Prostitution of Juveniles (Sex Trafficking):Fact Sheet
How Many Juveniles are Involved in Prostitution in the U.S.?
There have been many attempts to estimate the number of juvenile prostitutes within the United States. These estimates range from 1,400 to 2.4 million, although most fall between 300,000 and 600,000. BUT PLEASE DO NOT CITE THESE NUMBERS. READ ON. A close look at these diverse estimates reveals that none are based on a strong scientific foundation. They are mostly educated guesses or extrapolations based on questionable assumptions. They do not have the substance of typically reported crime statistics, like the number of robberies or the number of child sexual abuse victims. The reality is that we do not currently know how many juveniles are involved in prostitution. Scientifically credible estimates do not exist.
The most often cited estimates on juvenile prostitution will be described here and their source, along with the major problems with their validity.
Estes and Weiner
Perhaps the most commonly used estimate of juvenile prostitution comes from Estes and Weiner (2001). These authors concluded in a large, publicized report that about 326,000
children were “at risk for commercial sexual exploitation.” However, there are several problems with treating this number as an estimate of juvenile prostitution. First, although this
is often cited as an estimate of juvenile prostitutes, even the authors call it something much more nebulous: youth "at risk" of commercial sexual exploitation. “At risk” means it is
compilation of youth in various categories (14 in total) – like runaway kids, female gang members – who could become or be involved in commercial sexual exploitation. But the
authors had no evidence of how many or what proportion of these youth actually were involved.
Secondly, the numbers that form the basis of their various “at risk" categories are themselves highly speculative. One large portion of the estimate is simply a crude guess that 35% of a national estimate of runaway youth out of their home a week or longer were “at risk”. Another large portion was a guess that one quarter of 1% of the general population of youth 10‐17 were “at risk”. Together these two groups constitute nearly 200,000 of the at risk youth. But it is essentially a guesstimate and not a scientific estimate.
A third problem is that no one has any idea how much duplication there is among the 14 at risk groups. Some of the runaways are also gang members and living in public housing, etc. so one cannot simply add together estimates from these various sources. A scientific estimate would have to “unduplicate” the numbers from the various categories.
In sum, no one should cite the 326,000 number from Estes and Weiner as a scientifically based estimate of the number of juvenile prostitutes.
Another estimate with some research credibility is from a recent study by Edwards, Iritani, and Hallfors (2005), which found that 3.5% of an AddHealth sample endorsed an item asking if they had “ever exchanged sex for drugs or money.” The nationally representative sample was comprised of 13,294 youth in grades 8‐12 during the year 1996 who completed an in‐school questionnaire. The majority (67.9%) of those saying they had participated in a sex exchange were males.
A first caveat about this estimate is that it is not clear that what the respondents were endorsing really constituted prostitution. For example, could a juvenile who had paid a
prostitute for sex consider that to have been an "exchange of sex for money” and thus said yes to the question? Could a sexual encounter that involved sharing drugs with a partner as part of consensual sex have prompted someone to say yes to the question, even though the drugs were not necessarily a sine qua non of the sexual encounter? The similarity between prostitution and exchanging sex for goods needs to be clarified if this estimate is to be accepted as an estimate of juvenile prostitution.
In addition, the fact that the majority of those endorsing the question were boys raises an important validity question about this estimate. Virtually no analyst of the problem thinks that there are truly so many more boys than girls engaged in juvenile prostitution; because the survey found more boys engaging in prostitution, there may be some misunderstanding of the question at work.
It may be possible to obtain an incidence estimate for juvenile prostitution through a general population survey, but the questions and details will have to be more specific to confirm that what is being counted is truly prostitution or sexual exploitation.
General Accounting Office Report
In 1982, the General Accounting Office attempted to determine the basis of existing juvenile prostitution estimates. The General Accounting Office (1982) found that the “general
perception” estimates ranged from “tens of thousands to 2.4 million.” One set of estimates from 1982 seemed to trace back to the “gut hunches” of Robin Lloyd, the author of the 1976 book, “For Love or Money: Boy Prostitution in America,” who used a working figure of 300,000 male juvenile prostitutes. The President of the Odyssey Institute adopted this figure, then doubled it to cover female juvenile prostitutes, increasing the estimate to 600,000. Because the Odyssey Institute president believed that only half of juvenile prostitutes were known, the 600,000 figure was doubled; the estimate was doubled once more to 2.4 million because the president believed that the estimate did not include 16 and 17 year old prostitutes. These were all just hunches without scientific basis.
The General Accounting Office (1982) report also located an estimate by the Criminal Justice Institute Inc., which stated that 20 to 25 percent of all prostitutes were juveniles. The Criminal Justice Institute, Inc. estimated that there were 450,000 prostitutes of all ages, leading to an estimate of 90,000 to 112,500 juvenile prostitutes in the U.S. However, these Criminal Justice Institute Inc. estimates are not linked to any citation for methodological verification or explanation. Finally, a New York City shelter president estimated that there were “tens of thousands” of juvenile prostitutes across the nation.
These “gut hunch” statistics assembled by the General Accounting Office may have been the basis for some rough consensus about the magnitude of juvenile prostitution among advocates. But there were no hard statistics. Moreover, whatever the rates were in the 1970s and 1980s, they almost certainly no longer apply. That was an era when the juvenile runaway problem was considerably larger than at present. There is indication that since the 1970s and ‘80s, running away has declined (Finkelhor & Jones, 2006) and, in the era of AIDS, casual sexual behavior among the young has also become less frequent (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2005). So it is likely that estimates from 20 or 30 years ago have little applicability to the U.S. at the present time.
Despite the fact that the General Accounting Office estimates are obsolete, current groups concerned with child welfare still use this estimate. For example, Children of the Night
(http://www.childrenofthenight.org/faq.html) cites the 1982 General Accounting Office estimate of 600,000 juvenile prostitutes under the age of 16. This organization also cites
UNICEF estimates of 300,000 juvenile prostitutes (In a 2004 textbook entitled “Child Labour: A Textbook for University Students”, the International Labour Organization cites the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as estimating 300,000 juvenile prostitutes. When asked to verify this, U.S. DHHS could not locate this estimate.). When asked about the estimates on the Children of the Night website, founder and President Lois Lee responded:
“I am always pressured for statistics and I have said, there is no way to know for sure because there is no counting mechanism, no quantitative analysis on the subject.
Several years ago, I suggested to a lot of [government] agencies and NGO's that about 1/3rd of all runaways have some kind of "brush" with a pimp or prostitution. All the
professionals agreed that was a good estimate. UNICEF published it as their own.”
L. Lee (personal communication, September 29, 2007).
A considerable number of the estimates of juvenile prostitution do start with more scientifically based survey statistics on running away (for example, Hammer, Finkelhor & Sedlak, 2002), which suggest that hundreds of thousands of youth runaway every year. It might seem plausible that a significant percentage of runaway street youths engage in survival sex or get recruited into prostitution. But it is important to remember that most of the youth identified as runaways in survey samples are not truly on the streets (Hammer et al., 2002). Most runaways run to the homes of friends and family. Thus, it is not accurate to simply think about the experience of street runaways and generalize from that experience to the experience of all runaways.
Other organizations do not cite sources that have reliable methodologies. The Coalition against Trafficking in Women (http://www.catwinternational.org/factbook/usa2_prost.php) estimates that there are between 300,000 and 600,000 juvenile prostitutes in the U.S., citing a Beacon Journal news article from 1997. The article, entitled “Danger for Prostitutes Increasing, Most Starting Younger,” cited Gary Costello of the Exploited Child Unit of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but did not include a discussion of the way that the estimate was calculated.
The 1995 Progress of Nations report by UNICEF (http://www.unicef.org/pon95/progtoc.html) offers a “guesstimate” of 300,000 juvenile prostitutes in the U.S. under the age of 18. The UNICEF report cited a U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimate used in UNICEF’s “Breaking the Walls of Silence: A UNICEF Background Paper on the Sexual Exploitation of Children” report from 1994. Again, there was no discussion as to how this number was derived in the Progress of Nations report.
Similarly, the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) of the U.S. Department of Justice (http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/ceos/prostitution.html) reports that 293,000 juveniles are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation. This estimate was made based on the Estes and Weiner (2001) article discussed previously.
Some figures about the related problem of “sex trafficking of children” are also available, but once again with a speculative methodology, a “computer simulation.” Clawson, Layne, and Small (2006) estimated in a very statistically complicated report that over 800,000 females, including over 100,000 under age 19, were “at risk” of being trafficked to the US from eight nations: Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Mexico. These include trafficking for all purposes including for employment. Of those at risk, the authors estimate that roughly 15,000 females under nineteen were being trafficked for sex from those nations. However, the authors concede that these estimates are not informed by any real statistics or research about the true rates of adult or child sex trafficking, but rather that the estimates are “probabilit[ies] based on a mathematical equation, not a reality” (M. Layne 2/4/2008).