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07.06.11

Sex-Trafficking Feud

Ashton Kutcher and his anti-trafficking activism may be easy targets, but The Village Voice’s arguments downplaying underage sex trafficking are seriously flawed, says Michelle Goldberg.

The Village Voice, which has been accused of profiting from underage sex trafficking, is out to prove that underage sex trafficking barely exists. “I remember the last couple of mass panics. Do you?” wrote Tony Ortega, the paper’s editor in chief, on Wednesday, comparing the hype about domestic sex slavery to the hysteria around satanic day-care abuse in the 1980s. Back then, innocent people were sent to prison for ridiculously lurid and often physically impossible crimes. Now, he writes, “In the second decade of the 21st century, we are being told that there’s a widespread, growing, and out-of-control problem to fear in our country. And it has a catchy name: ‘trafficking.’”

In an investigative series titled “The Truth Behind Sex Trafficking,” the Voice and some of its sister papers have set out to debunk the notion that the commercial sexual exploitation of children is either widespread or increasing. Its reporters have done a commendable job of tearing apart some of the groundless and probably inflated statistics that anti-trafficking activists throw around. But they have replaced them with equally implausible figures minimizing the scale of the problem. They’ve substituted denial for hype.

So far, the most high-profile piece in the series was last week’s Village Voice cover story attacking the anti-trafficking activism of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, two juicy if easy targets. It centered on Kutcher’s claim that there are “between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today,” a number often cited by activists and journalist alike. As reporters Martin Cizmar, Ellis Conklin, and Kristen Hinman show, that number comes from a study that purports only to measure the number of children “at risk” for commercial sexual exploitation, and even then, its methods and assumptions seem flimsy. The reporters quote Jay Albanese, former head of the Department of Justice’s research division, now a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. “There’s tons of estimates on human trafficking,” he says. “They’re all crap ... It’s all guesswork, speculation ... The numbers are inherently unbelievable.”

But Albanese tells me he did not mean to imply that domestic sex trafficking is not a serious issue. “To go from saying that these are not actual counts of any sort to saying that this is not a problem is going way too far,” he says. “It’s clearly missing the point. It’s like saying we really don’t know how many people are truly at risk of breast cancer or prostate cancer, so therefore the problem isn’t that big.”

As The Village Voice freely admits, it has a vested interest in this debate. Village Voice Media owns Backpage.com, a major adult-services classified website. Until last year, the site was second only to Craigslist in the sex-ads business. Activists accused both sites of enabling the trafficking of underage girls, and under mounting pressure, Craigslist shuttered its erotic-services section last September. That made Backpage even more lucrative. According to the consulting firm Advanced Interactive Media Group, “Backpage.com’s revenue from online prostitution ads in 23 U.S. cities increased 15.3 percent to at least $1,671,685 in September compared with August.”

Since then, activists have been calling on Village Voice Media to shut down Backpage’s sex ads. The Rebecca Project for Human Rights ran ads in papers owned by the company saying, “Each year, 100,000 children are sold for sex in America—many through your website, Backpage.com. Do you really want to provide a platform for predators who pay for sex with girls?” A Missouri teenager filed a lawsuit against Village Voice Media for aiding and abetting her pimp, Latasha Jewell McFarland, who used Backpage.com to sell her for $100 per sex act when she was 14.

The Rebecca Project erred by uncritically repeating the 100,000 figure. The truth is, no one has good numbers about the extent of sex trafficking. But the Village Voice figures are, if anything, even less reliable than the ones anti-trafficking activists use. Its reporters came up with a number by tallying child-prostitution arrests in the country’s 37 largest cities over a 10-year period, finding a total of 8,263, an average of 827 per year. “Compare 827 annually with the 100,000 to 300,000 per year touted in the propaganda,” the story says.

“The fact that The Village Voice, of all newspapers, is not getting the connections around race and class with this issue is mind-boggling to me,” says Lloyd.

Actually, don’t. There are enormous problems with trying to extrapolate the extent of sex trafficking from police arrest records. Rachel Lloyd, the founder of New York’s Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, or GEMS, a nonprofit that serves victims of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, points out that in her state, 16- and 17-year-olds are charged as adults, and so don’t show up in child-prostitution arrests. Girls who are even younger than that show up in the adult statistics as well if they lie about their names and ages, as many do.

At the same time, sites like Backpage.com have taken underage prostitution off the streets and put it behind closed doors, where it’s far harder to detect and prosecute. According to Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, a former federal prosecutor who now heads the State Department’s anti-trafficking office, the vast majority of prostitution arrests involve police posing as either prostitutes or johns. Arrests are thus largely “limited by who it is that pimps are putting out in the open,” he says. While police have started paying attention to the Internet, “the rule continues to be that enforcement patterns are on street prostitution,” says CdeBaca.

Finally, as Lloyd points out, the anti-trafficking movement has worked hard to get police to stop arresting trafficked girls and to start treating them as victims in need of services. According to a February story in the Seattle PostGlobe, “last year alone, the Seattle Police Department’s Vice and High Risk Victims Unit recovered 80 prostituted youth,” compared with 40 the previous year. Because they weren’t arrested, these kids don’t show up in The Village Voice’s figures. (On the paper’s website an interactive map, replete with graphics of sexy silhouettes posing beneath a street lamp, says there’s an average of only 14 underage-prostitution arrests in Seattle annually.)

Unfortunately, the Voice story perpetuates the very regressive ideas about “real” trafficking victims that activists have spent a decade fighting. At one point, the reporters get one of the researchers behind the disputed number to admit, “Kids who are kidnapped and sold into slavery—that number would be very small.” Indeed, he says, there are probably only a few hundred such victims.

But a girl hardly needs to be kidnapped to be trafficked. Many are pimped out by men who claim to love them, or by relatives. Some are runaways or addicts. It has taken activists a long time to convince law enforcement that these girls are victims of a crime, not perpetrators. The typical trafficking victim “isn’t a kid from Middle America, frankly,” says Lloyd. “This is a kid who's been abandoned and failed by every institution. The fact that The Village Voice, of all newspapers, is not getting the connections around race and class with this issue is mind-boggling to me.”

The Village Voice reporters didn’t contact Lloyd, or the progressive, feminist anti-trafficking activist Malika Saada Saar, founder of the Rebecca Project. Instead, they focus on the anti-trafficking movement’s evangelical Christians, as if the whole issue were simply a canard invented by repressive Puritans. It’s certainly true that faith-based groups, many with politics that liberals find abhorrent, do anti-trafficking work, and that some of them get government grants for it. From a First Amendment perspective, there is much to criticize in the federal funding of religious organizations. It was certainly troubling when the charity belonging to the odious Franklin Graham got money from George W. Bush’s anti-AIDS PEPFAR program. But it would be incorrect to conclude from that that the AIDS crisis was overblown.

It’s hard not to be cynical about self-righteous Hollywood stars and their causes célèbres, and worthwhile to be skeptical about statistics. But it’s also easy for critics to assume a knowing pose without knowing much at all. “This is something that certainly exists,” CdeBaca says of underage sex trafficking. “People come and spend a lot of time and effort and attention on it. Then the debunkers come in. And people remain enslaved.”