Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore Using Dodgy Statistics to Fuel Child Sex Slavery Panic
According to Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore and a legion of lazy reporters looking to attach their bylines to a sensational story, every minor in the United States who has access to a car and lives within easy driving distance of the Northern or Southern borders is a victim of commercial sex trafficking. So is every kid who runs away from home, including the 80 percent or so who return within a week. Every kid in the U.S. who is deemed an “outsider” is also a "sex slave."
It's a preposterously large number – it would mean about 1 out of every 250 Americans under 18 years of age are sex slaves. Yet that claim lies at the heart of a controversial campaign launched by the crusading celebs to “educate the public” to the fact that “real men don't buy girls.”
That campaign has in turn sparked a food-fight between the prominent Hollywood couple and Village Voice Media, which has been quick to disclose its vested interest in the issue: it owns Backpage.com, a leading online classified ad site that makes big money from its adult services section. Kutcher has so far persuaded American Airlines to pull its advertising from the company's network of alternative weeklies.
Kutcher told CNN that there are “between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today," echoing a distortion that's been picked up by dozens of respectable media outlets, according to the Village Voice. That figure is tenuously based on a study conducted by University of Pennsylvania sociologists Richard Estes and Neil Weiner. Their paper, "The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico" (PDF), doesn't in fact claim that there are hundreds of thousands of child “sex slaves” – it purports only to be an estimate of the population of youth who are “at risk” of falling into prostitution, hence the inclusion of all runaways and kids located close to a border.
Even that estimate is widely disputed among scholars. When asked to review the study by the Voice, University of Arizona scholar Steve Doig, a specialist in empirical analysis, said that "Many of the numbers and assumptions in these charts are based on earlier, smaller-scale studies done by other researchers, studies which have their own methodological limitations.”
I won't call it 'garbage in, garbage out.' But combining various approximations and guesstimates done under a variety of conditions doesn't magically produce a solid number. The resulting number is no better than the fuzziest part of the equation.
Village Voice Media offered arrest records as evidence that the numbers thrown around in the media are wildly inflated. They found that there were about 800 arrests per year for underage prostitution in the nation's largest 37 cities. That's a poor proxy for the total number, given that not every underage prostitute is arrested, and many states seal juvenile records.
The truth is that nobody knows the scope of the problem. But when pressed, even Estes, one of the study's authors, conceded that "We're talking about a few hundred people."
The Penn study isn't the only dubious data used to portray underage sex slavery as a widespread scourge threatening our nation's children, nor is it the first sketchy study to be used to shut down classified ads for adult services. In March, I wrote about another study that had featured prominently in the successful effort to get Craigslist to discontinue its adult-oriented ads.
It purported to find a massive increase in under-age prostitutes being advertised online. How did the researchers come to that conclusion? They took a bunch of photos of youthful looking women and teenage girls whose ages were known and asked a group of randomly selected people whether the women in the photos looked to be age 18 or older. From the photos, those people correctly identified the underaged girls 38 percent of the time, so the study concluded that “for every 100 'young' looking girls selling sex, 38 are under 18 years of age.” Then they counted all the photos advertising sex with “young looking girls” on sites like Craigslist, and voila!– a trend was born.
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.