The lost boys of child prostitution

For some people, sexually exploited boys and men are like unicorns. Some people may claim they saw one, but no one really believes unicorns are real. Unfortunately, sexually exploited boys and men are real. Thousands of them are abused every year, yet one would be hard-pressed to find any mention of them.

However, the majority of people involved in the sex trade are not involved by force. Many of them get into the trade as a means of survival as they often have no other way to support themselves. Recently, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan conducted a study on youths working as prostitutes. The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in New York City study came up with some unexpected results:

From that data, they were able to put a number on the total population of New York’s teen sex workers: 3,946.

Most astonishing to the researchers was the demographic profile teased out by the study. Published by the U.S. Department of Justice in September 2008, [Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank’s] findings thoroughly obliterated the long-held core assumptions about underage prostitution:

• Nearly half of the kids—about 45 percent—were boys.

• Only 10 percent were involved with a “market facilitator” (e.g., a pimp).

• About 45 percent got into the “business” through friends.

• More than 90 percent were U.S.-born (56 percent were New York City natives).

• On average, they started hooking at age 15.

• Most serviced men—preferably white and wealthy.

• Most deals were struck on the street.

• Almost 70 percent of the kids said they’d sought assistance at a youth-service agency at least once.

• Nearly all of the youths—95 percent—said they exchanged sex for money because it was the surest way to support themselves.

The results listed in the Village Voice article are surprising because they fly in the face of what the researchers expected to find. When the researchers put out a call for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC), they ended up with far more boys than they expected. The boys ended up outnumbering the girls to such a degree that the researchers stopped accepting boys and tried to gather more girls who were being pimped.

Yet despite this effort, the researchers still found that almost half of the victims of CSEC were boys. Of the 249 children they included in the study, 119 were girls, 111 were boys, and 19 were transgender. Those results debunk the idea that only or mostly girls are prostitutes.

And when it came to the pimps (the researchers called them “market facilitators”), they could not find many:

Prevalence: We did not find that market facilitators, or ‘pimps,’ were key actors for initiating youth into the market (8%) or controlling them once they were in the market. Only 10% of the sample (6% of the boys and 14% of girls) reported that they had a market facilitator at the time of the interview. (pg. 4)

The study also mentioned female clients:

Almost all of the youth (91%) said that they dealt mainly with male customers, but 11% of the girls and 40% of the boys said that they had served a female client (including 14 boys that said that they exclusively served female clients). The number of girls that reported women as customers was surprisingly high, as was the number of boys reporting female clients, though the researchers suspect that the boys’ estimates were significantly overinflated. (pg. 3)

The researchers offered no estimate of the number of female client they believe the boys had. It does seem likely that some heterosexual boys would claim they were mostly with women so no one would question their sexuality, yet it is also possible that the actual number of female clients is not as overinflated as the researchers may think. This would be one area where they may want to conduct some further research, particularly since girls also reported a higher than expected number of female clients.

Another dynamic between boys and girls was the age of initiation. While the researchers found the average age of initiation to be 15-years-old, boys were more likely to be initiated at younger ages than girls:

The average age of entry for females was 15.15 years and males 15.28 years, but a higher percentage of boys (19%) entered the market under the age of 13 than girls (15%). (pg. 46)

In the age breakdown, 0.8% of girls were initiated at 9-years-old. No boys were initiated at that age, nor were either group initiated at 10-years-old. However, at 11-years-old, 0.8% of girls and 3.6% of boys began prostitution. At 12-years-old, 5.1% of girls and 6.4% of boys started. At 13-years-old, 8.5% of girls and 9.1% of boys began. It is not until for 14-years-old that the numbers shift and more girls were initiated than boys. However, it switches back to boys outnumbering girls starting at the 16-years-old age group.

If people broke down the risk, then there are slightly more girls at risk than boys, but boys face a higher risk of being prostituted at a younger age than girls. In other words, neither group has it worse than the other.

The study is a solid one, with all of its methodology spelled out in explicit detail. The final report includes various accounts from the kids interviewed, and reveals their situations to be much different than expected. For example, some of the kids got involved in the sex trade when they went to government-funded shelters that were supposed to keep them off the streets. Some of them reported the shelters were more like recruiting stations. This is the sort of thing that should get a lot of attention, yet it did not.

When I wrote that the study was recent, I did not mean this year. The study was completed and published in December 2008, yet it received little news, and according to the Village Voice it got a terrible reaction from law enforcement and advocacy groups:

“I remember going to a meeting in Manhattan where they had a lot of prosecutors there whose job was to prosecute pimps,” [Ric] Curtis recalls. “They were sort of complaining about the fact that their offices were very well staffed but their workload was—not very daunting, let’s say. They had a couple cases, and at every meeting you go to, they’d pull out the cherry-picked case of this pimp they had busted, and they’d tell the same story at every meeting. They too were bothered by the fact that they couldn’t find any pimps, any girls.

“So I come along and say, ‘I found 300 kids’—they’re all perky—but then I say, ‘I’m sorry, but only 10 percent had pimps.’

“It was like a fart in church. Because basically I was saying their office was a waste of time and money.”

To put that in perspective, the FBI found that only 1,600 kids were rescued from pimps. Yet the federal government spends $20 million a year on public awareness, victims’ services, and domestic human trafficking, $50 million on youth homeless shelters, along with the $186 million taxpayers gave for a program that provides street outreach to these at-risk kids.

Not only is the problem nowhere near as severe as people believe, but the government is throwing its money at the wrong problem. They are so busy looking for pimped girls that they ignore the thousands of girls and boys who willingly got into the sex trade for survival.

The problem gets worse because virtually all of the advocacy is focused on girls. Boys receive little attention and even less help. As Ric Curtis put it in the Village Voice article:

“All of the advocates are focused on girls,” he fumes. “I’m totally outraged by that—I can’t tell you how angry I am about that. The most victimized kids that I met with were the boys, especially the straight boys. I felt so bad for those who have no chance with the advocates.”

When the Justice Department decided to have Mary Finn conduct a similar study in Atlanta, a member of the Juvenile Justice Fund, one of the groups heading up the study, flipped out on Finn when she suggested that some kids might willingly prostitute themselves. Finn provided some context for this response:

Back in the late 1990s, she explains, Atlanta women had galvanized to prevent child prostitution. One juvenile-court judge in particular provided a catalyst when she instituted a screening process in her courtroom that was aimed at identifying kids who were engaging in prostitution.

The only children who were questioned about sex work were girls. Boys were never screened.

“The problem was very narrowly defined from the outset,” says Finn.

“I’m a feminist scholar,” she goes on. “I understand the importance of these advocates—who are predominantly women, predominantly concerned about the plight of girls—wanting to retain that focus on that issue. But as a researcher, knowing that this is labeled as ‘child exploitation,’ and knowing that there are numbers in other cities showing boys are being victimized, I had to argue that this was maybe a small but significant population we had to look at.”

The truly sad part about all this is that these kids would not be on the streets selling themselves for sex if they could find stable, long-term housing and support. The John Jay study found that most kids said they wanted out, but that never had enough time to get on their feet because most shelters have a 90-day limit. That is simply not enough time for kids to get themselves situated, perhaps find work or go back to school, or find somewhere else more stable to live.

Perhaps if the federal money went to providing long-term aid to these kids we would not see them on the streets anymore.

Unfortunately, that might not happen because it does not fit the political agenda of some the advocacy groups controlling the discussion. They want to paint child sexual exploitation as men pimping little girls for sex, and these groups will ignore any evidence that debunks their worldview. For them, there are no girls working alone. There are no girls selling themselves willingly. There are no boys working the streets. There can only be girls being pimped by men by the hundreds of thousands.

This situation is shameful, embarrassing, and disgusting because while these people play this political game, real girls and boys who need help will not get it. How any advocate can claim to care about children and then deliberately ignore information because it does not fit their preconceived ideas is beyond me, yet this is what we have today.

24 thoughts on “The lost boys of child prostitution

  1. “How any advocate can claim to care about children and then deliberately ignore information because it does not fit their preconceived ideas is beyond me…”

    It isn’t beyond me. Like Finn I understand it. The women who are concerned about this are feminists. Their concern is focused solely on the welfare of women and girls and part of that includes the vilification of men and boys. So they focus on rescuing girls that don’t exist from men that don’t exist, while pretending that the boys who need their help don’t exist.


  2. Not too suprised by the number of boys in prostitution. To his credit, Geraldo did an expose on street kids years ago and focused on the number of boys in prostitution. The word “gay” itself comes from the term “grey fox” which were male prostitutes working the docks in New Orleans at the beginning of the last century. They were called “greys” for short which eventually morphed into gays.

    Several years ago Oprah sent Lisa Ling to Thailand to investigate child prostitution. She was speaking to a child advocate in a safehouse for former street kids. The advocate was only refering to girls in the conversation despite the fact there were many boys in the room. When Ling questioned about the number of boys involved, the advocate just blew right by her and continued the conversation in terms of girls.

  3. Thanks for this post. I have been advocating for human trafficking victims for two years now, and I have been wondering about the lack of statistics and help out there for male victims, as well as the lack of data on women who buy sex. However, I do see one issue with the study: the researchers put out a call for victims to participate; if a child prostitute is under the control of a pimp, they are unlikely to respond to such a call. I plan on doing some major research in this area though, and I won’t discredit this study just because it doesn’t align with what I think is true. I really appreciate this blog in general; thanks. 🙂

  4. John Jay College of Criminal Justice – they were refunded in 2009 to extend the study to a number of other US Cities!

    “In late 2009 the U.S. Department of Justice called on the Center for Court Innovation and John Jay professor Ric Curtis to expand their research to other cities nationwide, backing the project with a $1.275 million federal grant. Now Curtis and Jennifer Bryan, the center’s principal research associate, direct six research teams across the U.S., employing the same in-the-trenches approach that worked in New York City: respondent-driven sampling, or RDS.”

    The results are due out 2012.

    I suspect that a lot of the recent saber rattling and trotting out of most dubious figures in front of congress was all to do with getting as much money as possible before the trough dries up! I am aware of a significant representation from around Atlanta. I am also ware of very serious criticism of the figures being presented by these groups – how the figures were arrived and – and public criticism of them under the heading of “Junk Science”.

    You seem to have missed the figures that Finn uncovered in Atlanta – and her published concerns as to the history and failings in Atlanta! The Full Report is 302 pages long and extremely detailed.

    Document Title: Evaluation of the Demonstration Project To Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Atlanta-Fulton County
    Author: Mary Finn; Brenda Sims Blackwell; Leslie C. Jackson; James L. Wolk; M. Brooke Oakley
    Document No.: 226610
    Date Received: April 2009
    Award Number: 2006-JE-FX-0006

    Professionals described their client population as predominately female
    (66.4%) and African American (58.4%)

    You do the math – and that makes 33.6% male – but the records and stats from so many organizations have been very heavily criticized – after 15 years of failure to update, integrate and rationalize! Of many supposed groups asked, only one had figures that dealt with children and not just girls.

    As Finn states –

    “Finally, one of the major areas of concern identified by the research team, as independent outsiders viewing the unfolding of the community’s response, is the apparent neglect of the needs of male youths from the CSEC population. This seems particularly relevant in light of the findings of our sister evaluators in New York who identified a significant number of those experiencing CSE to be young men (Curtis et al., 2008). To this point, noticeably absent from the CSEC protocol are any organizations in Atlanta-Fulton County that provide services and outreach to the homeless youth population. Their absence is in part explained by the historical context within which recognition of CSEC as a problem developed. From the outset both the problem of CSEC was narrowly defined and as a result the victim population was narrowly sculpted. However, several members of the research team encourage the community to consider broadening its definition of CSEC beyond prostitution and consider inclusion of all affected populations in the future.”

    “From the outset both the problem of CSEC was narrowly defined and as a result the victim population was narrowly sculpted.”

    Damning in deed!

    “As well, the demonstration project’s focus is on girls who are victims of CSE in the Atlanta area. These data indicate that girls are certainly more likely to be arrested for prostitution than are boys, supporting, to a degree, this decision. As well, members of demonstration project agencies also indicated their belief that it is primarily African American girls who are victimized in this manner. It is quite possible that training conducted through JJF-funded initiatives have highlighted these presumed characteristics of this population. This may impact other agencies’
    workers as they are in the field by leading them to not recognize youths who do not fit this “picture” of the CSEC victim. It remains that boys have been arrested for prostitution, indicating that it is not an issue that only affects girls. As well, it is notable that the arrests of boys for prostitution occurred in 2006, not in the years that were early in the demonstration project’s education campaign. This finding should be heeded by future efforts at addressing needs of CSEC victims.”

    Yes the findings should be heeded – if you state that you only believe in one gender, you blind yourself to the existence of another. It would appear that those conducting training need to be investigated – because when they are not doing it services are less gender blind.

    By comparison –

    Ending Sex Trafficking of Children in Atlanta

    Nancy A. Boxill1 and
    Deborah J. Richardson2

    1Fulton County (Georgia) Board of Commissioners,
    2Atlanta Women’s Foundation,


    “In less than 16 months, a coalition of women in Atlanta, Georgia, identified the prostitution of young girls as a major and horrendous crisis in the community, developed and implemented a strategy to combat the problem, purchased property for a treatment facility, and began to serve victims of child prostitution. This article reports the story of the coalition’s success.”

    That report is 13 pages – includes citations from all over the globe – and produces no statistical data at all!

    The report does not use the word boy – and the word male occurs twice – and is linked to a particular citation from “U.S. Department of Justice (2004), juvenile male prostitutes are more likely to be older, acting alone with their sexual acts or with the “hook up” more likely to occur in a public or open place.”

    The Authors forget to provide the Citation to the related 2004 documents.

    It would appear that they did not grasp that CSE can occur when a child is acting alone in public.

    They also produce an average age for females – yet how math was used to calculate that average is not explained.

    Odd how that success is at such odds with Finn’s findings for all Children and not a narrowly defined victim population which was narrowly sculpted!

    There is only 12 months between the two – odd how things change so quickly when you look at the dictionary and see that the word child has no gender!

    It’s easy to read figures – hard to impossible for some to do math – and even harder for some to read reports and get the actual message they contain!

    Bias can be quickly propagated by figures – but as they say The Devil Is In The Detail. P^)

    Some evidently don’t like detail – else they are only interested in producing easy read documents under the guise of Rational And Scientific Literature with the deliberate intent to mislead.

    One has to wonder – have some in Congress passed reading 101?

    Maybe they need to consider an Arts Endowment so that some badly sculptured works can have some much needed attention – and they may even think it necessary to have some “Blocks Knocked Off” at the same time! It may be an improvement – and the results can be used as civic art!

  5. Cynthia, the researchers used other kids to try to find youths under the control of pimps. It is possible that kids under the control of pimps simply refused to participate, but the researchers protected the kids’ anonymity and they had the kids who they previously interviewed there to vouch for that. It is possible, however, that the number of kids controlled by pimps is unrepresented.

  6. Cynthia – the study does address the issue of Pimps and the difficulties in gaining access to pimped youth – have a look at pages 30 through 35.

    Some are insisting that the study represents itself as the whole truth of Child Sexual Exploitation when to does not – it has simply uncovered a whole set of evidence that has been ignored – and the same is true of the Atlanta Study.

    The most damning issue is that the Atlanta study would have been more complete it it was possible to interview the children. That was not possible as Atlanta lacked the necessary emergency provisions and systems to allow a child in danger to be taken off the streets immediately. For Ethical Reasons the Atlanta study had to be limited for child safety and the children could not be interviewed. Ironic!

  7. Not to deny there’s a “violence against women” feminist mindset that can get in the way here, but I think it’s more complex. So in defense of the evil feminists 😉 :

    There’s a tremendous lack of resources for troubled homeless kids. It’s stunning and heartbreaking. Painting the picture of “girls being pimped by men by the hundreds of thousands” is much more successful at getting funding than starting a program to help boys escape prostitution when approaching congress. I was told can’t particularly get foundation grant funding because it doesn’t register as a need. Assumptions reinforce research reinforcing social funding reinforcing common knowledge. This isn’t an easy box to escape. It’s 50 years in the making.

    And where are the men working to solve this issue? Personally, I find it extremely unwelcoming to volunteer at these organizations. Our local Breaking Free – Sisters Helping Sisters Break Free last May held a two day conference/event with Demand Change Project put on by <a href="; Men Against the Trafficking of Others including a publicity event where :

    “Men Rally/Walk against human trafficking [and] will culminate by joining the simultaneous Women’s “For Her” Marketplace Block Party … Survivors of human trafficking and other women will be waiting to support and cheer on the men…When the men arrive, the women will be there to help celebrate and acknowledge that these men are publicly pledging to be a part of the coming “demand change” that refuses to purchase sex in any form and in so doing, they also commit to uniting with women in the fight against all types of modern day slavery.”

    With my abuse history, I identify much more as a victim, with the women, so joining this symbolic perp walk is not appealing. Perhaps it appealed to some men who are dealing with having paided for sex with women or considered it, but that’s so far from my experience.

    Thanks for taking this up TS….

  8. Excellent post Jacob and thanks for pointing me to that study. When I read that, several other studies I blogged about before came to mind:

    Feitel (1992) – New York – 150 shelter using youth age 13-22:
    21 percent of the boys and 5 percent of the girls said that they had engaged in sex in exchange for ‘food, shelter, money, or drugs.

    Rotheram‐Borus (1992) – New York – 206 homeless youth age 11-18:
    13 percent of males exchanged sex for money or drugs and 7 percent of females exchanged sex for money or drugs.

    Kipke (1995/97) – Los Angeles – 409 street youth age 12-23:
    43 percent reported experience with survival sex (46 percent of young men and 32 percent of young women).

    Wagner (2001) – Seattle – 289 homeless youth age 13-22:
    47 percent of females and 37 percent of males were propositioned to sell sex.


    And of course:

    “Some youth in each gender were exploited by women with more than three out of four (79 per cent) sexually exploited males reporting exchanging sex for money or goods with a female,” said Elizabeth Saewyc, associate professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia and principal investigator for the study conducted by Vancouver’s McCreary Centre Society. . . .”I must admit it wasn’t something we were expecting.”


  9. You all have posted some excellent sources! I intend to do further study on the issues of boys who are exploited and the women who buy sex, and this is certainly a place to start. Thanks! I also agree that it has revealed another side of the issue that has been ignored, which is too bad.

  10. On the money as usual TS. I noticed this heavily gendered attitude about child sex exploitation. A few weeks ago I recorded two specials on CNBC I think about American children being forced into prostitution (I know you were talking about children who do it to support themselves though). The specials kept going on and on about “kids” this and “children” that. But after 2 hr long specials they had brought up exactly 0 male victims.

  11. Danny, that is pretty typical of most shows about sexual violence. They use gender neutral terms, but you never see or hear from any male victims.

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  15. I was really fascinated by this …. I had worked in Juvenile corrections late seventies to mid eighties and this was a hop topic as it was very in your face and matter of fact. Several of my boys had escaped on a furlough and followed a younger more street savey lad we will call Ronnie down to the red light district of Boston and Ronnie Younger but more experienced in the arts of pleasuring male told all the other boys 11 through 13 year, to take the money and run and if they get caught they just give oral and left. That worked for a few the fleeing with the money never worked, One of the boys aged twelve =, pre puberty shared his story upon returned with little close and well beaten he did , not get the money, though was forced to perform a varity of sexual acts he was not even aware of. He did not look at himself as a victim, , Instead worried for a long time about his arrest to come which never happened.Talking with more of the boys most of them got paid well for oral except Ronnie, he would not reveal how he made out.

    This was in the news as the place in Boston to go and every town had “Hard Luck boy: these boys most identified as gay though some swore the were straight with girlfriends, Evey town had one or two cruising spots. But that era seems to have dwindled, but not so the behavior has How do we get this back in the spoltight and locate the new places including the online meeting places

    Since 2000, you can read millions of prostitution articles but no one mentions boys

    I have been trying to adopt an 11 yo boy from Las Vegas and now his two brother 12 & 9 have been runaways on and off the streets for about two weeks… They have found the older one and I am going to have to take him too. Las Vegas is known for a hx of boy pros so I am worried about them.

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  17. Hey Toysoldiers,I want to know if I can use the information in this report so in other words, may I use some of your information for my Fathers & Families of San Joaquin PowerPiont Presentation?And any other tips you may think I can use to share with others in my community and neighboring communities/ cities/ towns of Stockton, CA/ San Joaquin County, will be very helpful and much appreciated coming from a knowledgeable being such as your self. Hope to get your response soon, until then, PEACE. ; ) Catherine.

  18. Catherine, you are welcome to use the information. The links to the original source material are in the post. If you are looking for more information on child prostitution, I would check human rights organizations. However, many of them do not have much information on boys, so if you are looking for that particular subject matter you may be disappointed.

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