian Stauffer

Life is life, and you gotta do what you gotta do. It's like everybody can't be a doctor, a teacher, or have rich parents take care of us. And it's gonna teach us, like — when we get older, we're gonna be stronger, 'cause we know life experience and stuff like that. And we're goin' to know what to do in certain situations because of what we've been through when we were younger. You gotta do what you gotta do to survive.

— female, age 16

The first night Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank went looking for child prostitutes in the Bronx in the summer of 2006, they arrived at Hunts Point with the windows of Curtis's peeling Oldsmobile, circa 1992, rolled down.

Brian Stauffer
Researchers Ric Curtis (right) and Meredith Dank induced hundreds of New York's underage sex workers to open up about their "business." The findings upended the conventional wisdom — and galled narrow-minded advocates.
Ashlie Quinones
Researchers Ric Curtis (right) and Meredith Dank induced hundreds of New York's underage sex workers to open up about their "business." The findings upended the conventional wisdom — and galled narrow-minded advocates.

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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.

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Curtis, who chairs the anthropology department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, had done research on the neighborhood's junkies and was well acquainted with its reputation for prostitution (immortalized in several HBO documentaries). If the borough had a centralized stroll for hookers, he figured Hunts Point would be it.

But after spending several hours sweating in the muggy August air, the professor and his PhD student decided to head home. They'd found a grand total of three hookers. Only two were underage, and all three were skittish about climbing into a car with two strangers and a tape recorder.

Dispirited though they may have been, the researchers had no intention of throwing in the towel. They were determined to achieve their goal: Conduct a census of New York City's child sex workers.

Even before they'd begun gearing up for the project two months prior, Curtis and Dank knew the magnitude of the challenge they had on their hands.

No research team before them had hit on a workable method of quantifying this elusive population. For decades, most law-enforcement officials, social workers, and activist groups had cited a vast range — anywhere from tens of thousands to three million — when crafting a sound bite pegging the population of underage hookers nationwide. But the range had been calculated with little or no direct input from the children themselves.

Over time, the dubious numbers became gospel.

In similar fashion, monetary outlays based on the veracity of those numbers began to multiply.

The $500,000 the federal government had allotted for this joint study by John Jay and New York's public-private Center for Court Innovation was chump change compared to the bounty amassed by a burgeoning assortment of nonprofit groups jockeying to liberate and rehabilitate the captive legions of exploited and abused children.

Now Ric Curtis intended to go the direct route in determining how many kids were out there hooking: He and Dank would locate them, make contact with them, and interview them one-on-one, one kid at a time. If the research team could round up and debrief 200 youths, it would be able to employ a set of statistically solid metrics to accurately extrapolate the total population.

It took two years of sleuthing, surveying, and data-crunching, but in 2008 Curtis and Dank gave the feds their money's worth — and then some.

The results of the John Jay survey shattered the widely accepted stereotype of a child prostitute: a pre- or barely teen-age girl whose every move was dictated by the wiliest of pimps.

After their first attempt flopped, the two researchers switched tacks. They printed a batch of coupons that could be redeemed for cash and which listed a toll-free number that kids could call anonymously to volunteer for the survey. With a local nonprofit agency that specialized in at-risk youth on board to distribute an initial set of the coupons, the researchers forwarded the 800 line to Dank's cell phone and waited.

It took almost a week, but the line finally lit up. Soon afterward, Dank met her first two subjects — one male, the other female — at a café near Union Square. Both were too old to qualify for the study, and the man said he'd never engaged in sex for pay. But Dank decided to stay and interview them.

The woman said she had worked as a prostitute and that she was confident she could send underage kids Dank's way. The man said he was 23, just out of jail and homeless.

"Out of the two of them, I thought she would have been the catalyst," Dank says now. "But his was the magic coupon."

Within a day, her phone was "blowing up" with calls from kids who'd been referred by the homeless man. Almost as quickly, word got around that two professors were holding late-afternoon "office hours" at Stuyvesant Park and would pay half the going rate for oral sex in exchange for a brief interview. Before long, the researchers found themselves working long past dark, until they'd covered everyone in line or the rats got too feisty.

Nine months later, Dank and Curtis had far surpassed their goal, completing interviews with 249 underage prostitutes. From that data, they were able to put a number on the total population of New York's teen sex workers: 3,946.

Most astonishing to the researchers was the demographic profile teased out by the study. Published by the U.S. Department of Justice in September 2008, Curtis and Dank's findings thoroughly obliterated the long-held core assumptions about underage prostitution:

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19 comments
Swaneagle Harijan
Swaneagle Harijan

This article was published in Seattle Weekly, which is owned by Village Voice News, who funded this piece of CRAP article that is highly inaccurate.

Joeltaylor21
Joeltaylor21

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Joeltaylor21
Joeltaylor21

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Terrence
Terrence

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Terrence
Terrence

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Mariamante
Mariamante

This article is very interesting. It doesn't deny the fact the children are being pimped, it simply says that children hooking on the streets have a large male population, and are in many cases there on their own. It makes perfect sense, as does the comment that these children are a symptom of a bigger problem of childhood sexual, physical, and mental abuse which are usually a package deal as far as childhood abuse goes.

Jeff Lewis
Jeff Lewis

Where are all the underage children kidnapped and forced against their will by a pimp to have sex with the general public for money?

How come we don’t see any of the forced victims themselves complaining about it? Why don’t the “millions of forced against their will child victims” talk about how they were kidnapped and forced against their will by a evil pimp to have sex for profit? I would like to have a interview with the “millions of forced against their will raped kidnapped child victims” So I could hear their stories.

Where are they? Why do we only hear from the anti-prostitution groups that received money and grants from the government, and not the millions of victims themselves? If there are Millions of them, Shouldn't the police and public know where they are, and shouldn't we hear the millions of victims speak?

Instead, none are found.

Do all men really love raping children who are kicking, crying and screaming, with no one willing to help? like the anti-prostitution groups say?

Here are some good websites about sex trafficking:

http://bebopper76.wordpress.co...

http://sextraffickingtruths.bl...

http://researchonhumantraffick...

http://sextraffickingvictims.b...

http://sextraffickingintheusa....

http://www.villagevoice.com/se...

http://www.melonfarmers.co.uk/...

SMDH
SMDH

I like how the comments disspelling this article were deleted. So much for VVM believing in the 1st Amendment.

SMDH
SMDH

The one study mentioned did not call escort services. they posed as escort services to see how many males sought out children to buy. Plus, if you good child prostitution and especially Backpage.com/Vilage Voice Media, you will see the arrests of pimps who are selling children, and NONE of those are paid....they are caught and sent home. MOST discuss how they were forced to stay and had to run for help.

This article is what's bogus. i've been following this and there are too many cases - proven cases - of children being pimped and on the internet they are being sold in much higher numbers than street walkers could ever get in a night. Its pretty vile.

This is a sad article. Its basically saying that children/teens are wanting to prostitute themselves. Even if that were true - since when did children become the best decision makers?

Jeremiah
Jeremiah

I'm interested in what you're saying. Can you point me in the direction of a scientifically guided study that covers the topic of online child sex trafficking?

Marcelhic
Marcelhic

The people who did the research have studied all kinds of other stuff, which is on their website, like meth-heads, pimps, prisoners, HIV, homosexuality.

www.snrg-nyc.org

Ray
Ray

I worked in the field of child abuse and neglect for 23 years. It is amazing what a well trained and skilled interviewer can drawer out from a child. The money pulls them in but your sincerity and caring allow you to get most of the facts. Kids know how to separate the BS from those who are just doing a job from those who really want to help.Much of the time you are able to determine who is trying to con you. Most people don't have the slittiest idea about what drives these kids to the street. Most have been abused or neglected by those they love and trust. The system has and is failing our youth. We wait until they commit a crime and are imprisoned and then spend millions to separate them from society and try to rehabilitate them.Let's open our eyes and ears and listen to the research that says it's not just the pimps that destroy these children but most often their parents. Oops ... let's not blame the parents they may be us.

Eduardo1garcia
Eduardo1garcia

Very interesting article. My only problem with it is that basically they paid for the information. How can we be sure of the accuracy of their testimony? Word got around that some guy was paying $20 dollars for an interview and all you had to do was make up some story and answer questions the best you can. $20 is a lot of money to a teenager. Motive to lie. Just saying.

elbastardo
elbastardo

Whether it's $20 for head or an interview, the reporter still gets their rocks off.

Norma Jean Almodovar
Norma Jean Almodovar

How do you think the prostitution prohibitionists gather their research? Or any other group who wants to gather information on a particular population? Do you even know how research is conducted?

Every researcher must offer SOMETHING of value to the populations they study. So whether it is the prostitution prohibitionists or those who conduct unbiased studies, if they want people to participate, they either give money or something else the participant can use or wants. If a participant is willing to 'lie' to an unbiased researcher who gets their funding from the government, aren't other participants in other, very biased research just as likely to lie for the money/goods they get? One of the reasons to interview as many individuals as possible within a group is to minimize the number of potentially false statements, and clearly, with the government funding this study, that was done.

 
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