By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
To calculate its 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 with the total number of juvenile prostitution arrests in state law enforcement records. Using a mathematical algorithm often employed in biological and social science studies, 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."
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, Finkelhor says, "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 recruiters 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.
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 does not appear 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 Ph.D. 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."
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 Sgt. Byron Fassett, whose police work with underage female prostitutes is hailed by child advocates and government officials including Sen. 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:
• "I can't get a job that would pay better than this."
• "I like the freedom this lifestyle affords me."
• "My friend was making a lot of money doing it and introduced me to it."
• "I want money to buy a new cellphone."