Hit & Run

'She Looked 18'

A Department of Justice-funded "nonprofit" spews prostitution propaganda on Indiana highways.


Not content to spread false sex-work statistics in the media and legislature, Indiana activists and officials have now put up billboard advertisements to promote their anti-fact, anti-prostitution message. One billboard—emblazoned at the top with "'She looked 18.' She's not"—claims that 13-years-old is "the average age kids are first used in the sex trade."

Any way you slice it, that's simply not true: whether we are talking about the average age of entry into prostitution in general or the average age of minors engaging in prostitution, there's no good evidence to back this assertion and a whole lot to suggest that it's wrong. Even Polaris Project, arguably the most influential anti-trafficking organization in the United States, says that "this stat is not actually supported by any data." Its origin story: a non-peer reviewed study, published in 2001, that's now disavowed by its main author. The age claim is mentioned once throughout the entire 260-page report. It's based on 107 interviews (from the 1990s) with minors who were living and working on the streets or in the care of social-services agencies—far from a representative sample of sex workers. And just to be clear, the report does not claim that 13 is the all-round average age of entry into prostitution, which studies of adult sex workers tend to place somewhere between 18- and 30-years-old.

For instance, a small 2014 study from the non-partisan, nonprofit Urban Institute found that around 53 percent of the sex workers surveyed started between the ages of 18- and 29-years-old. Just 10 percent had started before age 15, around a quarter between the ages of 15 and 17, and around 10 percent at age 30 or above. Arizona State University researcher Dominique Roe-Sepowitz surveyed 500 women who had been arrested for prostitution and found that around 70 percent started selling sex as adults, with an average starting age of around 25 years. Of the 30 percent who did start as minors, the average entry age was around 15.

The misleading ads are made all the more egregious because they're paid for with taxpayer money. The billboards were a project of the Indiana Protection for Abused and Trafficked Humans Task Force, a group that lists itself on Facebook as a "nonprofit" but is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and headed up by U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler and Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller. In addition to billboards, the group's "Not Buying It" campaign also features ads on city buses and elsewhere.

Another Not Buying It billboard claim is that prostitution is not a "victimless crime" because homicide is "the #1 cause of death for those in the sex trade." This is presented as a reason why prostitution should be illegal, even though the illegality of sex work is precisely what makes it so dangerous; sex workers who can work together, screen clients adequately, and report bad actors to the police are much less likely to fall victim to violence. But beyond that, the claim is completely misleading. While homicide rates are higher for sex workers than the general population, the vast majority of them will eventually get out of the business, grow old, and die of something else. The population we're looking at for purposes of this stat are current sex workers, whom we can safely assume skew heavily toward younger adult women. Within this population, it's still dubious that homicide is the number one cause of death—the billboard "fact" is unsourced, so who knows where the data allegedly comes from. But even if it is true, it's not wildly out of line with general causes-of-death for young U.S. women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide is the third-leading cause of death for all American women ages 20-24 years old, the fourth-leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-olds, and the fifth-leading cause of death for women ages 25 to 34.