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.