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Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore Using Dodgy Statistics to Fuel Child Sex Slavery Panic

Throwing wildly inflated numbers around doesn't help young people avoid falling into the horrific world of prostitution.

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Those sketchy “findings” did in fact lead to some positive outcomes, among them a more progressive approach to dealing with underage prostitution in Georgia, which instead of locking up young women now offers social services to help them get out of the business if they so desire. And this seems to be a kind of default defense for these distortions: we don't really have any accurate numbers, and the people pushing this narrative have only the best intentions, so why pick on them?

There are several reasons. First, the notion that child sex-slavery is this widespread phenomenon threatens to panic parents needlessly. Second, law enforcement resources are scarce, and allocating them according to sensationalist media accounts means diverting them from other priorities. Third, Kutcher and Moore's campaign against Backpage.com is based on the assumption that the problem arises from online personal ads on a few heavily trafficked websites, when it existed long before the advent of the Internet and there are dozens of shadier sites advertising “adult services” in most American cities. And while those activists focused only on underage prostitution may have their hearts in the right place, these same studies are also employed by self-appointed moral scolds of the religious right seeking to censor all manner of adult ads.

But the real problem is that it fundamentally mis-diagnoses the root problem. As Melissa Gira Grant, a former sex worker-turned-advocate  writes, “The assumption that the 'real men don’t buy girls' campaign rests on is that there are good men and bad men, and that any man can become a good man by demonstrating his willingness to not buy sex.”

Does not buying sex give someone in the sex trade a place to sleep at night, a school to go to the next day, and food on the table? Does not buying sex help keep a family together in the midst of struggling with unemployment and immigration issues?

Kutcher and Moore, argues Grant, ignore the “systemic poverty and racism, lack of access to education, or strict immigration policies and community policing practices" that make young, at-risk youth vulnerable and reluctant to get into existing programs that are available to support them.

Instead, their campaigns focus hype and hustle on one target — the market for commercial sex. They don’t address the fact that this market does not exist in isolation of these other political and economic factors. When they do attempt to address human rights or misogyny, they do so only in rhetoric. They still place men in the paternalistic role of savior, and people in the sex trade as innocents to be protected. Then they ask us to pay them to perform the role of savior — a role they created, and a role people in the sex trade do not benefit from.

Whatever the actual number of underage prostitutes working in the United States, the issue stems from a complex array of social and economic factors that the somewhat goofy "Real Men" ads largely gloss over. You can't arrive at good public policy from flawed analysis or dodgy statistics, and that truth lies at the heart of what's wrong with Kutcher and Moore's effort, regardless of how well intentioned the super-star couple may be.