Junk Science Behind 'Underage Sex Trafficking' Charges Used to Attack Craigslist Adult Classifieds

An investigation by the Village Voice found there was less to the statistics than meets the eye.
The widely reported statistics on underage prostitution that helped shutter Craigslist's adult classifieds section last year certainly sounded ominous, but a Village Voice report on the study that produced the statistics found it to be a rather blatant example of trashy, agenda-driven “research.”

Last September, at a hearing into underage sex trafficking before a House Judiciary subcommittee, Deborah Richardson, the Women's Funding Network's chief program officer, told lawmakers that “an independent tracking report” had found that “the number of underage girls trafficked online has risen exponentially in three diverse states” over the previous six months.

“The Internet is the predominate source for domestic trafficking of underage girls,” said Richardson, showing a slide summarizing some of her group's research. “The anonymous veil of the Internet makes this crime practically risk free for traffickers and the men who buy sex with innocent girls. Laws protecting young girls have not kept up with technology.”

The study's hard numbers – which showed a 20 percent increase in underage prostitution in New York, a 40 percent rise in Michigan and a stunning 65 percent jump in Minnesota – were dutifully reported by news media around the country. But last week, the Village Voice – and its network of alternative weeklies – featured a front-page article by Nick Pinto calling out the “junk science” that went into the study. “It's now clear they used fake data to deceive the media and lie to Congress,” wrote Pinto. “And it was all done to score free publicity and a wealth of public funding.”

According to Pinto, the researchers' “methodology” went something like this: they took a bunch of photos of youthful looking women whose ages were known. They showed them to a group of people and asked them whether the women in the photos looked to be age 18 or older. From the photos, people correctly identified the under-aged 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. Pinto called this “dense gibberish posing as statistical analysis,” and a number of empirical researchers he interviewed agreed with the conclusion.

Pretty straightforward so far, but here the story takes a turn. Village Voice Media (VVM), to its credit, attached a prominent disclosure to its feature, noting that it owns the online classifieds site, which, unlike Craigslist, still features adult classifieds. According to Deborah Richardson, the site generates approximately $17 million annually for Village Voice Media, and since Craigslist's decision to drop its adult ads, Backpage has become a leading target for the Women's Funding Network and its allies. As VVM's disclosure puts it, “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 the WFN held symposiums across America—from Seattle to Miami—denouncing Backpage. But then we looked at the 'science' and the media's willingness to regurgitate, without question, these incredible statistics. In the interest of a more informed discussion, we decided to write.

Meanwhile, the people responsible for the study mounted a half-hearted defense of their methodology. And the woman who commissioned it, Kaffie McCullough, also acknowledged that she has an agenda, and one that you might find significantly more righteous than Village Voice Media's desire to protect its Backpage revenues.

From Pinto's article:

Kaffie McCullough first approached the Schapiro Group about conducting a study of juvenile prostitution in Georgia in 2007 when, as director of A Future Not a Past, she realized that having scientific-sounding numbers makes all the difference in the world.

In early 2007, McCullough approached the Georgia legislature to ask for money for a regional assessment center to track juvenile prostitution.

"We had no research, no nothing. The legislators didn't even know about it," she recalls. "We got a little bit. We got about 20 percent of what we asked for."

Later that year, the first Schapiro Group counts were made, and when McCullough returned to the legislature the following session, she had the study's statistics in hand.

"When we went to the legislature with those counts, it gave us traction—night and day," she says. "That year, we got all the rest of that money, plus we got a study commission."

There are no comprehensive data on how many under-aged girls are pimped out each year in the U.S., and the Women's Funding Network study doesn't add much to our knowledge. It's generally the case that good policy can't follow from bad analysis, and Getting Craigslist to drop its adult classifieds will do absolutely nothing to address underage prostitution.

But, armed with their “junk science,” A Future Not a Past did earn a remarkable victory with the passage of what columnist Ann Woolner called, “some of the most progressive legislation in the country on the subject.”Rather than punish the victims of traffickers – many of whom are coerced into “the life” against their will, the new Georgia statute mandates harsh penalties for the pimps and johns and requires social services be offered to the prostitutes rather than prosecution if there is any evidence whatsoever of coercion.

Woolner noted how significant the law's passage was in a deeply conservative state where as recently as the 1950s, legislators themselves held “whore auctions” to raise cash. “A private study opened lawmakers’ eyes to the deeply troubling scope of the problem and its consequences,” wrote Woolner. “A cultural shift is exactly what it took.”
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