RDS relies on a snowball effect that ultimately extends through numerous social networks, broadening the reach of the study. "The benefit of this is that you're getting the hidden population: kids who don't necessarily show up for [social] services and who may or may not get arrested," says Bryan. "It's based on the 'six degrees of separation' theory."

To calculate their population estimate, the John Jay team first culled the interview subjects who didn't fit the study's criteria but had been included for the potential referrals they could generate. The next step was to tally the number of times the remaining 249 subjects had been arrested for prostitution and compare that to the total number of juvenile prostitution arrests in state law-enforcement records. Using a mathematical algorithm often employed in biological and social-science studies, Ric Curtis and his crew were able to estimate that 3,946 youths were hooking in New York.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, calls the New York study significant, in that it "makes the big [national] numbers that people put out — like a million kids, or 500,000 kids — unlikely."

Researchers Meredith Dank and Ric Curtis induced hundreds of New York's underage sex workers to open up about their "business." Their findings upended the conventional wisdom — and galled narrow-minded advocates.
Ashlie Quinone
Researchers Meredith Dank and Ric Curtis induced hundreds of New York's underage sex workers to open up about their "business." Their findings upended the conventional wisdom — and galled narrow-minded advocates.
Curtis and Dank relied upon a method of social networking that was anything but electronic: Interview subjects were given coupons to pass out to peers and collected $10 for each successful referral.
Ashlie Quinone
Curtis and Dank relied upon a method of social networking that was anything but electronic: Interview subjects were given coupons to pass out to peers and collected $10 for each successful referral.

Details

EDITOR'S NOTE: Village Voice Media, which owns this publication, owns the classified site Backpage.com. In addition to used cars, jobs and couches, readers can also find adult ads on Backpage; for this reason, certain activists and clergy members have called attention to the site, sometimes going so far as to call for its closure.

Certainly we have a stake in this discussion. And we do not object to those who suggest an apparent conflict of interest. We sat quietly and did not respond as activists held symposiums across America—from Seattle to Miami—denouncing Backpage. Indeed, we were never asked for response.

But then we looked at the "science" behind many of these activists' claims, and the media's willingness, without question, to regurgitate a litany of incredible statistics. In the interest of a more informed discussion, we decided to write.

Finkelhor's single caveat: While RDS is efficient in circulating through a broad range of social networks, certain scenarios might elude detection — specifically, foreign children who might be held captive and forbidden to socialize.

Still, says Finkelhor, "I think [the study] highlights important components of the problem that don't get as much attention: that there are males involved and that there are a considerable number of kids who are operating without pimps."

The John Jay study's authors say they were surprised from the start at the number of boys who came forward. In response Dank pursued new avenues of inquiry — visiting courthouses to interview girls who'd been arrested and canvassing at night with a group whose specialty was street outreach to pimped girls. She and Curtis also pressed their male subjects for leads.

"It turns out that the boys were the more effective recruiter of pimped girls than anybody else," Curtis says. "It's interesting, because this myth that the pimps have such tight control over the girls, that no one can talk to them, is destroyed by the fact that these boys can talk to them and recruit them and bring them to us. Obviously the pimps couldn't have that much of a stranglehold on them."

The same, of course, might be true of the elusive foreign-born contingent Finkelhor mentions.

Curtis and Dank believe there is indeed a foreign subpopulation RDS could not reach. But with no data to draw on, it's impossible to gauge whether it's statistically significant or yet another overblown stereotype.

And as the researchers point out, the John Jay study demolished virtually every other stereotype surrounding the underage sex trade.

For the national study, researchers are now hunting for underage hookers in Las Vegas, Dallas, Miami, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area, and interviews for an Atlantic City survey are complete.

Curtis is reluctant to divulge any findings while so much work remains to be done, but he does say early returns suggest that the scarcity of pimps revealed by the New York study appears not to be an anomaly.

A final report on the current research is scheduled for completion in mid-2012.

"I think that the study has a chance to dispel some of the myths and a lot of the raw emotion that is out there," says Marcus Martin, the PhD who's leading the Dallas research crew. "At the end of the day, I think the study is going to help the kids, as well as tell their story."


At the end of the day, if the work Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank began in New York is indeed going to help the kids, it will do so because it tells their story. And because it addresses the most difficult — and probably the most important — question of all: What drives young kids into the sex trade?

Dallas Police Department Sergeant Byron Fassett, whose police work with underage female prostitutes is hailed by child advocates and government officials including Senator Wyden, believes hooking is "a symptom of another problem that can take many forms. It can be poverty, sexual abuse, mental abuse — there's a whole range of things you can find in there.

"Generally we find physical and sexual abuse or drug abuse when the child was young," Fassett continues. "These children are traumatized. People who are involved in this are trauma-stricken. They've had something happen to them. The slang would be that they were 'broken.'"

Fassett has drawn attention because of his targeted approach to rescuing (rather than arresting) prostitutes and helping them gain access to social services. The sergeant says that because the root causes of youth prostitution can be so daunting to address from a social-policy standpoint, it's easy — and politically expedient — to sweep them under the proverbial rug.

And then there are the John Jay researchers' groundbreaking findings. Though the study could not possibly produce thorough psychological evaluations and case histories, subjects were asked the question: "How did you get into this?" Their candid answers revealed a range of motives and means:

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