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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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