Trafficking in Bad Numbers

6836507.28 Have you been following the Ashton Kutcher and The Village Voice fight? This fight was one of the few news stories that I followed while on vacation.

Ashton and Demi have been using their celebrity status to talk about about child sex trafficking. A good cause. I have no problem with celebrities using their status to promote a good cause. They really need something to do with their time. However, I do wish they employed someone smart to help them say the right things. 

The Village Voice wrote that Kutcher had his numbers all wrong. He said that there were 300,000 child sex slaves in the US, based on the findings from a really crappy research paper. The numbers are probably more like 3oo. The Voice also made fun of his really stupid education campaign commercials. 

Kutcher went on the attack and called the advertisers for the Voice and told them that they shouldn't advertise in a paper that supported sex slavery. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks that the Voice was out of line here. 

I think Kutcher needed a good spanking, and I'm glad that the Voice wrote that article. Fact are really, really, really important. If you get them wrong, then all the good intensions are a waste of time, and in fact, damage the cause permanently. Look, Kutcher has a lot of money. He should use some of that money to hire a political consultant to help him get the facts right. 

8 thoughts on “Trafficking in Bad Numbers

  1. I think facts are really really important, too and that’s where I worry about celebrity involvement. When they get the facts wrong, they can do more harm than good, and 300K v 300 is the kind of big difference that makes for more than gotcha’s.
    The ABA produced an anti-bullying PSA that was a prime example of doing more harm than good (not in this case by getting their facts wrong but by not really understanding the problem they were addressing). Instead of talking about rights & responsibilities (something lawyers might know about), they made a video that drew in incomplete knowledge of bullying, suicide, and the law and created a hot mess of an advert.

  2. But where did the 300 number come from? A quick google search shows 1000 in Ohio this year. And another study that 300k are at risk of being trafficked. A friend of mine’s cousin was trafficked in OR and testified against her pink and has been missing now (presumed killed by her pimp) for a year. SO I Think Both sides need to do some research.

  3. The Voice’s numbers were lame, too. Who uses arrest statistics as an indicator of the prevalance of ANY crime, let alone one that is as underground as this one?! There are instruments like Crime Victimization Survers that demonstrate how arrest numbers capture only a small portion of many “intimate” crimes. This is not a defense of the 100,000-300,000 number. But the Voice made no effort to counter those numbers with a more realisic one. Instead, they low-balled. So, shame on them!

  4. TNC rightly calls out the Voice for having a dog in the fight and not owning up to that fact.
    Bigger than Kutcher, though, is the amount of money that law enforcement across the US is getting to fight a low-numbers problem. Felix Salmon, not surprisingly, has a good look at these and the other numbers. Federal spending over eight years was about $200 million specifically related to child pornography, and $150 million for trafficking related to sex or labor. That’s a lot of resources for 826 arrests.
    Salmon also chases up the original source of the 100,000-300,000 figure which defined the at-risk category as

    … children who because of their unique circumstances as runaways, thrownaways, victims of physical or sexual abuse, users of psychotropic drugs, members of sexual minority groups, illegally trafficked children, children who cross international borders in search of cheap drugs and sex, and other illicit fare, are at special risk of sexual exploitation.

    As Salmon observes, this approach puts every child who is reported as a runaway in the group of potential prostitutes. It produces a big number, but not a good one.
    He continues, “all of this money has managed to find somewhere between 100 and 250 underage prostitutes per year. And when they’re found, they’re often arrested, rather than being given access to the help they need.”

  5. I just read this Vanity Fair article which interviews two trafficked child prostitutes who testified in a major trafficking bust in Connecticut.
    http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2011/05/sex-trafficking-201105
    The article also quotes the 300,000 statistic, and at least in this situation, the 2 arrests discussed were for pimps who controlled dozens of girls, so what may look like a low number of arrests may actually reflect a much larger impact. Secondly, it appears that arrests are made very sparingly, generally only when law enforcement feels like they have a good chance of getting a high level pimp and getting him locked up for a long time. If this is generally the case, then what may appear to be a low level of arrests actually a) has an outsize effect on child prostitutes and b) is really just the tip of the iceberg for this problem. From this article and a documentary I watched on child prostitution in NY, it appears underage prostitutes are actually taken into the child welfare system, not the prison system. A big problem is getting girls who have been abused and neglected their whole lives and who view the pimps as the only authority figure in their life and who might have affective ties to him, and who in addition are deathly afraid of the consequences of testifying against their pimp if he doesn’t get sent away for long enough (certain death).
    It may very well be true that Ashton Kutcher’s (and Vanity Fair’s) numbers are wrong, but those who make that claim then have to prove that a) the original numbers are wrong and b) their numbers are better.
    As someone who was (I think) approached by a sex trafficker in a foreign country, (when studying abroad in China as a 20 year old, I was approached by an Uzbeki man who lived in the foreign students’ dorm and asked me if I’d like to visit Uzbekistan with him. He emphasized, “you no worry about anything, I arrange visa and pay. you no worry.” I could be wrong, but I imagine there are few reasons for a man to approach a young female stranger and offer her an all-expense paid trip to his hometown in central Asia.) Anyways, it wasn’t like I was in mortal danger (I turned him down and he walked away), but I wanted to offer this anecdote to illustrate sex trafficking is more pervasive and can affect more people than we might assume.

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