By Janie Har on Saturday, March 2nd, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Statistics about sex trafficking, especially about minors, are notoriously difficult to document. For example, this newspaper once tried to show whether Portland is the child sex trafficking hub thatelected officials and national media say it is, only to find that nobody really knew.
PolitiFact Oregon likes statistics and we like to know where they come from, especially when politicians use those statistics to shape public policy. Which is how we’ve come to Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel, an east county resident who has made combating human trafficking, especially child sex trafficking,a priority.
McKeel told columnist Elizabeth Hovde, who writes for The Oregonian’s editorial page, that the average age of entry into the sex trade industry is 12 to 14. It’s not the first time McKeel has cited the statistic. In a 2010 guest column about at-risk girls, she also wrote that “studies show the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old.”
A statistical average between 12 and 14? Wouldn’t that mean a large number under 12? Also, was she talking about the average age of entry for all trafficked prostitutes, including adults? Or just juveniles?
She clarified in an interview that, “the issue for me is the commercial exploitation of children. The average age of entry is 12 to 14. This is about our children being bought and sold on the street.”
It’s big and fat and the number in question is on page 92, under the section “ages of first intercourse and entry into juvenile prostitution.” The age range of entry for boys “was somewhat younger than that of the girls, i.e. 11-13 years vs. 12-14 years, respectively.” We emailed Dr. Richard Estes, the lead author, to learn more about sample size and methodology.
His response was not illuminating. “Any numbers you come across, even mine, represent best estimates of the situation. Because of the secretive and hidden nature of the problem it simply is not possible to get an accurate ‘head count.’”
Another widely cited report comes from a Vancouver, Wash., based group called Shared Hope International. The2009 reportstates that “research has shown that the average age of entry into prostitution and pornography is 12 to 14 years old in the United States.”
There’s no research citation, but there is a pie chart breaking down age of entry into prostitution, based on a Clark County, Nevada, survey of girls arrested for prostitution-related offenses. The 96 girls were ages 11 to 17. We did the math, and the average we got was 14.96, almost 15 years old. That’s young, but not 12 or 13.
Our email requesting clarification got no response from Shared Hope. We were stumped.
We scoured the Internet for more sources, reading abstracts and tracking down anyone who might have a clue. A criminology professor we queried wrote back saying that “good estimates are hard to find, and good data are harder yet” and wished us luck. He directed us to yet another paper, which we read, diligently.
We queried the U.S. Department of Justice. McKeel’s office provided links to testimony and a report tied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which state the average ages as 11 to 14, or 12. But a spokeswoman at the Bureau of JusticeStatisticssaid those are not bureau numbers and that the bureau has no average age for entry into sex trafficking.
“The likelihood that it comes from a nationally representative study is very low,” wrote Kara McCarthy in an email.
Eventually, we spoke with David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, and a respected researcher in the area. He, too, had nothing concrete but offered skepticism. The average age is higher if adults are included. Older teens simply may escape survey. “There isn’t a lot of good research on this; they’re relatively small samples,” he said.
But he did suggest another academic article, which led us to Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, a professor at the School of Social Work at Arizona State University.
Is the average age of entry into prostitution and sex trafficking between 12 to 14 years old?
“That is statistically impossible,” the professor said. “If she were to say, minor trafficking often starts between the ages of 12 and 14 across the country, that is somewhat supported.”
Roe-Sepowitz said the statistic as it applies to girls is used by many, if not all, advocacy groups; the studies on which those statistics are based date back to the 1980s. Indeed, after we spoke with her, we found a 1985 study that reports the average age as 14.
Finally, we called Multnomah County Deputy Sheriff Keith Bickford. He manages the Human Trafficking Task Force. Was he aware of an average age? Short answer: No. “You’ll hear 12, you’ll hear 14. I have yet to nail down an actual average from the people I talk to,” he said, adding that he is reading more accounts involving younger children..
We’ve galloped across the country and found that definitions are fuzzy, statistics are murky and nobody knows for sure. We’ve learned that many organizations continue to repeat the statistic that the average age of entry into juvenile prostitution is between 12 and 14 years, despite the research being old and limited.
We found a professor who said there is some research backs up the claim, and another expert who warned that sample sizes are inadequate and research limited. One of the most widely cited sources told us that any numbers, even his, are estimates.
The following is by Eminism.org:
Over the last several years, I have been trying to correct the inaccurate notion that the “average age of entry into prostitution is 13″ wherever I see it, but it is becoming increasingly overwhelming. This figure is in newspapers, official reports from City of Portland, and many websites and pamphlets claiming to confront sex trafficking (but often conflate prostitution with trafficking, and take anti-prostitution stances that are actually harmful to women). When I contact them to correct the errors, they either don’t understand what I am explaining or just plain don’t care. I’ve also been accused of being a pimp, pervert, pedophile, and other unpopular beings, simply because I challenge the falsehoods.
Here is the latest example, found on The Oregonian on July 3, 2010. Columnist Eliabeth Hovde writes:
Boys and girls are being lured or forced into what they call “the life” at younger and younger ages. […] The U.S. Justice Department believes that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13 and that 100,000 children are used for commercial sex each year in this land of the free.
Department of Justice does state this figure in its website:
Although comprehensive research to document the number of children engaged in prostitution in the United States is lacking, it is estimated that about 293,000 American youth are currently at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Richard J. Estes and Neil Alan Weiner, Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S, Canada and Mexico, University of Pennsylvania, Executive Summary at 11-12 (2001)
This led me to find the University of Pennsylvania study titled “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children In the U. S., Canada and Mexico,” which in fact states:
The age range of entry into prostitution for the boys, including gay and transgender boys, was somewhat younger than that of the girls, i.e., 11-13 years vs. 12-14 years, respectively.
But as the title suggests, this study only surveys minors (“children”), which means it does not include anyone who entered into prostitution at age 18 or over, or those who entered as a minor but has since aged out. Imagine conducting a research on those who died as minors: the average age of death would be somewhere near 10-12, but it would be ridiculous to claim that the average life expectancy for the general population is 10-12. Similarly, the “average age of entry” among youth who were studied does not tell us anything about the actual average age of entry for everyone who is in or has been in prostitution.
That’s not all. For the sake of discussion, let’s pretend that in a small town, six minors enter into prostitution each year, one individual each for ages 12-17. That means that there is one 12 year old, one 13 year old, one 14 year old, and so on. The average age of entry in this hypothetical town is the average of these six individuals, which is (12+13+14+15+16+17)/6 = 14.5.
But when researchers arrive in this town, they don’t just survey these six minors: they will also survey others who have started prostitution in the years past. So for any given year when the research is conducted, there are one 12 year old (who entered at 12), two 13 year olds (entered at 12 and 13), three 14 year olds (entered at 12, 13, and 14), and so on. The average among all of these youth will be: (12+(12+13)+(12+13+14)+(12+13+14+15)+(12+13+14+15+16)+(12+13+14+15+16+17))/21 = 13.7–which is almost one year younger than the actual average age of entry.
This discrepancy is caused by limiting the research subject to minors. Those who entered into prostitution at age 12 has six years in which he or she might be surveyed (at ages 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17), while those who entered at 17 has only one year, which artificially inflates the proportion of research participants who entered early. In short, we cannot know the actual “average age of entry” by simply averaging the age of entry reported by research participants.
Case in point. Below is a chart and table found in “The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking,” produced by Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking group.
This chart is based on Shared Hope International’s 10-city study on minor sex trafficking. In the same page where this chart appears, Shared Hope founder Linda Smith states “The average age that a pimp recruits a girl into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old.” But interestingly, the chart does not support this statement: the average of all responses represented in the chart/table is 14.97, which is much higher than Smith’s “12 to 14″ figure. Plus, simply averaging all the responses is not enough, for the reason I pointed out above. So when we adjust the numbers to compensate for the over-representation of those who entered early, the re-calculated “average of entry” turns out to be almost 16 (15.91).
This calculation is rudimentary and at best an approximation, since we don’t have access to the complete data or truly representative sample. But I suspect that it is much closer to reality than 13, which is what journalists, politicians, and many anti-trafficking activists claim.
There is also an element of common sense here. Assuming normal distribution (bell curve), the average of 13 implies that for every 20 year olds entering prostitution, there are equal number of 6 year olds doing the same. That, common sense should say, cannot possibly be true. The alternative is that the distribution isn’t normally distributed, but heavily clustered around 10-12 year olds to balance everyone who enters into prostitution 16 or older. This again is implausible, as we simply do not find that many 10-12 year olds in prostitution, at least in the United States. The only logical conclusion is that the average age is not anywhere near 13, but is much closer to 18.
That doesn’t diminish the fact that some very young children are victimized, and we should do something about it. But it is not trivial if the average age of entry is 13 or 16 or even 18, because it drastically changes what social policies we must enact to combat forced prostitution and trafficking. I feel that many journalists, politicians, and anti-trafficking activists use the lower figure merely for the shock value, to arouse strong emotional reaction toward the issue, but they are acting irresponsibly when they distort reality. We need to understand reality as they are and craft rational and sensible responses to the problem, rather than indulging ourselves in panicked frenzy.