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New study: Far fewer juveniles engaged in sex trade than previously estimated

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Regular readers of The Fact Checker know that we have looked skeptically at various estimates of the number of youths involved in the sex trade. All too often, the estimates were based on flimsy or out-of-date data, leading to estimates that strained credulity. Among the claims that fell apart under scrutiny:

A big problem with any estimate, of course, is that this is a hidden, secret world and data is sparse. Nevertheless, we concluded that it was difficult to even claim that “tens of thousands” of children were involved in the sex trade, even though federal agencies, prodded by Congress, have devoted significant resources to combating the sex trafficking of minors.

Now a new study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, has come up with an estimate that appears significantly lower than previous estimates. The researchers, led by Rachel Swaner of New York University, concluded that the total number of juveniles in the sex trade in the United States was about 9,000 to 10,000. To be cautious, given the limitations in the data, the study said that range could be as low as 4,500 or as high as 21,000.

The study also found that about 15 percent of the children relied on a pimp and that the average age of entry into the sex trade was 15.8 years. Both figures are in line with other careful studies. 

These estimates were derived from interviews with 949 people engaged in the sex trade between ages 13 and 24, located in six cities. The interviews ranged from 30 minutes to two hours. The researchers calculated the number of people engaged in the sex trade by determining how many people who were interviewed had been arrested, and then cross-checked those numbers with official arrest data of people under 18. That then yielded an estimate of how many children are engaged in the sex trade in the United States.

Obviously, this can be considered quasi-scientific at best, and the report is upfront about the limitations of the research and the estimate. But the interviews are recent and represent a bigger data set than many previous reports. It certainly adds to our understanding of this important issue, and further demonstrates why politicians and advocacy groups should be careful in citing statistics. 

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