The Village Voice looks at underage prostitution statistics

By Felix Salmon
July 2, 2011

I respect, in theory, the way that Village Voice Media has decided to try and bring some quantifiable common sense to the question of how many underage prostitutes there are in the US. The main thesis of the 4,400-word article is compelling: the universally slung-around statistic that the number is between 100,000 and 300,000 is downright false.

VVM is open about the fact that it has a dog in this fight: a significant portion of its revenues come from adult classified ads, both in print and online. But its detailed reporting shows three different ways how far the crusaders against underage prostitution have veered into scaremongering.

First is that 100,000 to 300,000 figure, repeated ad nauseam in respectable outlets and largely uncontested. The original source of the number turns out to be a non-peer-reviewed paper from 2001 which attempts to add up all the children “‘at risk’ of commercial sexual exploitation” — a number which includes enormous numbers of children who will never become prostitutes at all:

These estimates reported in Exhibit ES.2a reflect what we believe to the number of children in the United States “at risk” of commercial sexual exploitation, i.e., children who because of their unique circum- stances as runaways, thrownaways, victims of physical or sexual abuse, users of psychotropic drugs, members of sexual minority groups, illegally trafficked children, children who cross international borders in search of cheap drugs and sex, and other illicit fare, are at special risk of sexual exploitation. The numbers presented in these exhibits do not, therefore, reflect the actual number of cases of the CSEC in the United States but, rather, what we estimate to be the number of children “at risk” of commercial sexual exploitation.

The choice of scare quotes here is a bit weird, until you read the VVM story, which talks to David Finkelhor, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and director of Crimes Against Children Research Center. Finkelhor read an early draft of the paper and encouraged the authors to add in the “at risk” language: originally, it wasn’t there at all. Finkelhor also says that the paper “has no scientific credibility”.

But what’s undeniable is that the numbers in the paper include every child who ever runs away from home, even for a day or two; it’s silly to use them as a guide to the actual number of child prostitutes.

I do think that the VVM story should have linked to the paper — and, too, should have mentioned that the 100,000 to 300,000 range doesn’t actually appear anywhere in it. They do keep a running tally of the number of children at risk, and then multiply it by 88% to get a “medium scenario”, and by 75% to get a “low scenario”. The “medium scenario” ends up at 286,506 kids, while the “low scenario” is 244,181.

Importantly, the multipliers don’t seek to correct for the possibility that the estimates might be too high; they only seek to correct for double-counting, where the same kid appears in more than one of the 14 different at-risk categories. If you wanted to come up with a lower bound, one easy way to do that would be to simply add up categories 1, 3, and 4: runaway youth from home, runaway youth from juvenile and other institutions, and homeless children not elsewhere counted. Those three categories don’t overlap, and if you add them up you get to 156,676.

If you used this paper to generate a range of numbers, then, the obvious range would be 150,000 to 300,000 — something like that. It’s not at all clear where the 100,000 number comes from, although it might conceivably be something to do with this:

At the time of completing work on this report, a new study of the incidence of runaway and throw- naway children in the United States (NISMART 2) was nearing completion (Hanson, 2000). Inasmuch as 60% of all the children we estimate to be at risk of commercial sexual exploitation fall within the “run- away” and “thrownaway” categories (Rows 1, 2 and 3 of Exhibit ES.2a), the findings from this updated national incidence study of runaway and thrownaway children—but not directly of children involved in commercial sexual exploitation— is expected to have a significant impact on our estimates of the number of children at risk of commercial sexual exploitation. Preliminary discussions with investigators associ- ated with NISMART-2 suggest that the number of runaway and thrownaway children may have declined by as much as 30%-40% between 1988 and 2000.

In any case, the paper nowhere says or implies that it is generating an estimate for the total number of underage prostitutes. That reading got added on later, probably by someone reading a second- or third-hand report of what the paper says.

VVM could have stopped there, but they didn’t. Rather than simply debunk the number they found, they ran their own numbers, by looking at how many children were arrested for prostitution in the nation’s 37 largest cities over the past ten years. (The 2001 paper took a similar geographical approach: it was based on numbers from just 17 US cities.) It turns out that over the course of a decade, there were just 8,263 arrests — 826 per year. No matter how low the proportion of child prostitutes who end up getting arrested any given year, there’s no way that a universe of more than 100,000 prostitutes could generate a mere 826 arrests.

And then, most tellingly, VVM looked at the size of the child-prostitution industry — not the illegal part, but the legal bit.

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…

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.

The wording here (“Congress has spent $200 million on child pornography”) might be a bit unfortunate, but the point is a good one: all of this money has managed to find somewhere between 100 and 250 underage prostitutes per year. And when they’re found, they’re often arrested, rather than being given access to the help they need:

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…

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.

The VVM story, then, finds and demolishes the stated number, gets an empirical basis for the actual number, and makes a powerful point about how current initiatives are a way of spending too much money on exactly the wrong thing. If there were hundreds of thousands of underage prostitutes in the US, then the Congressional appropriations would make sense. But given the actual numbers, that money would be much better spent on shelters.

There are, however, big weaknesses with the piece. For one, it gratuitously attacks Ashton Kutcher, a smart person who’s making the world a better place, in an unpleasantly ad hominem manner. Kutcher is not the problem here. And it needs a lot more serious discussion of VVM’s own ethics with regard to running adult classifieds, including classifieds which turn out to be advertising underage prostitutes. You can argue about the efficacy of Kutcher’s campaign, but he’s not making the problem worse. VVM, meanwhile, is a non-negligible part of the problem, and needs be a lot more honest about its own place in the child-prostitution ecosystem.

The result of all this has been a destructive Twitter war with Kutcher, which has already resulted, among other things, in American Airlines pulling ads from VVM websites. VVM, in other words, could hardly have engineered a higher heat-to-light ratio if they’d tried. All of which makes the article look less a serious investigation, and more a noxious publicity stunt. If VVM is willing to examine its own behavior with regard to child prostitution in detail, then this road might have been well worth traveling. But if they just want to take potshots at Ashton Kutcher, I do wonder whether they will ultimately achieve anything at all, beyond a general notoriety.


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Back in 2009 when Katie Couric was CBS Evening News anchor, she too used the 300,000 figure, a total absolutely unsubstantiated by her reporting.

Here are her two scaremongering Innocence Lost reports: 181319n 184820n

And here is what Tyndall Report thought of them at the time: “sensationalist…sordid…misleading.”  /  /

Posted by AndrewTyndall | Report as abusive

You know this is a more general problem: people fling scaremongering figures around any tim stuff like this is is discussed – trafficking of women from eastern europe, [child] prostitutes, [child] pornography, sacrificing children at black masses, rape etc., etc., etc. so that I, and presumably lots of other people, simply discount everything to the level of noise.

This is, actually, extremely bad, because it completely muddies the water about the real social ills out there. To that extent, Ashton Kutcher is indeed part of the problem.

Posted by seanmatthews | Report as abusive

@eanmatthews …”real” social ills? And are you going to say what those might be? Oh yes right, you would discount them all…

It sounds a lot like the cigarette companies defense and in house studies that meant a lot of deaths before they owned up to the facts.

Human statistics change because the child is soon an adult, but still on the streets! That is if they live or aren’t kidnapped by human traffickers.

Regardless, Felix is right. The money would be better spent on shelters and counseling than on programs that arrest them without providing aid.

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

Maybe this is over-simplifying, but don’t you think the lack of recognition of counselling and shelters is b/c of reliance on prisons and the penal system as well as the draconian logic of the drug war. In those structures the victim gets thrown away and sent to a for-profit industry… if the public was really interesting in changing America they would look with piercing eyes into those issues – and also be willing to look at running things without the profit motive. I suppose that is an unAmerican concept, but since you call yourselves a christian nation maybe you should embrace the christian concept over the $$$

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive


Is Ashton a “smart person making the world a better place” like Jim Carey and Jenny McCarthy regarding autism or Bill and Melinda Gates regarding philanthropy in general? If it’s the former, you’ve managed to undo your post with one of the silliest sentences I’ve read this year.

Posted by nandalalrasiah | Report as abusive

You mean statistics used in advocacy can’t be trusted?

It comes from left and right: homeless numbers, crime by illegal immigrants both exaggerated beyond relation to the real numbers. I remember when the homeless numbers were being tossed around. I did a five minute run through of how many homeless would need to be in each state, just allocating by population. I ended up with like 20k homeless in South Dakota and think how many that makes in NY. Not possible. Junk number.

Most numbers are junk. Even the stupid ones like the junk about toilet flushing at Super Bowl halftime. Or Paul Ryan’s revenue projections.

Posted by jomiku | Report as abusive

nandalalrasiah, Jenny McCarthy is a stupid person making the world a worse place. Thanks for the opportunity for me to clear that up!

Posted by FelixSalmon | Report as abusive

The idea that you can understand the scope of the child prostitution problem by looking at the number of arrests is simply nuts. What percentage of inebriated drivers get arrested in a given day? Low. Speeders? Even lower. Marijuana smokers? Lower than that. So when a child’s age can be hidden under makeup, when their location can be obscured by using Facebook and a Blackberry to do business, when the underlying business can be obscured by posing them as escorts, models, or actresses, how in the world does one draw the conclusion that “few arrests mean there is no real problem”? Methinks the Village Voice was protesting a little too much. 4,400 words to say Ashton Kutcher used a weak stat? Wow . . . .

Posted by B-Rob | Report as abusive


I agree that you can’t easily measure child prostitution from arrests. However, I think the point was that if Kutcher is right, only 1 in 3000 child prostitutes get arrested in any given year. That’s an implausibly low ratio unless there’s a diversionary program.

Granted its anecdotal, but I remember reading a Dear Prudence article once where a woman who looked very young because of a medical condition couldn’t bear to travel because hotel management always flipped out and sent security to check on them and make sure her husband wasn’t a pedophile.

Posted by AnonymousChef | Report as abusive

If anyone is interested, they can go to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics to find the recently published (April 2011) report “Characteristics of Suspected Human Trafficking Incidents, 2008-2010″ and the previous report from 2007-2008, which give some very interesting statistics. Rather than just relying on the numbers from local law enforcement agencies, these reports show a much different scenario than Ashton and the prostitution abolitionists claim is the extent of child trafficking AND adult sex trafficking.

For the two and a half years covered in the most recent report, total number of incidents of found victims of human trafficking was 2,515, of which 2,065 were classified as sex trafficking. Of these, 30% were found to be actual cases of trafficking, 38% found NOT to be human trafficking and the rest were undetermined at the end of the study. Data in this report are from the Human Trafficking Reporting System (HTRS), which was designed to measure the performance of federally funded task forces.

HTRS is currently the only system that captures information on human trafficking investigations conducted by state and local law enforcement agencies in the United States. So while the abolitionists posit that there are hundreds of thousands of victims every year, the federally funded agency says that of the 2,065 cases (over the two and one half year span that this report covers), only 218 were confirmed to be sex trafficking, 267 were found not to be sex trafficking and 229 were pending or unknown status. Where are the rest of the victims? Why can’t they be found?

Victim service providers (those agencies which get federal money) report serving more labor trafficking victims than sex trafficking victims. This report relies on information from task forces receiving federal support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).

Since the Human Trafficking Reporting System (HTRS) was implemented in 2008, a total of 45 jurisdictions have received funds from BJA to provide support for state and
local law enforcement to work more collaboratively with victim services organizations, federal law enforcement, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in the identification and rescue of human trafficking victims who are in the United States.

One can conclude that either all these agencies getting millions of taxpayer dollars to find hundreds of thousands of victims of sex trafficking are extremely incompetent; are for some unknown reason hiding the real statistics of found victims from the government which funds them; or the actual number of victims is far lower than these abolitionists/ prohibitionists claim, and that these people are lying (committing fraud) in order to get millions of dollars to find victims that are not there. Surely, with all that funding these agencies ought to be able to find a few more than these, right?

Ashton and Demi were conned into believing the lies told by the abolitionists, who recruited them to spread the lies. Sex worker rights activists have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get the attention of the media, to tell the world what the actual, harmful consequences of spreading these lies are to sex workers. We are glad to see a discussion of these issues finally coming to the forefront, and we welcome a dialogue with any and all of the celebrity spokespersons for the abolitionists’ ‘child sex trafficking’ rescue industry. We’d like to know where those millions of dollars that these rescue agencies receive are going, and we hope that the American taxpayer will want to know that as well.

No one wants to see an end to real human trafficking and child sex trafficking more than the sex worker rights community. We want to work with law enforcement to stop any and all coerced labor (be it sexual or other) and help prevent underage persons from being forced into the sex industry. Decriminalize all consenting adult commercial sex and allow us to be part of the solution to find and help those who are victims.

Posted by normajeana | Report as abusive

Hi Felix. I chimed in with Ta-Nehisi at The Atlantic, but since he said his post was largely built around your thoughts, I thought I’d stumble over here as well.

Here’s what I’ll be taking issue with:

“VVM, meanwhile, is a non-negligible part of the problem, and needs be a lot more honest about its own place in the child-prostitution ecosystem.”

I’m the managing editor of Seattle Weekly, one of 13 papers owned by Village Voice Media. That doesn’t make me an employee of Backpage, the online bulletin board that, in your words, is part of the “child-prostitution ecosystem.” But it does mean that the company that pays my rent also owns Backpage, so I’m anything but an objective source.


First, to the question of honesty. At the beginning of the post you reference VVM’s Editor’s Note, which detailed the dog it has in this fight. I’d say that counts for some manner of being “honest about its place.”

Second, to toot my own horn a bit, I did what no other bystanders have done and actually called the guy who runs Backpage. ly/2011/07/trevor_neilson_hollywoods_kin g.php

On Friday, our mayor called a press conference urging VVM to do more to help the fight against sex trafficking. This before he actually did any research to find out what, if anything, Backpage is doing to prevent sex traffickers from buying ads on its site.

Turns out, it’s a lot!

In the past year, Backpage has hired dozens of new employees (they now have about 120, all of whom work in Arizona) whose sole task is to vet its adult and personal ads. When they see something suspicious, they immediately notify the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (they called over 200 times just last month) who in turn notify law enforcement.

Backpage is a clean, well-lit place. When Congress, with help from these phony numbers, convinced Craigslist to shut down its adult services ads, they didn’t simply go away, they just migrated to other parts of the site where it was harder to track who was selling what.

Putting pressure on Backpage to be even MORE cooperative with police is fine. Attempting to shut it down entirely will just create an even blacker black market.

I hope that sheds a little light on how VVM (I hesitate to say “we,” but again, I’m not a disinterested party) is facing up to the issue.

Posted by calebhannan | Report as abusive

Mr. Salmon wrote up errors to be found in the Village Voice article, but not all of them. He was too kind to them, but then Mr. Salmon is well-meaning and kind. As one who has discussed the topic of juvenile prostitution with prostituted women in MN, WI, IL, TX, GA, NC, and the Bahamas (all of whom were lured or abducted into the business as teens or pre-teens) and with a couple of recovering pimps from MI and GA, besides talking with police and free clinic health professionals, I find the Village Voice article to be misleading to the point of being untrue. As a promoter of prostitution, VVM is self-serving. Therefore prima facie, their article is untrustworthy. To undestand by analogy, the Tobacco Industry regaled us for decades with their ‘scientific’ reports that found smoking to be harmless.

Red Herring #1 : VVM writes of the study of child prostitution in the US. But, it wasn’t about the US, it was about North America. The study was published by the University of Pennsylvania, but it was a collaboration with the University of Mexico, and McGill University in Canada. The topic was all three nations that comprise North America, not just the US. By ignoring this fact, VVM misleads the public.

Any report on this topic based on arrest records and interviews with police, is structurally and fatally flawed in at least two ways.

Red Herring #2 : First, Pimps and johns never report their young victims to the police, and prostituted children rarely go to the police to report their victimization. On the rare occasion that police actually discover the prostitution of a child, it is almost invariably by happy accident.

Red Herring #3 : Police are more likely to apprehend and classify prostituted children as runaways, vagrants, shoplifters, or truants than as prostitutes. These children are usually returned to the parent(s) or guardian, without the topic of prostitution ever arising. Between Red Herring #2 and #3, we can see that the number of prostituted children is not related to arrest records.

Red Herring #4 : as the 2001 study was about North America rather than simply the US, VVM erred in not providing the numbers of arrests in Canada and Mexico. The paucity of arrests for child prostitution in Mexico should inform any Anglo who has ever walked the border towns that VVM’s method for assessing the size of the problem is faulty to the point of being ridiculous.

A better method of counting would be to interview the nurses at free clinics and emergency wards in the 37 cities, rather than looking for arrest records. While prostituted children don’t talk to police, whom they view as the enemy, if the children can be separated from the pimps, they will often open up to nurses.

Posted by birch | Report as abusive

There is a lot of controversy over the numbers of adult woman who are forced sex slaves. The real factual answer is that no one knows. There is hard evidence that the sex slavery/sex trafficking issue continues to report false information and is greatly exaggerated by politicians, the media, and aid groups, feminist and religious organizations that receive funds from the government, The estimate of adult women who become new sex slaves ranges anywhere from 40 million a year to 5,000 per year all of which appear to be much too high. They have no evidence to back up these numbers, and no one questions them about it. Their sources have no sources, and are made up numbers. In fact if some of these numbers are to believed which have either not changed or have been increased each year for the past twenty years, all woman on earth would currently be sex slaves. Yet, very few real forced against their will sex slaves have been found.

Sex trafficking is illegal and the penalties are very severe. It is very difficult to force someone to be a sex slave, they would have to have 24 hour guards posted and be watched 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Have the threat of violence if they refused, and have no one notice and complain to the authorities or police. They would need to hide from the general public yet still manage to see customers from the general public and not have the customers turn the traffickers in to the police. They would need to provide them with medical care, food, shelter, and have all their basic needs met. They would need to have the sex slaves put on a fake front that they enjoyed what they were doing, act flirtatious and do their job well. They would have to deal with the authorities looking for the missing women, and hide any money they may make, since it comes from illegal activity. They must do all of this while constantly trying to prevent the sex slaves from escaping and reporting them to the police. They would need to prevent the general public from reporting them into the police.

This is extremely difficult to do, which makes this activity rare.

Here are some good websites about this:  /

Posted by mediatruth | Report as abusive

According to the media hype There was supposed to be hundreds of thousands of under age child sex slaves kidnapped and forced to have sex with super bowl fans. At the Dallas Super Bowl 2011.


Politicians, women’s groups, police and child advocates were predicting that up to 100,000 hookers would be shipped into Dallas for the Super Bowl.

It was all a big lie told by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, government officials, and various anti-prostitution groups: Traffick911, Not for Sale, Change-org, Future Not A Past, Polaris Project, Salvation Army, Women’s Funding Network, and the Dallas Women’s Foundation, which are anti-prostitution groups that tell lies in order to get grant money from the government and charities to pay their high salaries, and get huge amounts of money into their organizations. As proved in the links below:

Top FBI agent in Dallas (Robert Casey Jr.) sees no evidence of expected spike in child sex trafficking:

“Among those preparations was an initiative to prevent an expected rise in sex trafficking and child prostitution surrounding the Super Bowl. But Robert Casey Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas office, said he saw no evidence that the increase would happen, nor that it did.
“In my opinion, the Super Bowl does not create a spike in those crimes,” he said. “The discussion gets very vague and general. People mixed up child prostitution with the term human trafficking, which are different things, and then there is just plain old prostitution.” owl/local/20110302-top-fbi-agent-in-dall as-praises-super-bowl-security-effort-se es-no-evidence-of-expected-spike-in-chil d-sex-trafficking.ece

This myth of thousands or millions of underage sex slaves tries to make every sports fan a sex criminal. No matter what the sport is, or in what country it is in.

Here are some good links about this:


Posted by mediatruth | Report as abusive