Has sex trafficking in the U.S. really come down to a fight about statistics?
Here’s the push – on the one side are activists, senators, attorney generals, nonprofits and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Their numbers: 70 per cent of the nation’s online ads for adult services (read, prostitution) run on Backpage.com, according to Advanced Interactive Media Group, an online classified advertising consultancy. In the last three years, at least 50 charges of trafficking have been filed by state attorneys general against people advertising on Backpage.com. It’s estimated that 100,000 to 250,000 children in the U.S. are trafficked each year.
On the other side, Tony Ortega, editor of the Village Voice, owned by Village Voice Media, which also owns Backpage.com, has called underage trafficking an imaginary problem, driven by “mass panic.” He calls that estimated quarter million kids “guesses by activist professors, junk science by nonprofit groups trying to extract money from Congress, and manipulation by religious groups hiding their real agendas about sex work.” The numbers Village Voice Media cites: FBI data showing that on average, about 200 underage kids a year are saved from forced prostitution.
Moral Panic in Amsterdam
The Netherlands has been through a similar debate, even though in that country both adult prostitution and pimping are legal. Starting in 2006, a spate of alarmist TV and press reports claimed Dutch school girls were being groomed for prostitution by a new brand of pimp known as a Lover Boy. Lover Boys were purported to be second- and third-generation Dutch Moroccans and Antilleans. Frank Bovenkerk, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Amsterdam, scoffed. Bovenkerk in fact suggested this was just a symptom of “moral panic” and an attempt to demonize second-generation immigrants.
The mayor of Amsterdam commissioned Bovenkerk to get to the bottom of the allegations. What Bovenkerk found, in a 2006 report [in Dutch] updated in 2011 in the academic journal Crime, Media, Culture, was that Lover Boys were real. He estimated that there were 100 of them in Amsterdam, and they each controlled several legal prostitutes, a large number of whom had been recruited as children.
The Dutch reacted to a research report, which estimated that a few hundred girls were at risk. In the U.S., the FBI’s number of 200 a year is used as proof that the problem is overblown. Backpage.com counsel Liz McDougall has even argued that because it cooperates with prosecutors, it is better for all that the site not pull its adult services ads offline.
The sad truth is, it’s extraordinarily hard to get girls to testify against their pimps, whether it be in the U.S. or in places like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Jean Custers, head of the Dutch Trafficking police team, says “girls are terrorized, pimps sometimes threaten to harm younger members of their families if they talk. Very few girls are prepared to testify in such a situation.” In The New York Times on Thursday, Kristof wrote a column on trafficking, noting that in the U.S., police often detain girls instead of rescuing them.
Andrea Powell thinks that, unlike the Netherlands, the U.S. is refusing to acknowledge its trafficking issue. Her anti-trafficking organization, FAIR Girls, sees about 1,000 girls a year in Washington, D.C. “A fifth tell us they are being groomed or pimped,” says Powell.