Be wary of pre­cise fig­ures in an un­der­ground in­dus­try such as sex traf­fick­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - GLENN KESSLER glenn.kessler@wash­

“It’s es­ti­mated that child sex traf­fick­ing in the United States alone is a $9.8 bil­lion in­dus­try.”— Rep. Bob Good­latte (RVa.), state­ment, May 19 “This [hu­man traf­fick­ing] is do­mes­ti­cally a $9.5 bil­lion busi­ness.”

— Rep. Ann Wag­ner (R-Mo.), re­marks at a con­gres­sional hear­ing, May 14

Read­ers should al­ways be wary of false pre­ci­sion. The sex trade is an un­der­ground in­dus­try, so on what ba­sis would the rev­enue from the traf­fick­ing of chil­dren— or chil­dren and adults— in the United States be cal­cu­lated so pre­cisely, ei­ther as $9.8 bil­lion or $9.5 bil­lion?

That’s what jumped out at The Fact Checker when we first spot­ted th­ese fig­ures, ut­tered by law­mak­ers as the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives con­sid­ered the Jus­tice for Vic­tims of Traf­fick­ing Act. The fig­ures came from two dif­fer­ent sources, but it turns out both were prac­ti­cally in­vented out of whole cloth. Let’s ex­plore.

The Facts

For the $9.8 bil­lion num­ber, Good­latte’s of­fice orig­i­nally di­rected The Fact Checker to an in­for­ma­tional graphic posted on the In­ter­net by Shared Hope In­ter­na­tional, which says it aims to erad­i­cate sex traf­fick­ing. The graphic in­di­cated that the statis­tic con­cerned all hu­man traf­fick­ing in the United States— not just “child sex traf­fick­ing,” as Good­latte’s state­ment said.

“His state­ment should have said hu­man traf­fick­ing, not child sex traf­fick­ing,” said Good­latte spokes­woman Jes­sica Collins. “That was a staff er­ror.”

But there’s a big­ger prob­lem. Shared Hope’s graphic gave as its source a 2005 In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­ga­ni­za­tion re­port on hu­man traf­fick­ing. But that re­port con­tains no men­tion of a $9.8 bil­lion fig­ure for hu­man traf­fick­ing in the United States.

In­stead, there is only a broad es­ti­mate of about $13 bil­lion in prof­its for “forced com­mer­cial sex­ual ex­ploita­tion” for 36 in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries (of which the United States rep­re­sents about 30 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion). ILO of­fi­cials say they have never given a break­down by coun­try, only for broad groups of dif­fer­ent types of economies.

The ILO’s profit and rev­enue fig­ures for co­erced pros­ti­tu­tion were based on a hand­ful of ex­am­ples and then ap­plied across the board, mak­ing it a fuzzy num­ber. The es­ti­mate of the num­ber of peo­ple forced into pros­ti­tu­tion is also a broad es­ti­mate that could be off by as much as 25 per­cent, ILO doc­u­ments say.

So the num­bers are a re­sult of mul­ti­ply­ing two guessti­mates, both with large sampling er­rors. Try­ing to fig­ure out the U.S. share of that to­tal would in­tro­duce even more fuzzi­ness.

Taryn Of­fen­bacher, a spokes­woman for Shared Hope, ac­knowl­edged that the $9.8 bil­lion num­ber was a mis­take. “It was re­leased as a mis­read­ing of the ILO re­port and has been fairly widely cir­cu­lat­ing,” she said. Af­ter be­ing con­tacted by The Fact Checker, the group im­me­di­ately with­drew the graphic from its Web site— a step thatwe ap­plaud.

So what about Wag­ner’s claim of $9.5 bil­lion? Her of­fice’s Web site cites the same 2005 ILO re­port, but af­ter we pointed out that the ILO did not give an es­ti­mate for the United States, spokes­woman Moira Ba­gley Smith cited an­other source: the 2006 State Depart­ment Traf­fick­ing in Per­sons re­port.

In the re­port, there is this state­ment: “Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion, hu­man traf­fick­ing gen­er­ates an es­ti­mated $9.5 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue.”

First of all, although Wag­ner chose to in­ter­pret this as a fig­ure for the United States alone, that is wrong. The re­port clearly states this is a world­wide es­ti­mate. More­over, there is lit­tle to sug­gest that this fig­ure re­lates specif­i­cally to sex traf­fick­ing of chil­dren or even sex traf­fick­ing in gen­eral.

But there’s a big­ger prob­lem: This is not an FBI es­ti­mate.

FBI of­fi­cials, af­ter check­ing the files, say they have no record of hav­ing pro­duced such a fig­ure; cer­tainly, they say, no such re­port was is­sued.

Even­tu­ally, The Fact Checker determined this orig­i­nated as a fig­ure of­fered in 2004 con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony by an of­fi­cial at U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment— ex­cept he was re­fer­ring to world­wide prof­its from both hu­man smug­gling and traf­fick­ing. (Smug­gling does not in­volve the use of force or co­er­cion.) ICE orig­i­nally is­sued a news re­lease about its es­ti­mate for prof­its in “hu­man smug­gling” in 2003.

The State Depart­ment’s 2004 TIP re­port at­trib­uted the fig­ure (as “rev­enue” from “hu­man traf­fick­ing”) to “the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity.” Some­how, for rea­sons the State Depart­ment can­not ex­plain, it be­came an “FBI” fig­ure about just hu­man traf­fick­ing in the 2005 and 2006 re­ports. The num­ber was never re­peated in any sub­se­quent State Depart­ment re­port. But, un­for­tu­nately, be­cause of the State Depart­ment’s er­ror, the fig­ure since has been wrongly cited as an of­fi­cial FBI es­ti­mate in books, a Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice re­port and other stud­ies.

A State Depart­ment of­fi­cial said it was “highly likely” that the num­ber orig­i­nated with the ICE es­ti­mate and that it also was “highly likely” that the agency pulled it from a news re­port that in­cor­rectly la­beled it as an FBI fig­ure. “Please letme ac­knowl­edge that it is an old Re­port (2004-2006), and we just don’t use that num­ber any­more,” the of­fi­cial added.

Thus, we also must treat “$9.5 bil­lion” as a fan­tasy, un­con­nected to any real data. The State Depart­ment should take steps to cor­rect the record.

The ILO in 2014 re­leased an­other re­port on hu­man traf­fick­ing with up­dated profit es­ti­mates. This re­port pro­vided a cal­cu­la­tion of $26 bil­lion in prof­its for “forced sex­ual ex­ploita­tion” in the 36 in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries, based on the as­sump­tion of 300,000 pros­ti­tutes, earn­ings of about $115,000 a year, and prof­its of $80,000. This time, the rev­enue fig­ures were based on the 2009 book, “Sex Traf­fick­ing: In­side the Busi­ness of Mod­ern Slav­ery,” by Sid­dharth Kara.

But Kara, in his book, writes that “de­spite what you might read in the pa­pers and see on tele­vi­sion and movie screen, traf­fick­ing for sex­ual ex­ploita­tion is not a fast-grow­ing epi­demic within U.S. bor­ders. . . . The ma­jor­ity of hu­man traf­fick­ing in the United States is not for the pur­pose of com­mer­cial sex­ual ex­ploita­tion.”

“The truth is thatwe re­ally do not have very good data on this ques­tion,” Kara said in an e-mail.

In 2014, the Ur­ban In­sti­tute pub­lished a de­tailed study of the sex trade in eight ma­jor U.S. cities, in­clud­ing Wash­ing­ton, D.C. It es­ti­mated that the to­tal size of the un­der­ground com­mer­cial sex mar­ket in 2007 in those cities was $975 mil­lion, which rep­re­sented a decline from $1.02 bil­lion in 2003. But th­ese fig­ures in­clude all forms of sex work, not just peo­ple who are vic­tims of traf­fick­ing.

Mered­ith Dank, the pri­mary re­searcher, said the es­ti­mates were unique for each city and thus “should not be ex­trap­o­lated to the en­tire coun­try.” She said she “couldn’t even begin to ven­ture a guess as to the to­tal value of the UCSE [Un­der­ground Com­mer­cial Sex Econ­omy] in the U.S.”

The Pinoc­chio Test

In the end, we find that there is no re­li­able es­ti­mate for the busi­ness of hu­man traf­fick­ing in the United States, let alone child traf­fick­ing.

One could cer­tainly say that the un­der­ground sex trade in the United States likely is worth more than a bil­lion dol­lars, but it would be a se­ri­ous mis­take to con­flate that with hu­man traf­fick­ing. Un­til more re­li­able and care­ful re­search is done, that fig­ure is sim­ply un­known.

In any case, claim­ing that child sex traf­fick­ing, or even sim­ply hu­man traf­fick­ing, is a $9.5 bil­lion or $9.8 bil­lion busi­ness in the United States is wor­thy of Four Pinoc­chios.


Shan­draWoworuntu, a sur­vivor of hu­man traf­fick­ing, was lured to the United States from In­done­sia in 2001 with prom­ises of bet­ter work.

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