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Jadyn's Story: Human Trafficking in the U.S.
The Girls Next Door. A few decades prior, a survey of "trafficking" headlines would have yielded much different results. Back then, newspapers recounted tales of "contemporary Al Capones trafficking illegal drugs to the smallest villages and towns in our heartland," and of organized "motorcycle gangs" trafficking LSD and hashish. Crack kingpins were rumored to target runaways, beating them if they didn't make drug sales quotas. Such articles offered a breathless sense that the drug trade was booming, irresistible to criminals, and in desperate need of child foot soldiers. Lawmakers touted harsher penalties for drug offenses. The war on drugs raged. New task forces were created. Civilians were trained how to "spot" drug traffickers in the wild, and students instructed how to rat out drug-using parents. Politicians spoke of a drug "epidemic" overtaking America, its urgency obviously grounds for anything we could throw its way. We know now how that all worked out. The tactics employed to "get tough" on drugs ended up entangling millions in the criminal justice system, sanctioning increasingly intrusive and violent policing practices, worsening tensions between law enforcement and marginalized communities, and degrading the constitutional rights of all Americans. Yet even as the drug war's failures and costs become more apparent, the Land of the Free is enthusiastically repeating the same mistakes when it comes to sex trafficking. This new "epidemic" inspires the same panicked rhetoric and punitive policies the war on drugs did—often for activity that's every bit as victimless. Forcing others into sex or any sort of labor is abhorrent, and it deserves to be treated like the serious violation it is. But the activity now targeted under anti-trafficking efforts includes everything from offering or soliciting paid sex, to living with a sex worker, to running a classified advertising website. What's more, these new laws aren't organic responses by legislators in the face of an uptick in human trafficking activity or inadequate current statutes. They are in large part the result of a decades-long anti-prostitution crusade from Christian "abolitionists" and anti-sex feminists, pushed along by officials who know a good political opportunity when they see it and by media that never met a moral panic they didn't like. The fire is fueled by federal money, which sends police departments and activist groups into a grant-grubbing frenzy. The anti-trafficking movement is "just one big federal grant program," Michael Hudson, a scholar with the conservative Hudson Institute, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Because of the visceral feelings that the issue of paid sex has always provoked, it's easy for overstatements and false statistics to go unchallenged, winning repetition in congressional hearings and the press. Yet despite all the dire proclamations, there's little evidence of anything approaching an "epidemic" of sexual slavery. By , the agency reduced this estimate to 18,—20,, further reducing it to 14,—17, in subsequent reports. That's a 71 percent decrease in just five years, though officials offered no explanation as to how they arrived at these numbers or what accounted for the drastic change. These days, federal agencies tend to stick to the vague "thousands" when discussing numbers of incoming victims. Globally, some , to , people are trafficked across international borders each year, the Department of Homeland Security DHS estimates. But the Government Accountability Office GAO in described this figure as "questionable" due to "methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies," including the rather astonishing fact that "the U. But not only are these not DOJ or HHS figures, they're based on s data published in a non-peer-reviewed paper that the primary researcher, Richard Estes, no longer endorses. The authors of that study came up with their number by speculating that certain situations—i. They then simply counted up the number of kids in those situations. To make a bad measure worse, anyone who fell into more than one category was counted multiple times. Scientifically credible estimates do not exist. If even a third of those "at risk" youth were peddled for sex in a given year, we'd be looking at nearly , victims. And since advocates often claim that victims are forced to have sex with 10, 20, or 30 clients a day, that would be—using the lowest number—1. Even if we assume that child rapists are typically repeat customers, averaging one assault per week, that would still mean nearly 8 million Americans have a robust and ongoing child rape habit, in addition to the alleged millions who pay for sex with adults. Common sense should also immediately cast doubt on another frequently cited statistic: But no one seriously believes that. Kessler's own Washington Post ran it uncritically in Yet none of these federal agencies take responsibility for this stat. When Kessler followed the facts down the rabbit hole, the original source in all cases was Among these interview subjects from three decades ago, the average age of their first noncommercial sexual experience was The average age of entry into prostitution was 16, and the report made no mention of sex trafficking at all. Surveys of adults working in the U. A Urban Institute study involving 38 sex workers found that only four began before age 15, 10 started between the ages of 15 and 17, another four started in their 30s, and the remaining 20 began sex work between the ages of 18 and A study, this one from Arizona State University, found that of more than women arrested for prostitution in Phoenix, the average age of entry was about Wagner, when Kessler challenged the figure. But it's exactly this kind of thinking that inflicts real-world policy damage. Whether there are 30, or , crime victims makes a great deal of difference in terms of fashioning an appropriate response, as does the context of the victims' circumstances. Separating the mythology of sex trafficking from the facts is crucial for addressing problems as they exist, not problems as we might want, fear, or imagine them to be.
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