When people hear the term “commercial sexual exploitation of children” (CSEC), most picture young girls being held captive by pimps. That is what the researchers from The John Jay College of Criminal Justice thought they would find when they received a grant from the United States Department of Justice to undertake a population estimate of the number of commercially sexually exploited youth in New York City in 2006. What they actually found is surprising: (1) about equal exploitation of girls and boys, (2) a small percentage of exploited children are pimped, (3) the language of prostitution is becoming normalized, and (4) many of the “Johns” are now “Janes.” These changes should be a signal to policymakers to use caution, especially with the trend towards laws decriminalizing prostitution for minors.
Methodology: First, let’s look at methodology. The research methodology is quite interesting and seemed to work well in getting participation from what is typically a hidden population. Researchers used the Respondent Driven Sampling (RDS) methodology to “recruit statistically representative samples of hard-to-reach groups by taking advantage of intragroup social connections.” They start out with a small sample of referred people, “seeds,” who are then interviewed by the researchers (paid $20 by the study). After the interview, the “seeds” are given three sequentially numbered coupons and asked to give them to their friends and associates in the CSEC world. If the initial seeds do not produce referrals, new ones are found, but when the initial seeds are successful, the first wave of participants is interviewed. Those interviewees are then given coupons to produce a second wave and so on until the desired sample size is achieved. All participants are paid for their interviews.
Through this method of recruitment, the researchers hoped to interview 200 youth across the five boroughs of New York City. The recruitment process was so successful, they had to stop interviewing at 329 participants and ended up with 249 eligible subjects (18 and under who exchange money for sex acts). From the interviews, the researchers estimate there are 3,964 CSEC victims in New York City. (This estimate does not include youths who could not be referred through the RDS methods, such as trafficking victims brought into the country and are tightly controlled and that have cultural or linguistic barriers which prevent them from socializing with other youth.)
Male-Female Victims: The study found that there were almost equal numbers of males and females in the sample – 48 percent female, 45 percent male and eight percent transgender. This finding is quite surprising and may mean changes are necessary in many of the initiatives, as they are focused exclusively on girls. The authors say in the Executive Summary, “Although it is likely that most CSEC youth are female, the evidence obtained in this study suggests that there is a significant male population as well, especially in the borough of Manhattan.”
The average age of entry for females was 15.15 years, for males 15.28 years, and for transgenders 16.16 years. A higher percentage of boys (19 percent) entered the CSEC market when they were younger than 13 than did girls (15 percent).
The Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) used to have a statistic on their webpage that stated the average age of entry into prostitution in the United States is 12-14 years of age, which came from the Estes and Weiner DOJ-sponsored study in 2001. Curiously, that statistic is no longer available on the CEOS webpage.
Pimp-Control: Only eight percent of the youth interviewed reported a pimp, or “market facilitator” (as many of the youth felt more comfortable saying), initiated them into the CSEC market, and only 10 percent reported being controlled by one once they were involved in CSEC. At the time of the interviews, only 10 percent (six percent of the boys and 14 percent of the girls) said they had pimps.
This is a stunning statistic and turns most of what is believed about minors involved in prostitution on its head. Fully 90 percent of the 249 youth interviewed had no pimp – they were operating on their own. This was a surprise to the researchers: “The fear that pimps might be lurking nearby and that youth they controlled would be rushed to finish their interviews was simply not an issue for the project as most of them did not have pimps.” In fact, the researchers made extra efforts to recruit girls with pimps “and while it seems likely that they were more difficult to recruit than youth that did not have pimps, there is little reason to believe that the proportion of pimped girls in the CSEC population was much higher than what is reported here. Indeed, when asked how many pimps they ‘know,’ out of 93 youth that responded, 44 reported ‘none,’ and others offered relatively low numbers.”
This begs the question then, if pimps did not initiate the youths, who did?
“Friends” are responsible for recruiting 46 percent of the girls entering CSEC and 44 percent of the boys. A much higher number of transgenders reported getting involved through friends, 68 percent. The researchers believe though that “some of these ‘friends’ seemed to be acting as surrogate recruiters for pimps.” 23 percent of teens said they were “unexpectedly approached on the street by a stranger with a proposition,” and that is how they got into CSEC.
The researchers made this observation about the “friends” finding:
Still, most friends did not appear to have or need pimps; they were already deeply involved in CSEC markets themselves, and many youth said that their friends put them directly in touch with their first customers. If the role of “friends” in initiating youth into CSEC markets is as large as the data suggest – nearly half of the time – this complicates our view of their victimization, so often seen as the outcome of adult manipulation and exploitation. It suggests that youth turn to their friends first at critical junctures in their lives – perhaps because there are so few choices available to them for help – and that our efforts to short-circuit their entry into the market may benefit from greater attempts to recognize and provide appropriate responses when these crises happen.
Policy makers and practitioners who seek to provide assistance to CSEC youth should be aware of the impact that peer groups have upon some youth and capitalize upon the network ties that exist among youth rather than always treating youth with secrecy and as individuals.
Normalizing the Language of Prostitution: One of the most disturbing findings by the researchers was that “the language of prostitution had become normalized” to the youth:
[A]nd even though several said that they felt “peer pressure” to join in, in general, their narratives were not so much about being “pressured” to participate in CSEC markets as they were about fascination and curiosity with what appeared to be an emerging “lifestyle.” Some youth stated that the fast money their friends were making by prostituting was too good of an opportunity to pass up, so they decided to follow suit. It is difficult for the researchers to know what to make of these narratives: perhaps they were recited as a defense mechanism to avoid talking about painful memories, perhaps they truly believed these things, or perhaps they were trying to impress the researchers with shocking accounts: but whatever it was – and maybe it was all of them – there was a remarkable consistency to many of the accounts that prevented it from being simply the ravings of a quirky individual or two. There was a shared and dangerous narrative here: one that denied their victimization. The proliferation of this narrative poses a real challenge to policy makers and practitioners who are concerned about the spread of CSEC markets: to the degree that this narrative enters the mainstream – and it is a complex narrative fed from multiple sources – the stigma that surrounds CSEC activities is likely to decrease and more youth may be lured into the market.
The researchers also noticed that stigma was not an impediment to study participation and, in fact, was much less of an issue than they anticipated. Some youth eagerly shared their stories.
And far from depicting their lives as ones filled with debilitating exploitation and abuse, some youth portrayed themselves as in charge of their own destinies and charting careers in [what] they referred to as “the business.” Some may argue, perhaps correctly, that the trauma inflicted on these youth must have been exceptionally profound to turn them into the eager advocates of their own exploitation, and yet, there was a disturbing plausibility to their plans which envisioned “sex work as a profession and a career, rather than just a short-term means of employment.”
One of the trends in legislation is called “Safe Harbor,” and the objective is to decriminalize prostitution for minors. Given the finding these researchers discovered five years ago and the number of states that have decriminalized since then, how much more “normal” does this lifestyle now appear to minors?
And yet, 87 percent want to leave “the life” but have obstacles to overcome first. Sadly, 32 of the 249 said “no” or “did not know” when asked if they wanted to leave “the life.”
What do the teens need to get out?
60 percent said stable employment 51 percent said education 41 percent said stable housing
What did the teens exchange sex for?
95 percent said for money Eight percent said for shelter Nine percent for drugs Three percent for food and items (clothing or electronic goods)
Were the teens arrested frequently? Most said they encountered police frequently, but it rarely resulted in an arrest and, as the researchers noted, “suggesting significant law enforcement discretion.” (Keep in mind the findings of this study were before New York State’s Safe Harbor law went into effect in April of 2010. This law says that a minor found in prostitution will automatically be diverted to services the first time, and it is up to judicial discretion for subsequent trips before the bench as to whether the minor goes to services or the juvenile justice system.)
39 percent had never been arrested 21 percent had been arrested once Eight percent had been arrested ten or more times
The arrests were mostly for drug possession (18 percent), prostitution (12 percent), and theft (11 percent).
Many “Johns” are now “Janes:” One final surprise finding was how many of the “customers” were female: 11 percent of the girls and 40 percent of the boys had female customers.
There is much more in the 126-page study, including many quotes from the teens. So, is this NYC study an aberration? The DOJ wants the research team to conduct the survey in five other cities “to recruit, young adults between the ages of thirteen and twenty-four in order to estimate for the scope of CSEC in the United States.”
In 2011, the team released their findings from Atlantic City, New Jersey. The researchers had trouble finding enough youth and, therefore, “cannot claim a statistically representative sample of the market-involved-adolescents in Atlantic City, making demographic conclusions or comparisons weak.” In fact, they only found 13 youth under the age of 18, and 11 of those minors had no pimp.
The important discovery that there was not a separate and sufficiently dense network of market-involved-minors in Atlantic City led to the decision to augment the RDS recruitment strategy with one more suited to the resources available in the field, i.e., classic ethnographic recruitment using key informants. In developing ethnographic collaborations with those who knew the local scene well enough to find the market-involved-adolescents sought for the study, what we did not anticipate was that many of these people were themselves direct or indirect sex-market functionaries, including self-described pimps, the very people the FBI agents, local police, and service providers we met at federal task force meetings consistently told us would impede recruitment and harm the “kids” or us.
Most of these market facilitators were African-American drug sellers who occasionally referred customers to individuals selling sex on the main strip along Pacific Avenue in exchange for $10-$20 tips. Our most prolific recruiter called these market facilitators “spot-pimps,” a designation which highlights the transient nature of their “pimping” and signifies that they had no exclusive control over any individuals who traded sex for money.
What they were able to find, though, was interesting. “In fact, in a nearly perfect mirror image of our New York City findings, in which 90% of juridical minors who responded (N=249) reported having no pimp (Curtis et al. 2008), in Atlantic City, 86% (N=108) of our adolescent respondents reported not having a pimp.” (Adolescent respondents ranged in age from 13 to 24 years old in the Atlantic City survey.)
Moreover, our data indicates that perhaps the least important factor in determining whether a person is being coerced or manipulated by a pimp or a sex trafficker is age itself. Without respect to age, the overwhelming majority of the over 400 market-involved young people we interviewed in New York City and Atlantic City, and the many more we met or observed during our two years of research, would likely be trading sex for money with or without being involved in any of the types of relationships we described above. In short, these young people exchange sex for money not because they are being held and trafficked as “sex slaves” but because they have drug habits, are attempting to survive on the streets on their own, are escaping from difficult family situations, and exist at the lowest stratum of a socio-economic and cultural system that is failing them.
If the research in the other four cities mirrors the findings in New York City and Atlantic City, legislators are going to need to re-think their approach in how best to help minors involved in commercial sex.