New Research Demolishes the Stereotype of the Underage Sex Worker

"Life is life, and you gotta do what you gotta do. It's like everybody can't be a doctor, a teacher, or have rich parents take care of us. And it's gonna teach us, like — when we get older, we're gonna be stronger, 'cause we know life experience and stuff like that. And we're goin' to know what to do in certain situations because of what we've been through when we were younger. You gotta do what you gotta do to survive."

— female, age 16


Researchers Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank induced hundreds of New York's underage sex workers to open up about their "business." Their findings upended the conventional wisdom — and galled narrow-minded advocates.
Ashlie Quinones
Researchers Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank induced hundreds of New York's underage sex workers to open up about their "business." Their findings upended the conventional wisdom — and galled narrow-minded advocates.
Curtis and Dank relied upon a method of social networking that was anything but electronic: Interview subjects were given coupons to pass out to peers and collected $10 for each successful referral.
Ashlie Quinones
Curtis and Dank relied upon a method of social networking that was anything but electronic: Interview subjects were given coupons to pass out to peers and collected $10 for each successful referral.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Village Voice Media, which owns this publication, owns the classified site Backpage.com. In addition to used cars, jobs and couches, readers can also find adult ads on Backpage; for this reason, certain activists and clergy members have called attention to the site, sometimes going so far as to call for its closure.

Certainly we have a stake in this discussion. And we do not object to those who suggest an apparent conflict of interest. We sat quietly and did not respond as activists held symposiums across America—from Seattle to Miami—denouncing Backpage. Indeed, we were never asked for response.

But then we looked at the "science" behind many of these activists' claims, and the media's willingness, without question, to regurgitate a litany of incredible statistics. In the interest of a more informed discussion, we decided to write.

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The first night Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank went looking for child prostitutes in the Bronx in the summer of 2006, they arrived at Hunts Point with the windows of Curtis' peeling Oldsmobile, circa 1992, rolled down.

Curtis, who chairs the anthropology department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, had done research on the neighborhood's junkies and was well acquainted with its reputation for prostitution (immortalized in several HBO documentaries). If the borough had a centralized stroll for hookers, he figured Hunts Point would be it.

But after spending several hours sweating in the muggy August air, the professor and his doctoral student decided to head home. They'd found a grand total of three hookers. Two were underage, and all three were skittish about climbing into a car with two strangers and a tape recorder.

Dispirited though they may have been, the researchers had no intention of throwing in the towel. They were determined to achieve their goal: to conduct a census of New York City's child sex workers.

Even before they'd begun gearing up for the project two months earlier, Curtis and Dank knew the magnitude of the challenge they had on their hands.

No research team before them had hit on a workable method of quantifying this elusive population. For decades, most law enforcement officials, social workers, and activist groups had cited a vast range — anywhere from tens of thousands to 3 million — when crafting a soundbite pegging the population of underage hookers nationwide. But the range had been calculated with little or no direct input from the children themselves.

Over time, the dubious numbers became gospel.

In similar fashion, monetary outlays based on the veracity of those numbers began to multiply.

The $500,000 the federal government had allotted for this joint study by John Jay and New York's public-private Center for Court Innovation was chump change compared to the bounty amassed by a burgeoning assortment of nonprofit groups jockeying to liberate and rehabilitate the captive legions of exploited and abused children.

Now Ric Curtis intended to go the direct route in determining how many kids were out there hooking: He and Dank were going to locate them, make contact with them, and interview them one-on-one, one kid at a time. If they could round up and debrief 200 youths, the research team would be able to employ a set of statistically solid metrics to accurately extrapolate the total population.

It took two years of sleuthing, surveying and data-crunching, but in 2008, Curtis and Dank gave the feds their money's worth — and then some.

The results of the John Jay survey shattered the widely accepted stereotype of a child prostitute: a pre- or barely teen-age girl whose every move was dictated by the wiliest of pimps.


After their first attempt flopped, the two researchers switched tacks. They printed a batch of coupons that could be redeemed for cash, listing a toll-free number that kids could call anonymously to volunteer for the survey. With a local nonprofit agency that specialized in at-risk youth on board to distribute an initial set of the coupons, the researchers forwarded the 1-800 line to Dank's cell phone and waited.

It took almost a week, but the line finally lit up. Soon afterward, Dank met her first two subjects — one male, the other female — at a cafe near Union Square. Both were too old to qualify for the study, and the man said he'd never engaged in sex for pay. But Dank decided to stay and interview them.

The woman said she had worked as a prostitute and that she was confident she could send underage kids Dank's way. The man said he was 23, just out of jail, and homeless.

"Out of the two of them, I thought she would have been the catalyst," Dank says now. "But his was the magic coupon."

Within a day, her phone was "blowing up" with calls from kids who'd been referred by the homeless man. Almost as quickly, word got around that two professors were holding late-afternoon "office hours" at Stuyvesant Park and would pay half the going rate for oral sex in exchange for a brief interview. Before long, the researchers found themselves working long past dark, until they'd covered everyone in line or the rats got too feisty.

Nine months later Dank and Curtis had far surpassed their goal, completing interviews with 249 underage prostitutes. From that data, they were able to put a number on the total population of New York's teen sex workers: 3,946.

Most astonishing to the researchers was the demographic profile teased out by the study. Published by the U.S. Department of Justice in September 2008, Curtis and Dank's findings thoroughly obliterated the long-held core assumptions about underage prostitution:

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12 comments
Tellmenow
Tellmenow

And why not focus on the fact that almost all the clients are white men with some money. This is also true of all the sex tourism in other countries. Old white americans travel to Latinamerica and Asia just to have sex with kids. Why don't you go after these bastards?

Jeff Lewis
Jeff Lewis

Where are all the underage children kidnapped and forced against their will by a pimp to have sex with the general public for money?

How come we don’t see any of the forced victims themselves complaining about it? Why don’t the “millions of forced against their will child victims” talk about how they were kidnapped and forced against their will by a evil pimp to have sex for profit? I would like to have a interview with the “millions of forced against their will raped kidnapped child victims” So I could hear their stories.

Where are they? Why do we only hear from the anti-prostitution groups that received money and grants from the government, and not the millions of victims themselves? If there are Millions of them, Shouldn't the police and public know where they are, and shouldn't we hear the millions of victims speak?

Instead, none are found.

Do all men really love raping children who are kicking, crying and screaming, with no one willing to help? like the anti-prostitution groups say?

Here are some good websites about sex trafficking:

http://bebopper76.wordpress.co...

http://sextraffickingtruths.bl...

http://researchonhumantraffick...

http://sextraffickingvictims.b...

http://sextraffickingintheusa....

http://www.villagevoice.com/se...

http://www.melonfarmers.co.uk/...

Jeff Lewis
Jeff Lewis

Where are all the underage children kidnapped and forced against their will by a pimp to have sex with the general public for money?

How come we don’t see any of the forced victims themselves complaining about it? Why don’t the “millions of forced against their will child victims” talk about how they were kidnapped and forced against their will by a evil pimp to have sex for profit? I would like to have a interview with the “millions of forced against their will raped kidnapped child victims” So I could hear their stories.

Where are they? Why do we only hear from the anti-prostitution groups that received money and grants from the government, and not the millions of victims themselves? If there are Millions of them, Shouldn't the police and public know where they are, and shouldn't we hear the millions of victims speak?

Instead, none are found.

Do all men really love raping children who are kicking, crying and screaming, with no one willing to help? like the anti-prostitution groups say?

Here are some good websites about sex trafficking:

http://bebopper76.wordpress.co...

http://sextraffickingtruths.bl...

http://researchonhumantraffick...

http://sextraffickingvictims.b...

http://sextraffickingintheusa....

http://www.villagevoice.com/se...

http://www.melonfarmers.co.uk/...

wzmon
wzmon

Oh wow, better than going to Bangkok lol.

net-privacy.us.tc

Kit Carson
Kit Carson

หวังว่าคุณจะจมน้ำตายในกรุงเทพฯ

Steve Muratore
Steve Muratore

Inertia. Pols want to help this population and existing systems are not without some benefit (to individuals and society) but changing course can be extremely difficult for various reasons, not the least of which is inertia.

Seedy Ward
Seedy Ward

Public policy based on hysteria rather than sound research? Say it ain't so. Ready, fire, aim!

shadeaux14
shadeaux14

Just like the "War on Drugs" why let facts get in the way of their fantasies?

Rick
Rick

I would be curious if a reporter from New Times would interview the staff of the Streetlight Program in Peoria. It is a shelter for underage female victims of the Phoenix area sex trade. I am wondering if the findings of this article match with what the Streetlight Project staff are finding. Is there really a underage prostitution problem or not?

 
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