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Everything you know about sex workers and trafficking is wrong

“We were told pimps were not approachable because they were too dangerous and didn’t want to talk,” Marcus told me. “But all they wanted to do was talk, talk, talk—that’s what they do for a living.”

Short version: the number of underage sex workers is grossly inflated, as is he number of pimps. Roughly 1 in 8 underage sex workers has a pimp, and even then the arrangement tends to not be as portrayed in popular culture.

Study of sex workers and pimps reveals how the market for underage sex actually operates.

When Dr. Anthony Marcus, chair of the anthropology department at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, kicked off a massive study of underage sex work in America in 2008, finding interview subjects was easy. Marcus and his team of researchers met minors working as prostitutes in New York City, then gave each of them three coupons they could redeem for $10 if they brought back more teens for interviews. Soon, their network grew large enough that they had reached their goal of interviewing 300 minors working in the city, the largest data set of its kind. But as soon as they moved the operation to Atlantic City, N.J.—a much smaller venue, but one that they’d heard had an “epidemic” of commercial sexual exploitation of children—the coupon system fizzled out. Underage sex workers in Atlantic City were almost impossible to find.

Unable to find their subjects, the researchers reached out to members of the city’s anti-trafficking task force—including local social workers, law enforcement officials, and religious leaders—for leads. At night, they sat on cinder blocks on the boardwalk with cartons of cigarettes, handing out coupons and sharing smokes with street hustlers and drug dealers. One researcher moved into Atlantic City’s boarding houses to get closer to the market. But when they could only locate a handful of minors to interview, members of the anti-trafficking task force advised Marcus and his team that the underage sex market was “hidden” in the city. “Researchers like you will never gain their trust,” one member told them. “They all hide under the boardwalk, and none of the girls will be brave enough to talk to you. If they do, their pimps will cut their faces, and it will be your fault.” An FBI agent admonished the researchers that they were “too academic to do this study” and needed to talk in “police television slang” in order to win their trust.

Eventually, some members of the task force admitted that they had little personal interaction with underage sex workers themselves. “It soon became clear that as researchers staying up all night on Pacific Avenue we knew it better than they did, since they all lived in the suburbs and rarely saw Pacific Avenue after 5 p.m.,” Marcus and his co-author, John Jay anthropology professor Ric Curtis, wrote in an article on the experience last year. Finally, they raised the age limit of interviewees to 24 and conducted additional interviews with local pimps, drug dealers, customers, and business people to get a more comprehensive understanding of Atlantic City’s market. What they found was that the narrative of commercial sexual exploitation of children (or CSEC) they had been sold by local activists—one where knife-wielding pimps lure girls into prostitution then brutalize them into compliance—existed in only rare cases and didn’t describe most people’s experiences.
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