Everything we think we know about sex trafficking could be wrong

This article was written by reporter Lane Anderson as part of her project for the 2015 National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.

Anthony Marcus had heard the same story about underage sex workers that most of us know — that they are brutalized by violent pimps and sold into sex slavery. But is that story correct?

As a researcher who has studied sex work for decades as chair of the anthropology department at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Marcus, along with his colleague, Ric Curtis, hit on a clever way to find out. They took to the streets of New York and made contacts with street hustlers, drug dealers, and sex workers, offering coupons redeemable for $10 to anyone who referred teens willing to be interviewed about sex work.

"Everyone justified lousy field sampling and small [interview] numbers on grounds that it was too dangerous, that if you talk to a girl sex worker the pimp will cut the girl’s face,” said Marcus.

“In my experience, if you approach people in a respectful way through a third-party who can attest to your reliability, people like to talk."

The refer-a-friend system took off, and Marcus and his team of researchers have now completed two studies in New York and one study in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and racked up over 300 interiews. The result is the largest data set ever collected in the U.S. on minors working in the sex trade.

The findings contradict some of the most common stereotypes we have about sex trafficking and sex work. For example, only 14 percent of female New York respondents said that they worked for a pimp, and in New Jersey that number was just 13 percent including males and females; 47 percent in New Jersey said that they didn’t even know a pimp. Most reported that they had not been introduced to sex work by a stranger at all, but rather by a family member or family friend, and most said that they were not forced into sex work by any one person, but rather because of a lack of housing, or money, or that they couldn't get by on low-paying jobs.

The new research also calls into question the narrative of helpless girls and violent pimps who throw them into hotel-brothels. It’s not that those situations aren’t out there, says Marcus, but they are a small percentage and the data says that’s not even close to the whole story. “Previous research paints a skewed picture,” he says.

Busting the myths matters, because we pass laws and make policies that don't help the people who need it most, says Johannah Westmacott, Housing Coordinator at Safe Horizon Streetwork Project, a homeless youth service program in New York City. “The story that is most sympathetic to wealthy white people in the suburbs is the story of a straight white middle class girl taken from a suburb or wealthy middle school," she says.

"But that leads to laws and solutions that do nothing for a person running away from an abusive group home, or LGBTQ youth with nowhere to stay."

On the street in Atlantic City

Just a few streets off Atlantic City’s strip of high-rise hotels and casinos, the city quickly gives way to hard-luck streets and run-down buildings tagged in graffiti. In May 2010, Marcus and his research team of graduate students came here to spend nine months investigating reports of an “epidemic” of underage sex exploitation.

At night, the team sat on cinderblocks on Pacific Avenue, the long boulevard that runs parallel to the beach and adjacent to the casinos, that's known as a prostitution stroll. The sex trade in Atlantic City was indeed robust — that summer police did a sweep and made 40 prostitution arrests in just one weekend. Marcus' team handed out cheap menthol cigarettes and chatted up people on the street, mostly small-time drug dealers. They told hustlers that they were looking for minors doing sex work for a book that they were working on. Did they know any minors doing sex work? They handed out $30 coupons in exchange for an interview and $10 for referrals.

The local anti-trafficking task force said that no one would talk to the research team because they were “too academic.” “They told us, ‘They will hide from you, their pimps will hurt them and it will be your fault,'” said Marcus.

But interviews came rolling in. The researchers had rented an office space, but found that impromptu interviews usually happened on the street, in a car, or in a fast food restaurant. There was just one problem: almost none of the sex workers were minors.

To capture a bigger group of young people to study, the team raised the age for interviews from 18 to 21, and then again to 24. Eventually they logged 98 interviews (69 percent female, 31 percent male), but only 12 were under the age of 18.

The majority of respondents, 60 out of 98, said that they were underage the first time that they “traded sex for something” — often as young as 12 or 14. But that was usually for someone in their household — a step-father or a parent’s friend — not for a coercive pimp.

Patrick, a 25-year-old white male, said that at age 16 he traded sex for marijuana, and LaRhonda, an 18-year-old African-American, said she first traded sex at 15 with a cousin’s friend who bought her sneakers, and as a child she was plied with candy and small amounts of “hush money” from her uncle. But many categorized these early encounters as sexual abuse, not sex work.

Westmacott, the housing coordinator at the Streetwork Project, points out that commonly used statistics claiming that most minors are introduced to sex work at age 13 have been debunked by fact checkers at reputable sources, like the Washington Post and The Atlantic. If that statistic were true, for every 16-year-old in the sex trade there would have to be an equal number of 9-year-olds. "There is literally no current research that says this," says Westmacott.

Still, these numbers are often touted in the media. “Assuming that anyone trading sex started as a young child leads to infantalization of people who are making decisions that society doesn’t agree with," says Westmacott. "They may not have a great set of options, but they still have agency. People think, 'They must be emotionally stuck at 13,' and treat them that way."

Young and unpimped

One of the most common assumptions about sex trafficking is that it thrives on non-consensual labor — typically an abusive pimp forcing a minor into sex work. And according to U.S. law, anyone performing sex work under the age of 18 — whether it's consensual or not — is considered trafficked because they are under the age of consent.

But one of the most striking findings from Marcus’s research was that very few of the young people he spoke to in Atlantic City said that they had a pimp. “Tricia,” a 19-year-old African-American who said she mostly worked out of hotel rooms, said she sometimes had conflicts with cops and customers — but not a pimp — because she has never had one. An overwhelming majority of respondents (84 percent) reported that they negotiate their own prices with customers, while just 13 percent said that a market facilitator (e.g. a friend, boyfriend, family member, or pimp) did so.

Donna, a 17-year-old white female, reported, “I don’t have a pimp, I’m renegade, basically.” Donna and a 19-year-old female friend reported that they worked the streets together to avoid pimps and exploiters.

“There’s lots of fake pimps,” one of the women reported, “all they want to do is take your money.”

The researchers were surprised that “two petite girls would survive the entire summer” on the streets and avoid pimps, but their success pointed to “weak ties” with men on the street that wanted to help or control sex workers.

So if pimps are not the norm, why the persistence of the pimp narrative? Alexandra Lutnick, a researcher at RTI in San Francisco and author of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains, says that the pimp has become a scapegoat to avoid addressing larger, harder-to-solve problems like poverty.

“We are so dependent on having an external person forcing a young person to do something bad, and then there’s no accountability for systemic and structural factors,” she says.

In her research, she's found that about 10 percent of cases are forced, and the rest are "more complicated," with factors like homelessness and poverty playing a larger role than one "bad guy."

"More often young people have been pushed out of home due to transphobia or violence and abuse, and once they are outside the familial network they have limited options for housing, food and clothing," says Lutnick. "Over-relying on the pimp-trafficker narrative does a disservice."

Males and females alike told researchers that they had ditched their pimps because they were violent, abusive, lazy, bad for business or took too much money.

As a 17-year-old African-American female named Juanita told researchers, “My friend introduced me to some pimp that wanted me to work for him, but I'd rather work for myself. It’s more money.”

Celia Williamson, director of the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute at University of Toledo, says that although the John Jay study seems solid, especially because it represents testimony of people currently working in the sex trade, no one research method can capture the whole story.

The John Jay study focused on young people engaging in street prostitution and "survival sex," or trading sex to meet basic needs like food and housing. But that leaves out other, less-visible forms of sex work: "There's private in-call and out-call, conventions, truck stops,” she points out, not to mention Internet connections.

She noted that in Toledo, one method they often see are traffickers who will rent a house over the weekend, text a bunch of customers, and move on to another house the following weekend. People in those situations wouldn't be captured in a study like John Jay's, and they might be more likely to be under pimp control, or experience abuse or coercion.

“You don’t want to confuse street prostitution with sex trafficking, and you don’t want to confuse street-level trafficking with other avenues in which kids are trafficked,” she says.

Marcus of John Jay says that his team was embedded enough in the community that his respondents would have known if there was significant competition from other sources — such as individuals under pimp control. Still, Marcus and Williamson both agree that no one method is complete. "How do you count an underground activity?" says Williamson.

A Home and a Job

An overwhelming number of respondents from the Atlantic City study — 87 percent — said that they would like to get out of sex work. For most, a coercive pimp wasn’t what was keeping them in sex work, it was poverty, low-paying jobs, and lack of education. More than half of those interviewed had less than a high school education, and a majority also struggled with drug addiction.

When asked what would help them, housing was the most overwhelming response.

The Safe Horizon Streetwork Project is located on 125th Street in Harlem, above a Starbucks and a Sprint phone store. The lobby is spacious and flanked with large windows; sunlight and traffic noise spill in from the street below. Streetwork offers a day-time drop-in center for homeless youth under the age of 24, offering help with housing, legal, medical and psychiatric services, and a respite from the street.

Homeless young people from all over New York and New Jersey arrive in this lobby, painted a cheerful yellow. Many come from the same population as Marcus’s study — in fact, 38 percent of respondents from John Jay's New York study said they were Streetwork clients. But young people who walk through the door here don't generally come in and announce that they are victims of sex trafficking or that they are trading sex. Rather, they come looking for housing and work.

In approximately 90 percent of cases it will come out that clients here have traded something of value to them for sex, says Westmacott, but that's not their primary concern. New York’s lack of affordable housing provides a stark example of why youth without a place to stay do sex work, or even just trade sex for a warm place to sleep at night. According to a 2008 census, there are about 3,800 youths per night in New York City without stable housing or homes, yet the city only provides about 250 shelter beds.

As housing coordinator, Westmacott's job is to help young people find a place to live. She navigates the complex bureaucratic system and files paperwork to help clients apply for government-funded housing. She tells her clients that it will take six months to a year; for every available supportive housing apartment the city provides, she says, there are five applicants.

It's not always possible to find housing, she says, even though Streetwork makes a significant number of placements. "There's not enough resources, there is always a dearth of resources," she says. For evidence that the current system for helping youth is broken, Westmacott says to look no further than her job.

“I would love it if my job didn’t exist,” she says. "I want to make a point that these systems are overly complex and inaccessible. It should not take a professional advocate whose entire job and body of knowledge is navigating this bureaucracy for a young person to access housing."

When interviewers asked what respondents would need if they wanted to stop exchanging money for sex, after housing, the answer usually came down to money (other responses included education, drug rehab, and childcare). Over half of the respondents in the Atlantic City study said that they relied on sex work for all of their income. Others received some welfare, and worked off-the-books jobs like cleaning houses. Many, especially those with children, reported that minimum-wage jobs didn’t make enough money to live on.

Victor, a Hispanic male under 25, reported in the study that he had been “hustling” since age 22. “Living this life…most of the time I’m just trying to eat, so if I have to have sex, then that’s pay for what I want. In a week I can make a thousand. No one else is going to feed me or whatnot.”

Still, Victor said that “this life ain’t for me,” and, despite that he had been in sex work for three years, he “was not staying here longer than another week.”

Leon, an 18-year-old male, said “I would leave it to make better money that what I’m currently doing. Something within the computer field, programmer or technician. [In ten years] I hope to be pursuing another career and making something of myself.”

Tiffany, an 18-year-old African-American woman with a 1-year-old and 3-year-old child, told the researchers that her wish list included better housing, better education, babysitting, help finding a job, and cash assistance in the meantime.

She said that she would like to live somewhere, “not in the hood, somewhere secure… [I just want] all the good stuff in life — essentials. We’re all people; we need help, that little shoulder to cry on, that little respect at the end of the day.”

[This story was originally published by Deseret News National.]