Jul 25 16 9:08 PM

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Everything we think we know about sex

trafficking could be wrong

By Lane Anderson, Deseret News National†Edition

Teens are brutalized by violent pimps and forced into sex slavery, right? Not so fast -- new research paints a different picture, and tests our commonly held myths about sex trafficking. (, Adobe Stock


Teens are brutalized by violent

pimps and forced into sex slavery,

right? Not so fast.

research paints a different picture, and tests

our commonly held myths about

sex trafficking.

This story is part of the

Deseret News National

Edition, which focuses on

the issues that resonate

with American families.

Teens are brutalized by

violent pimps and forced

into sex slavery, right?

 Not so fast new research

paints a different picture,

and tests our commonly

held myths about sex


, Adobe Stock

Enlarge photo»

Anthony Marcus knew the same story about underage

sex workers that most of us have heard — that they are

brutalized by violent pimps and sold into sex slavery.

But is that story true?

As a researcher who has studied sex work for decades as

chair of the anthropology department at New York’s

John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Marcus, along

with his colleague, Ric Curtis, hit on a clever way to find

out. They took to the streets of New York and made

contacts with street hustlers, drug dealers, and minors

doing sex work, offering coupons that they could

redeem for $10 if they referred teens willing to be

interviewed about sex work.

"Everyone justified lousy field sampling and small

(interview) numbers on grounds that it was too

dangerous, that if you talk to a girl sex worker the pimp

will cut the girl’s face,” said Marcus.

“In my experience, if you approach people in a

In my experience, if you approach people in a

respectful way through a third party

who can attest to your reliability, people like to talk."

The refer a friend system took off, and Marcus and his

team of researchers have now completed three studies

in New York and in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and have

captured the largest data set ever collected on minors

working in the sex trade in the U.S.

The results contradict some of the most common

stereotypes we have about sex trafficking. For example,

half of New York respondents said that they had worked

for a pimp, and in New Jersey that number plummeted

to 13 percent; 47 percent said that they didn’t even know

a pimp. Most youth in sex work reported that they had

not been introduced to sex work by a stranger at all, but

rather by a family member or family friend, and most

said that they were not forced into sex work by any one

person, but rather because of a lack of housing, or

money, or that they couldn't get by on low paying


The new research also calls in to question the narrative

of helpless girls and violent pimps who throw them into

hotel brothels.

It’s not that those situations aren’t out there, says Marcus, 

but they are a small percentage and the data says that’s 

not even close to the whole story.

“Previous research paints a skewed picture,” he says.

Busting the myths matters, because we pass laws and

make policies that don't help the people who need it

most, says Johannah Westmacott, Housing Coordinator

at Safe Horizons Streetwork Project, a homeless youth

service program in New York City. “The story that is

most sympathetic to wealthy white people in the

suburbs is the story of a straight white middle class girl

taken from a suburb or wealthy middle school," she


"But that leads to laws and solutions that do nothing for

a person running away from an abusive group home, or

LGBTQ youth with nowhere to stay."

On the street in Atlantic City

Just a few streets off Atlantic City’s strip of highrise

hotels and casinos, the city quickly gives way to hardluck

streets and rundown buildings tagged in graffiti.

In May 2010, Marcus and his research team of graduate

students — three women and two men — came here to

spend a year investigating reports of an “epidemic” of

underage sex exploitation here.

At night, the team sat on cinderblocks on Pacific

Avenue, the long boulevard that runs parallel to the

beach and adjacent to the casinos, that's known as a

prostitution stroll. The sex trade in Atlantic City was

indeed robust — that summer police did a sweep and

made 40 prostitution arrests in just one weekend.

Marcus' team handed out cheap menthol cigarettes and

chatted up people on the street, mostly smalltime

drug dealers. They told hustlers that they were looking for

minors doing sex work for a book that they were

working on. Did they know any minors doing sex work?

They handed out $30 coupons in exchange for an

interview and $10 for referrals.

The local anti trafficking task force said that no one

would talk to the research team because they were “too

academic.” “They told us, ‘They will hide from you, their

pimps will hurt them and it will be your fault,'” said


But interviews came rolling in. The researchers had

rented an office space, but found that impromptu

interviews usually happened on the street, in a car, or in

a fast food restaurant. There was just one problem:

almost none of the sex workers were minors.

To capture a bigger group of young people to study, the

team raised the age for interviews from 18 to 21, and

then again to 24. Eventually they logged 98 interviews

(69 percent female, 31 percent male), but only 12 were

under the age of 18.

The majority of respondents, 60 out of 98, said that they

were underage the first time that they “traded sex for

something” — often as young as 12 or 14. But that was

usually for someone in their household — a stepfather

or a parent’s friend — not for a coercive pimp.

Patrick, a 25 year old white male, said that at age 16 he

traded sex for marijuana, and LaRhonda, an 18yearold

AfricanAmerican,said she first traded sex at 15 with a 

cousin’s friend who bought her sneakers, and as a child

she was plied with candy and small amounts of “hush

money” from her uncle. But many categorized these

early encounters are sexual abuse, not sex work.

Westmacott, the housing coordinator at the Streetwork

Project, points out that commonly used statistics

claiming that most minors are introduced to sex work at

age 13 have been debunked by fact checkers at reputable

sources, like the Washington Post and The Atlantic. If

that statistic were true, for every 16 year old

in the sex trade there would have to be an equal number of 

9 year olds.

"There is literally no current research that says

this," says Westmacott.

Still, these numbers are often touted in the media.

“Assuming that anyone trading sex started as a young

child leads to infantalization of people who are making

decisions that society doesn’t agree with," says

Westmacott. "They may not have a great set of options,

but they still have agency. People think, 'They must be

emotionally stuck at 13,' and treat them that way."

Young and unpimped

One of the most common assumptions about sex

trafficking is that it thrives on nonconsensual

labor —typically an abusive pimp forcing a minor into sex work.

And according to U.S. law, anyone performing sex work

under the age of 18 — whether it's consensual or not —

is considered trafficked because they are under the age

of consent.

But one of the most striking findings from Marcus’s

research was that very few of the young people he spoke

to in Atlantic City said that they had a pimp. “Tricia,” a

19 year old African American who said she mostly worked out of 

hotel rooms, said she sometimes had conflicts with cops and customers

 — but not a pimp —

because she had never had one. An overwhelming

majority of respondents (84 percent) reported that they

negotiate their own prices with customers, while just 13

percent said that a market facilitator (e.g. a friend,

boyfriend, family member, or pimp) did so.

Donna, a 17 year old white female, reported, “I don’t

have a pimp, I’m renegade, basically.” Donna and a 19 year old

female friend reported that they worked the

streets together to avoid pimps and exploiters.

“There’s lots of fake pimps,” one of the women reported,

“all they want to do is take your money.”

The researchers were surprised that “two petite girls

would survive the entire summer” on the streets and

avoid pimps, but their success pointed to “weak ties”

with men on the street that wanted to help or control

sex workers.

So if pimps are not the norm, why the persistence of the

pimp narrative? Alexandra Lutnick, a researcher at RTI

in San Francisco and author of Domestic Minor Sex

Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains, says that the

pimp has become a scapegoat to avoid addressing

larger, harder to solve problems like poverty.

“We are so dependent on having an external person

forcing a young person to do something bad, and then

there’s no accountability for systemic and structural

factors,” she says. In her research, she's found that 

about 10 percent of cases are forced, and the rest are

 "more complicated,"with factors like homelessness 

and poverty playing alarger role than one "bad guy."

"More often young people have been pushed out of

home due to transphobia or violence and abuse, and

once they are outside the familial network they have

limited options for housing, food and clothing," says

Lutnick. "Overlying on the pimp trafficker narrative does a disservice."

Males and females alike who had been pimped told

researchers that they had ditched their pimps because

they were violent, abusive, lazy, bad for business or took

too much money.

As a 17 year old African American female named Juanita 

told researchers, “My friend introduced me to

some pimp that wanted me to work for him, but I'd

rather work for myself. It’s more money.”

Celia Williamson, director of the Human Trafficking

and Social Justice Institute at University of Toledo, says

that although the John Jay study seems solid, especially

because it represents testimony of people currently

working in the sex trade, no one research method can

capture the whole story.

The John Jay study seems to have captured young

people engaging in street "survival sex," or trading sex

to meet basic needs like food and housing, she says. But

that leaves out other forms of sex work that are not

happening on the street. "There's still truck stops, sex

parties, infall and outcall arrangements, internet

connections — none of those people's experiences are

going to be captured by interviewing people on the


She noted that in Toledo, for example, one method they

often see are traffickers who will rent a house over the

weekend, text a bunch of customers, and move on to

another house the following weekend. People in those

situations wouldn't be captured in a study like John

Jay's, and they might be more likely to involve pimps,

abuse or coercion.

Marcus of John Jay says that his team was embedded

enough in the community that his respondents would

have known if there was significant competition from

other sources — such as individuals under pimp control.

Still, says, Williamson, "all methodology is incomplete

— it's an underground activity."

A Home and a Job

An overwhelming number of respondents from the

Atlantic City study — 87 percent — said that they would

like to get out of sex work. For most, a coercive pimp

wasn’t what was keeping them in sex work, it was

poverty, low paying jobs, and lack of education. More

than half of those interviewed had less than a high

school education, and a majority also struggled with

drug addiction.

When asked what would help them, housing was the

most overwhelming response.

The Safe Horizon Streetwork Project is located on 125th

Street in Harlem, above a Starbucks and a Sprint phone

store. The lobby is spacious and flanked with large

windows; sunlight and traffic noise spill in from the

street below. Streetwork offers a daytime

drop in center for homeless youth under the age of 24, offering

help with housing, legal, medical and psychiatric

services, and a respite from the street.

Homeless young people from all over New York and

New Jersey arrive in this lobby, painted a cheerful

yellow. Many come from the same population as

Marcus’s study — in fact, 38 percent of respondents

from John Jay's New York study said they were

Streetwork clients. But young people who walk through

the door here don't generally come in and announce

that they are victims of sex trafficking or that they are

trading sex. Rather, they come looking for housing and


In 90 percent of cases it will come out that clients here

have traded something of value to them for sex, says

Westmacott, but that's not their primary concern. New

York’s lack of affordable housing provides a stark

example of why youth without a place to stay sell sex, or

even just trade sex for a warm place to sleep at night.

According to a 2008 census, there are 3,800 youths

without stable housing or homes, yet the city only

provides 250 shelter beds.

As housing coordinator, Westmacott's job is to help

clients find a place to live. She navigates the complex

bureaucratic system and files paperwork to help clients

apply for government funded housing. She tells her clients 

that it will take six months to a year; for every

clients that it will take six months to a year; for every

available apartment the city provides, she says, there are

five applicants.

"It's not always possible, even though we provide more

housing than any agency in NYC," she says. "But there's

not enough resources, there is always a dearth of

resources." For evidence that the current system for

helping youth is broken, Westmacott says to look no

further than her job. “I would love it if my job didn’t

exist,” she says, noting that it shouldn’t require

someone with an advanced degree to get people an

affordable place to live.

When interviewers asked what respondents would need

if they wanted to stop exchanging money for sex, after

housing, the answer usually came down to money (other

responses included education, drug rehab, and

childcare.) Over half of the respondents in the Atlantic

City study said that they relied on sex work for all of

their income. Others received some welfare, and worked

off the books jobs like cleaning houses. Many,especially those with children, 

reported that minimum wage jobs didn’t make enough money to live on.

Victor, a Hispanic male under 25, reported in the study

that he had been “hustling” since age 22. “Living this

life…most of the time I’m just trying to eat, so if I have

to have sex, then that’s pay for what I want. In a week I

can make a thousand. No one else is going to feed me or

what not.”

Still, Victor said that “this life ain’t for me,” and, despite

that he had been in sex work for three years, he “was not

staying here longer than another week.”

Leon, an 18 year old male, said “I would leave it to

make better money that what I’m currently doing.

Something within the computer field, programmer or

technician. (In ten years) I hope to be pursuing another

career and making something of myself.”

Tiffany, an 18 year old AfricanAmerican woman with a 

1 year old and 3 year old child, told the researchers that

her wish list included better housing, better education,

babysitting, help finding a job, and cash assistance in

the meantime.

She said that she would like to live somewhere, “not in

the hood, somewhere secure… (I just want) all the good

stuff in life — essentials. We’re all people; we need help,

that little shoulder to cry on, that little respect at the

end of the day.”

"I would no more be a Master than a slave. It does not conform to my idea of Democracy." Abraham Lincoln 1856.

Last Edited By: UncleLewis Jul 25 16 9:27 PM. Edited 1 time