When I’m scanning the search engines for prostitution news, there will always be certain hotbeds of activity on the part of the anti-prostitution groups. There is no end to the localities in the U.S. that seem to lay claim to being the trafficking capitol of the U.S. I’ve posted about at least one of these, but it’s become so common that it normally doesn’t get my attention anymore. The typical news item is an interview of a spokesman for some rescue organization by a local reporter. Rarely do any reporters challenge what the rescue groups claim nor do they interview anyone who opposes the anti-prostitution agenda. Essentially, when rescue groups descend on a city, the mainstream press just passes on the their propaganda verbatim.
Portland is regularly one of those cities that is reported as being a major center for sex trafficking. A search on Google for Portland and trafficking and hub yields over 60,000 links. When you add children to the search term, it’s still 48,000. Sex trafficking is one of those trendy sensationalistic stories that the news media love, true or not.
But now that claim has been questioned. As stated so succinctly by international sex trafficking authority, Laura Agustin:
With cameras rolling on 82nd Avenue last year, Dan Rather dubbed the city “Pornland” in a documentary. “Nightline” declared Portland the “epicenter for child prostitution,” and “World News With Diane Sawyer” called the city a “hotbed of sex trafficking.” But as hundreds gather in Portland this weekend for the third-annual Northwest Conference Against Trafficking, with talks by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and actress Daryl Hannah, an examination by The Oregonian reveals that no one really knows if the problem in Portland is any worse than anywhere else.
In her piece in the Oregonian, Nikole Hannah-Jones does what is unheard of in the mainstream media when it comes to rescue industry claims. She questions the statistics, uncovering their utter lack of credibility.
That raises perhaps the most frequently cited number around child sex trafficking — that 200,000 to 300,000 U.S. youths are at risk of sexual exploitation. The U.S. Department of Justice lists the number on its website. Local law enforcement agencies, McKeel’s office and others have repeated it, and everyone from UNICEF, CNN, The Oregonian and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children have printed it.
The figure is problematic on two fronts. One, advocates often cite it as the number of children in the sex trade — not just the number at risk of sexual exploitation. Worse, the figure is based on faulty statistics from a 2001 University of Pennsylvania study by Richard Estes and Neil Weiner.
The study took data from an earlier study by Finkelhor, the University of New Hampshire researcher, that counted the number of runaway youths. The Pennsylvania study’s authors then came up with a percentage of these kids they believed to be at risk of sexual exploitation of any kind based on interviews with fewer than 300 teens. It was, Finkelhor said, a guess.
This study is also the source for another commonly cited statistic — that the average age that a child enters prostitution is 12 to 14. Finkelhor has created a fact sheet disputing these and other false child prostitution figures.
From what I’ve seen, including comments made on this site, the rescue industry continues to repeat their claims, even knowing they are wrong. While freely using the inflated figures to rouse public opinion and stimulate funding and donations, when confronted with the fact that their claims are false, some in rescue industry simply say that the statistics are unimportant because even one child is too many.
Nikole Hannah-Jones deserves a pat on the back for her thoughtful article. She has no doubt incurred the wrath of Portland’s anti-prostitution crusaders, but she has done great honor to her profession and her newspaper for taking time to investigate.