Sex-traf­fick­ing statis­tic re­gard­ing age has shock value, but re­search does not sup­port it

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - The Fact Checker GLENN KESSLER glenn.kessler@wash­post.com

“On av­er­age, girls first be­come vic­tims of sex traf­fick­ing at 13 years old.”

—Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DMinn.), speech on the Se­nate floor, May 29, 2015

De­fense at­tor­neys some­times warn that bad legal prece­dents are cre­ated through crim­i­nal cases against or­ga­nized crime, be­cause pros­e­cu­tors take ad­van­tage of the fact that most peo­ple are will­ing to over­look legal niceties when hard­ened crim­i­nals are charged.

A sim­i­lar dy­namic ap­pears to in­volve statis­tics and sex traf­fick­ing. Be­cause sex traf­fick­ing is con­sid­ered hor­rific, politi­cians ap­pear will­ing to cite the flim­si­est and most poorly re­searched statis­tics— and the me­dia are con­tent to treat the claims as solid facts. Af­ter Klobuchar made th­ese re­marks, pub­li­ca­tions across Min­nesota, in­clud­ing the Min­neapo­lis Star­Tri­bune, re­peated them with­out any due dili­gence.

Many politi­cians have touted this statis­tic, but Klobuchar ap­pears par­tic­u­larly fond of it. She even cited it in an opin­ion ar­ti­cle, co-writ­ten with Cindy McCain, that ap­peared in The Wash­ing­ton Post in 2014.

But, if you think about it for half a minute, this statis­tic makes lit­tle sense on its face. Af­ter all, if it is the “av­er­age” then for all those who en­tered traf­fick­ing at age 16 or 17, there have to be nearly equiv­a­lent num­bers who en­tered at age 9 or 10. But no one se­ri­ously be­lieves that. Upon in­ves­ti­ga­tion, this claim crum­bles to dust.

The Facts

Klobuchar’s staff claimed they got the statis­tic from U.S. gov­ern­ment agen­cies such as the FBI. In­deed, when the stat was men­tioned in her Wash­ing­ton Post ar­ti­cle, a link was pro­vided to the Web site of the FBI, though not to any par­tic­u­lar study.

But FBI spokes­men say this is not their fig­ure. The Jus­tice Depart­ment also says it is not a DOJ fig­ure.

The FBI did once post on the Web an opin­ion ar­ti­cle, writ­ten by Bal­ti­more pros­e­cu­tors, that men­tioned the claim that the av­er­age age was 13. That ar­ti­cle cited as a source a 2001 re­port writ­ten by Richard J. Estes and Neil Weiner of the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. But that’s not the same as an “FBI num­ber.”

We have pre­vi­ously ex­am­ined the 2001 re­port, as it was the source of an­other false claim— that more than 300,000 chil­dren were “at risk for com­mer­cial sex­ual ex­ploita­tion.”

The data in the re­port, which was not peer-re­viewed, is al­most two decades old. The pri­mary au­thor no longer sup­ports it, say­ing it is out­dated. “The world of the 1990s . . . was quite a dif­fer­ent one from that in which we live to­day,” Estes told The Fact Checker.

In any case, there is just a brief men­tion of the “av­er­age age” in the 260-page re­port, and the num­ber was de­rived from 107 in­ter­views with girls, found ei­ther in the street or in the care of hu­man ser­vice agen­cies. So it is pretty slim re­search for such a widely cited statis­tic.

Yet some­how this fig­ure lives on in the echo cham­ber of Wash­ing­ton dis­course. The worst ex­am­ple we found was a Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity pam­phlet for school ad­min­is­tra­tors that boldly dis­played both the claim about 300,000 chil­dren and the av­er­age age of 13. It listed two sources: The Depart­ment of Jus­tice and the con­gres­sion­ally man­dated Na­tional Cen­ter for Miss­ing and Ex­ploited Chil­dren.

But the DOJ ref­er­ence was to an­other opin­ion ar­ti­cle that cited the Estes/Weiner re­port, not an of­fi­cial DOJ find­ing. And the NCMEC fact sheet re­ferred to a re­port by Shared Hope In­ter­na­tional, an anti-traf­fick­ing group, which in turn re­lied on . . . the same Estes/Weiner re­port.

So one gov­ern­ment agency ap­pears to cite two other gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties— but in the end, the source of the data is the same dis­cred­ited and out-of-date aca­demic pa­per. It would be amus­ing if it were not so sad.

By their na­ture, sur­veys of sex work­ers are mainly anec­do­tal and pro­vide only a snap­shot of a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion in time. So it’s a mis­take to gen­er­al­ize so broadly from any such sur­vey.

If any­thing, there is some in­di­ca­tion that the “13” num­ber may best re­fer to the av­er­age age of a street sex worker’s first sex­ual en­counter. This was re­flected in a 1982 sur­vey of 200 cur­rent and for­mer ju­ve­nile and adult street sex work­ers in the San Fran­cisco area in which the av­er­age age of first in­ter­course was 13.5 years, as well as in other sur­veys. But en­try in the sex trade is more likely to be be­tween 15 and 16 years old.

A care­ful 2008 study of 329 sex­u­ally ex­ploited youths in New York City for the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Jus­tice, by re­searchers at John Jay Col­lege of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice, found that the av­er­age age of en­try into the sex trade was 15.15 years for fe­males and 15.28 years for males. But the re­searchers warned that the data is fuzzy be­cause there is no way to check the ve­rac­ity of the ac­counts of­fered by the youths. In­ter­est­ingly, 90 per­cent of those in­ter­viewed re­ported not hav­ing a pimp.

Do­minique Roe-Se­powitz, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity and direc­tor of the Of­fice of Sex Traf­fick­ing In­ter­ven­tion Re­search, makes a distinc­tion be­tween those who en­ter sex work be­fore and af­ter age 18. (The Fed­eral Traf­fick­ing Vic­tims Act of 2000 set 18 as a di­vid­ing line for the sale of sex, no mat­ter the age of con­sent in a state.) That makes a dif­fer­ence, be­cause sur­veys in­di­cate that most sex work­ers en­ter the busi­ness af­ter the age of 18.

Roe-Se­powitz sur­veyed nearly 500 adults who were ar­rested and sent to a court-or­dered di­ver­sion pro­gram. About 30 per­cent en­gaged in sex work be­fore age 18, and re­ported an av­er­age age of en­try of 14.7 years. The rest, who en­gaged in sex work af­ter age 18, re­ported an av­er­age age of en­try of 25.1 years.

New Zealand has le­gal­ized pros­ti­tu­tion and reg­u­larly is­sues re­ports on the sex trade in the coun­try. A 2007 sur­vey found that fewer than 20 per­cent of those sur­veyed en­tered the sex trade be­fore the age of 18.

In fact, a 2011 John Jay study, also funded by the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Jus­tice, of the sex trade in At­lantic City found very few ex­am­ples of com­mer­cial sex­ual ex­ploita­tion of mi­nors. (Here, again, nearly 90 per­cent of work­ers re­ported they had no pimp.)

Klobuchar’s staff ex­pressed sur­prise at our find­ings and said the se­na­tor should not be sin­gled out, be­cause she had re­lied on what she con­sid­ered to be gov­ern­ment data. “We need to look more closely at the statis­tics,” one aide said. “There has been no rea­son un­til now to ques­tion the data that we have used from gov­ern­ment agen­cies.”

Spokes­woman Ju­lia Louise Krahe ac­knowl­edged “there is a need for bet­ter data in this area” and said the re­cently passed an­ti­sex traf­fick­ing law “in­cludes an ef­fort to iden­tify data gaps.”

The Pinoc­chio Test

All too of­ten, politi­cians, the me­dia and gov­ern­ment agen­cies have cited thinly sourced and du­bi­ous statis­tics when speak­ing about hu­man traf­fick­ing, ap­par­ently be­cause num­bers such as “13” have shock value. But ad­vo­cates hurt their cause when they cite num­bers that are eas­ily de­bunked.

The Fact Checker ex­pects politi­cians to ver­ify data be­fore us­ing it in public state­ments, and that cer­tainly means tak­ing an ex­tra step to de­ter­mine the source of the in­for­ma­tion. But The Wash­ing­ton Post and other news or­ga­ni­za­tions also failed by al­low­ing Klobuchar’s claim to be pub­lished as fact. And Home­land Se­cu­rity should with­draw its in­ac­cu­rate pam­phlet. This is a Four-Pinoc­chio statis­tic and should no longer be cited.

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