As they crack down on sex workers and pass outrageous new laws, our politicians and moral crusaders make some bold claims: Hundreds of thousands of children are at risk of sex trafficking is one oft-cited figure. Kids are entering sex work at an average age of 13, says another. But is any of this true?
Good data is hard to come by in an industry kept largely in the shadows. That’s why, from 2012 to 2014, we spent nine months walking a stretch of road in Las Vegas well known as a gathering point for sex workers and their customers. We were part of a team who tailed along with those sex workers as they plied their trade, ducking into cars and alleyways to sell their services. We handed out condoms and other harm-reduction material, and we had a definite purpose — we were researchers, paid through an Obama-era grant from the US Department of Justice.
Our goal was to collect the data needed to provide an accurate estimate of the extent of sexual human trafficking in the United States. The primary investigator, Ric Curtis, designed the study based on his experience collecting data from other “hard to reach” populations, like intravenous drug users in Atlantic City. His method offered a guide for researchers to collect data, without relying on law enforcement, on young and underage people engaged in what we defined as survival sex (trading sex on the street for something else of value like money, shelter, food, and clothing). The study had several teams collecting data in major cities across the US that had been dubbed as “hubs of sex trafficking.”
What the study revealed, after interviewing 949 people across 6 cities — 171 of them in Las Vegas — was that many of the assumptions that inform government policy on sex workers are merely myths. And those myths are easily disproved once you bother to get the data, which we did.
The most consequential of these myths is that no one chooses sex work, and most are pushed into it by abusive pimps — each common beliefs among many who seek to further criminalize the industry. No woman would choose this life, so this belief goes, and behind every woman trading sex is a pimp or trafficker. The national data from our project paints a more nuanced picture.
In our subsample of youth under the age of 18 who were, at the time of interview, engaged in survival sex, 33 individuals — 24% —had a pimp or trafficker, liberally defined as someone with whom the respondent shared their earnings. That definition raises questions of its own, and one young woman’s experience stood out as representative of those questions. Rena, who was 16 at the time of the interview, laughed when we asked if she had a pimp. She tipped her head toward one of her friends.
“That’s my pimp,” Rena giggled. She was an 18-year-old woman who helped Rena use the internet to get clients and was herself engaged in survival sex. The two young women pooled their money together to meet their shared living expenses; Rena’s friend/”pimp” gave her a place to stay after she ran away from home to escape sexual abuse from a family member. The friend/"pimp" taught Rena how to use the internet to find clients and, in Rena’s words, “become independent.”
Rena’s friend could be considered a sex trafficker under the current legal regime — a felony that carries decades in prison and a mandatory, lifelong inclusion on the sex offender registry. A large portion of the adult cases that met the criteria of “ever trafficked” in our study fell into this category. Rena’s friend/pimp began trading sex when she was underage, and therefore was counted, in our data, as a sex trafficking victim. She was also counted as a pimp. The distinction between victim and perpetrator is not as black and white as lawmakers claim, and federal and state policy must reflect this nuance if we are to truly reduce exploitation.
None of this is to claim that violent, stereotypical pimps aren’t also out there — but again, the current approach fails the victims of many of these criminals. Of the youth in our Las Vegas data, the three most violent cases of sexual trafficking identified an intimate partner or family member as the sexual trafficker, although police rarely consider parents or foster parents traffickers in such situations.
Another myth is that the internet — and in particular sites like backpage.com, which was recently shuttered by the FBI — is primarily used by pimps. This is not what our research showed. In fact, the percentage of respondents who used the internet to find customers remained the same, whether or not they reported having a pimp.
In fact, the only variable that correlated with using an online platform to find clients was neighborhood conflict — respondents whose neighborhoods were marked with disputes that led to physical fights or altercations were more likely to seek customers from the internet. This suggests online platforms act as safety nets and buffers against violence.
It also highlights another important point: Because law enforcement routinely uses online platforms to entrap and arrest sex workers, it’s clear that these women would rather advertise online and risk arrest — which can spell death for black, brown, and indigenous people, trans people, and people with mental illness — rather than face the violence of the street. Our current federal policy is to take away that choice, and the crackdown on online platforms used by sex workers is likely to push those women into violent situations.
None of this is to deny that coercion exists in the sex industry. We believe that when there is an undeniable exploiter, their victims deserve justice and protection. But because our political class believes in myths, not solid evidence, they keep creating policies directed at an imaginary bogeyman, not real criminals. Rather than taking into account the messy and uncomfortable nuances of a complex industry and equally complex people, they have chosen the path of least enlightenment. The real victims of sex trafficking will suffer because of it.
Jenny Heineman holds a PhD in sociology with emphases in feminist and queer theories. She has been researching the sex industry for nearly a decade.
Brooke Wagner holds a PhD in sociology and is an assistant professor at Wittenberg University. She teaches courses exploring the intersections of gender, sexuality, and crime.