New billboards that address human trafficking are seen in Indianapolis. This one is near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar)

“13 is the average age kids are first used in the sex trade.”

— billboard in Indiana, near the Indianapolis 500 Speedway

Regular readers know that last year the The Fact Checker exposed a series of false statistics associated with sex trafficking of children. All too often, we found, politicians and organizations credulously accepted flimsy or poorly researched statistics because they were so horrified by the crime. But as we have often noted, advocates only harm their cause when they tout statistics that are so easily disproved.

Our fact checks led many politicians and organizations to be more careful in their use of statistics concerning sex trafficking, but problems continue to surface. Case in point: a billboard campaign launched by Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, tied to the recent Indy 500 motor car race (h/t Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason magazine). One of the billboards offered a statistic we had thoroughly debunked last year — that 13 is the average age for children to get involved in the sex trade. The false fact, which was included in a news release by the AG, was quickly recycled through the local media

If you think about this stat for just half a minute, it makes little sense. After all, if it is the “average,” then for all those who entered trafficking at age 16 or 17, there have to be nearly equivalent numbers who entered at age 9 or 10. But no one seriously believes that.

Time for a refresher course!

The Facts

A power point presentation on the AG’s website indicates that the source of this statistic is the same rotten fruit that Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) had relied on when we last looked at it — an opinion article posted on the FBI’s website, written by Baltimore prosecutors, that mentioned the claim that the average age was 13. That article in turn cited as a source a 2001 report written by Richard J. Estes and Neil Weiner of the University of Pennsylvania.

But we had confirmed previously this was not an FBI or Justice Department figure. In fact, it is astonishing that the FBI has not pulled this article off the Web, since it continues to suggest this false claim is accepted by the FBI.

Meanwhile, the 2001 report is the source of many bad sex-trafficking statistics, including the false claim that more than 300,000 children were “at risk for commercial sexual exploitation.”

The data in the report, which was not peer-reviewed, is almost two decades old. The primary author no longer supports it, saying it is outdated. “The world of the 1990s … was quite a different one from that in which we live today,” Estes told The Fact Checker in 2015.

In any case, there is just a brief mention of the “average age” in the 260-page report, and the number was derived from only 107 interviews with girls, found either in the street or in the care of human-services agencies. So it’s pretty slim research for such a widely cited statistic.

Moreover, by their nature, surveys of sex workers are mainly anecdotal and only provide a snapshot of a particular situation in time. So it’s a mistake to generalize so broadly from any such survey.

If anything, there is some indication that the “13” number may best refer to the average age of a street sex worker’s first sexual encounter. This was reflected in a 1982 survey of 200 current and former juvenile and adult street sex workers in the San Francisco area in which the average age of first intercourse was 13.5 years, as well as in other surveys. But entry in the sex trade is more likely to be between 15 and 16 years old.

A 2008 study of 329 sexually exploited youths in New York City for the National Institute for Justice, by researchers at John Jay College, found that the average age of entry into the sex trade was 15.15 years for females and 15.28 years for males. But the researchers warned that the data is fuzzy because there is no way to check the veracity of the accounts offered by the youth. Interestingly, 90 percent of those interviewed reported not having a pimp. (Klobuchar, to her credit, said she would stop using the statistic.)

[Note: Some writers have misinterpreted this statistic to think that “15" indicates the average age of entry for sex workers. That’s incorrect. As we have previously written, there is plenty of evidence the average age is around 25, since only a small percentage engage in sex work before the age of 18.]

After The Fact Checker debunked the “average age” statistic, one of the most influential anti-trafficking organizations, the Polaris Project, looked in the issue and confirmed our findings. “This stat is not actually supported by any data,” Polaris declared in early 2016. “We’ve looked at both our internal data and external data sources, such as open source research and media, and we don’t believe that 12-14 is an accurate average age of entry into prostitution.”

This was an important development, yet it somehow escaped the notice of Indiana officials.

“We originally created those billboards last year using the best information we had at the time,” said Molly Gillaspie, a spokeswoman for the attorney general. The previous campaign was associated with the Final Four basketball championship held in Indianapolis, and they reran the same campaign for the Indy 500. “Thanks for bringing this to our attention.”

As we have explained before, the notion that sex trafficking increases around major sporting events is a fallacy not supported by data.

The Pinocchio Test

There is little excuse for the Indiana attorney general to adorn a billboard with such a false statistic after a leading anti-trafficking organization said it was bunk. The AG’s office needs to scrub its website of any references to this claim and also explain to the Indiana media that it had spread false information. 

Four Pinocchios


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Other fact checks on human trafficking statistics:

Loretta Lynch’s false claim on sex trafficking arrests

The fishy claim that ‘100,000 children’ in the United States are in the sex trade

The bogus claim that 300,000 U.S. children are ‘at risk’ of sexual exploitation

The false claim that human trafficking is a ‘$9.5 billion business’ in the United States

Are there hundreds of thousands of sex-trafficked runaways in the United States?

Why you should be wary of statistics on ‘modern slavery’ and ‘trafficking’