Last September the Women’s Funding Network, a feminist philanthropic organization, issued an alarming study about the use of websites such as Backpage.com and Craigslist in the underage sex trade. Spokesperson Deborah Richardson told a House committee that in just six months the number of underage girls advertised online for sex had increased by 20 percent in New York state, 40 percent in Michigan, and 65 percent in Minnesota. Those alarming figures were repeated by media outlets all over the country.
But in March The Village Voice—whose parent company, Village Voice Media, owns Backpage.com—took a closer look at the figures and found glaring weaknesses in the methodology used to generate them. The study, conducted by a public opinion firm, asked 100 people to look at photos of young women and guess which were minors. They correctly identified underage women 38 percent of the time. The study’s authors then asked six new participants to browse sex listings and identify every photo they thought depicted a minor. The researchers then multiplied those numbers by 0.38 to arrive at an underage-advertising estimate.
Needless to say, the mere fact that a group of people had a 38 percent success rate with a controlled group of photos does not mean they or a separate group of people will also have the same success looking at photos of escorts. To make matters worse, the study’s authors told the Voice they “forget” where they obtained the pictures for the control group. When asked how they knew the ages of the women in those photos, one of the study’s authors replied, “Um…I’m afraid I do not remember.”
Despite its weaknesses, the study helped spur a new round of political pressure that led Craigslist to shut down its “adult services” section. So far Backpage.com has refused to follow suit.
Kaffie McCullough, who serves on the board of the Women’s Funding Network, told the Voice that acknowledging the study’s limitations would have made the story too complicated. “We pitch it the way we think you’re going to read it and pick up on it,” McCullough said. “If we give it to you with all the words and the stuff that is actually accurate—I mean, I’ve tried to do that with our P.R. firm, and they say, ‘They won’t read that much.’ ”