Free Minds & Free Markets

The War on Sex Trafficking Is the New War on Drugs

And the results will be just as disastrous, for "perpetrators" and "victims" alike.

Girl in handcuffsVeremeev/iStock/Getty Images"Sex Trafficking of Americans: The Girls Next Door."

"Sex-trafficking sweep nets arrests near Phoenix truck stops."

"Man becomes 1st jailed under new human trafficking law."

Conduct a Google news search for the word trafficking in 2015 and you'll find pages of stories about the commercial sex trade, in which hundreds of thousands of U.S. women and children are supposedly trapped by coercion or force.

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. "Many young black men in the ghetto see the drug trade as the Gold Rush of the 1980s," the Philadelphia Inquirer told readers in 1988. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) warned of a "nationwide phenomenon" of drug lords abducting young people to force them into the drug trade. 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. "Everybody is more worried about where they're going to get their next grant" than helping victims, Hudson said.

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.


From 2000 to 2002, the State Department claimed that 50,000 people were trafficked into the U.S. each year for forced sex or labor. By 2003, the agency reduced this estimate to 18,000–20,000, further reducing it to 14,500–17,500 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 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2006 described this figure as "questionable" due to "methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies," including the rather astonishing fact that "the U.S. government's estimate was developed by one person who did not document all his work." And even if he had, there would still be good reasons to doubt the quality of the data, which were compiled from a range of nonprofits, governments, and international organizations, all of which use different definitions of "trafficking."

Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" columnist, began digging into government-promulgated sex-slavery numbers last spring and discovered just how dubious many of them are. "Because sex trafficking is considered horrific, politicians appear willing to cite the flimsiest and most poorly researched statistics—and the media is content to treat the claims as solid facts," Kessler concluded in June.

For instance, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D–Ohio) declared in a May statement that "in the U.S., some 300,000 children are at risk each year for commercial sexual exploitation." Rep. Ann Wagner (R–Mo.) made a similar statement that month at a congressional hearing, claiming the statistic came from the Department of Justice (DOJ). The New York Times has also attributed this number to the DOJ, while Fox News raised the number to 400,000 and sourced it to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). But not only are these not DOJ or HHS figures, they're based on 1990s 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.e., living in public housing, being a runaway, having foreign parents—place minors at risk of potential exploitation by sex traffickers. 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.

"PLEASE DO NOT CITE THESE NUMBERS," wrote Michelle Stransky and David Finkelhor of the respected Crimes Against Children Research Center in 2008. "The reality is that we do not currently know how many juveniles are involved in prostitution. Scientifically credible estimates do not exist." A lengthy 2013 report on child sex trafficking from the Justice Department concluded that "no reliable national estimate exists of the incidence or prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States."

Common sense should preclude believing the 300,000 number in the first place. If even a third of those "at risk" youth were peddled for sex in a given year, we'd be looking at nearly 110,000 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—1.1 million commercial child rapes in America each day. 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: that the average age at which females become victims of sex trafficking is 13. "If you think about it for half a minute, this statistic makes little sense," wrote Kessler. "After all, if it is the 'average,' then for all those who entered trafficking at age 16 or 17, there have to be nearly equivalent numbers who entered at age 9 or 10. But no one seriously believes that."

Still, the obvious implausibility of the statistic—and its routine debunking—hasn't stopped it from reaching the upper echelons of public discourse. Kessler's own Washington Post ran it uncritically in 2014. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) made the claim on the Senate floor this year, citing the FBI. The DHS also asserts that "the average age a child is trafficked into the commercial sex trade is between 11 and 14 years old," sourcing it to the DOJ and the government's NCMEC. 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...the self-disowned Estes paper, in which interviews with 107 teens doing street-based prostitution in the 1990s determined that their average age of entry into the business was 13.

"So one government agency appears to cite two other government entities—but in the end the source of the data is the same discredited and out-of-date academic paper," wrote Kessler. "It would be amusing if it were not so sad."

Author and former sex worker Maggie McNeill has traced other uses of the age-13 figure back to a similarly narrow and unrepresentative study, this one looking at underage streetwalkers in 1982 San Francisco ("Victimization of Street Prostitutes" by M.H. Silbert and A.M. Pines). Among these interview subjects from three decades ago, the average age of their first noncommercial sexual experience was 13. 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.S. sex trade have yielded much higher average starting ages. A 2014 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 29. A 2011 study, this one from Arizona State University, found that of more than 400 women arrested for prostitution in Phoenix, the average age of entry was about 25.

"Regardless of whether the number is 300,000 or 30,000, something must be done to protect these children at risk of exploitation and trafficking," said Moira Bagley Smith, a spokeswoman for Rep. Wagner, when Kessler challenged the figure. But it's exactly this kind of thinking that inflicts real-world policy damage. Whether there are 30,000 or 300,000 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.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Sex trafficking is human trafficking is the old, long discredited White Slavery panic that came and went from the late Victorian era into the 1920's. It is grant-pimps, political parasites, and buttinskis who are paniced by the idea that sex-work might become legitimate. At least one of its Bright Lights, Somaly Mam, has proven to be a Con Artist. If somebody approaches you looking for support, either monetary or political, connected to this scare you should pit one hand on your wallet and the other on your groin, and head for the hills.

  • jrom||

    This is just another power grab by the federal and state governments. It is now a life felony at the federal level and a capital crime in the state of Florida, for any adult to solicit sex from another adult. It also eliminates the First Amendment, by banning websites from advertising any form of adult entertainment. It evens bans strip clubs from advertising at the state and federal level. It is true, that the only things politicians from both parties can agree on is expanding government police powers. These new laws; however, do exempt all government workers from facing any charges at both the state and federal level on sex crime offenses. And it is now a felony under both federal and state law to use dating sites like Match, to meet anyone, if they eventually have sex with their new date. Again, the government assholes want to curtail the First Amendment. Expect all forms of dating to be labeled human sex trafficking in the near future. With only government scum bags being allowed to do what ever they want.

  • jrom||

    In Florida, two adults having sex is a capital crime. However, it is legal in Florida, for a government employee, to have sex with even a child. All government people including police, prosecutors, judges, and politicians are exempt from facing any criminal or civil charges under Florida law for any type of crime. That's how fucked up the Florida asshole state legislature is. Florida, has the largest prison population of any state. And its Republican controlled state legislature passed a law requiring a 10 year minimum prison sentence for fleeing the scene of a car wreck resulting in more than 100 dollars worth of damage. The state also requires any one arrested for a joint, to spend at least 15 years in prison. Jeb Bush, as governor supported these policies.

  • jrom||

    I should also point out that Florida's AG, is a pro police state nut job. This fools name is Pam Bondi. I urge the residents of Florida, to question her on her out of control agenda and demand that she be held accountable for her actions.

  • EndTheGOP||

    The only way we're going to get this shit under control is to have a MASSIVE World War with all countries participating. Eliminate half the world's population, okay let's go for three quarters of the population, and the world will be right with itself. Too damn many fuckin' people and everybody wants to be boss.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Did you know that 99% of all children who go online are raped?

    Also, did you know that 99.99% of all men are pedophiles?

    That's the facts!

  • ||

    Shit, that channel is gold. Thanks for sharing.

  • jrom||

    Heroic Mulatto,

    You are full of shit!

  • DenverJ||


  • jrom||

    Woosh? Where have I seen this stupid comment posted on this site by you before? I think you supported those two people that post under the names John Tittor and Mike Hihn.

  • DenverJ||

    LOL. Dude you missed Heroic M's sarcasm by a mile.
    And yes, anyone here will tell you of my deep respect for Hihn, the uber libertarian.
    And since you appear to be... special... I guess I need to add the sarcasm tag:


  • jrom||

    Hihn, is a jackass. And apparently, so are you! For example, Hihn implies, all Americans should give up English and learn Spanish, just to make Latinos' happy.

  • jrom||

    I guess I have not read enough of Heroic M's posts to have realized that he was just being sarcastic. You know these days, most people agree with governments propaganda. However, you don't have to be a jerk about it!

  • MSimon||

    you don't have to be a jerk about it!

    I believe you are on the wrong message board.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    As far as I can tell "sex trafficking" is just the new feminist face of prostitution laws. Rather then deride the prostitutes as hussies or "ladies of the night", the authorities assign them much-desired victim status and prosecute the customers.

  • gaijin||

    Is sex a supply or demand driven economic activity I wonder?

  • MoreProgressiveThanYou||

    .... yes

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    It's a market, therefore yes.

  • biljay||

    Yes, and women don't want prostitution to be legal because it would increase the supply, thus lowering the cost.

  • jrom||

    Exactly, the feminists and religious nuts want everyone in jail. No wonder why those two assholes Bush and Obama support the criminalization of all sex acts. Obama supports the feminist nuts and Bush supported the religious cooks! And police and prosecutors just love to fuck with people anyway. They could care less, what the reason. We have been living in a police state for decades.

  • DenverJ||

    I support religious cooks, too, and bakers.

  • jrom||

    Thanks for catching my spelling error! It should have been crooks.

  • jrom||

    It should read: Bush supported the religious crooks.

  • MSimon||

    It reads itself? The wonders of modern technology.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    As far as I can tell "sex trafficking" is just the new feminist face of prostitution laws. Rather then deride the prostitutes as hussies or "ladies of the night", the authorities assign them much-desired victim status and prosecute the customers.

  • gordo53||

    The really sad thing about this is that it's almost always the poor street walkers that get pinched. The big dollar uptown girls get a pass. Maybe it has something to do with their clientele. It helps when you're servicing the rich, the famous and the influential. As for law enforcement, it isn't about justice or the safety of the public, it's all about the money and justifying their existence. Not as much money as the illicit drug rackets, but relatively easy pickings.

  • Bradley Strider||

    Maybe it has something to do with their clientele. It helps when you're servicing the rich, the famous and the influential.

    It's also easier to bust prostitutes in the street than it is to set up a sting to catch call girls.

  • jrom||

    Law enforcement only cares about money and having the power to fuck with other people. They would love to be able to lock up jay walkers for decades at a time. And prosecutors and judges just love seeing people fucked over on trumped up charges. That is what they all live for! Now even the personal injury asshole lawyers will be suing johns for soliciting sex with undercover police officers, and winning multi million dollar verdicts, to enrich themselves. Our legal system is fucked up!

  • Chrxtoph3r||

    The problem isn't sex. The problem is the 'ownership' of sex-workers by others...who are certainly involved in other enterprises other than sex. Legalizing sex-work might create a free enterprise type system for women, however, it will require something that none of them, including their clients, will want to participate in...taxes.

    Imagine having to provide a receipt and a 1099 for sex-work...

    WHO in GOD"S GREEN HELL is going to go along with that???

  • MoreProgressiveThanYou||

    Hello. It is my Human ass and it is my Human right to do with it as I wish. I can sell it, rent it, and share any proceeds with whom-so-ever I choose. Otherwise ... bite me.

  • ApocalypseNOW||

    "Otherwise... bite me."

    Your ass? Do we have to pay extra for that?

    Asking for a friend....

  • ApocalypseNOW||

    (Especially if it's that ass in the photo....)

  • ApocalypseNOW||

    (Especially if it's that ass in the photo....)

  • ApocalypseNOW||

    (Reason's comment section needs an edit/delete button.... *sigh*)

  • ||

    Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do...... ✹✹✹✹✹✹

  • Enough About Woodchippers||


  • Brian||

    Hyper-Christians and feminists agree: you're a dick!

    The true spirit of bipartisanship.

  • ace_m82||

    Not sure they are "hyper-Christian", if indeed such a thing exists.

    Christ hung out with "sinners" such as these. Again, he told them things like "go and sin no more" but didn't call in the authorities to persecute them.

    If anyone is doing this to be "Christian", they are doing it out of ignorance... which is sadly typical.

  • jrom||

    The religious nuts are almost as bad as the feminists.

  • MSimon||


  • WillMG||

    And of course those pushing this junk never think that legalizing prostitution would fix all of this far more than any of their ideas.

  • Christophe||

    Fixing these things would end the "crisis" and thus the source of their power. Fixing anything is the furthest thing from their minds.

  • B. Woodrow Chippenhaus||


  • Enough About Woodchippers||

    I save them in the freezer.

  • DenverJ||

    I like to salt ' em

  • Animal||

  • Animal||

    I'm trying not to make a salted fish joke here.

  • biljay||

    The more laws on the books the more power the enforcers have. The more laws on the books the more enforcers required, and funding for their careers and promotions, and for the prison guard unions, and more jobs for the American Bar Association members.

  • jrom||

    Exactly. It is about more government jobs and more lawsuits for the personal injury lawyers.

  • Tucci78||

    Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy: "in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:

    "First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

    "Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

    "The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization."

    So be it with this latest grant-money-grabbing frenzy over "sex trafficking."

  • mockmock||

    This is the first salvo in the banning of porn.

  • Vulgar Madman||

    "This is the first salvo in the banning of porn."

    So, you say you want a revolution.

  • jrom||

    Just looking at porn will soon be a capital crime under both state and federal law. With government employees exempt from any criminal or civil liability, of course.

  • DenverJ||

    Well, you know, we all want to change the world.

  • jrom||

    What do you know about change?

  • DenverJ||

    I know that 3 quarters, 2 dimes, and a nickle can be exchanged for one crisp fiat dollar. I also know it's considered rude to ask your "date" for change.

  • jrom||

    Can't we have a serious conversation about this issue that threatens to lock up millions of people over the coming years on bullshit charges?

  • DenverJ||

    Sure. We both agree it's a problem. We agree that DA's only care about convictions for their career advancement rather than about justice. We both agree that the police in this country are out of control.
    So, what do you want to discus? Do you have any solutions?
    No? Me neither, so I'm going back to making lame jokes, cause otherwise I'll go insane.

  • jrom||

    Denver J

    I guess we agree on all of this. I just get so angry when I hear about all of this bullshit that our government idiots are doing to our society. I thought about moving to Florida for the warm weather. However, after reading about all of their draconian laws, I may have to think twice. It is depressing indeed, that it is not easier for us to effect positive change.

  • DenverJ||

    Which is why most here resort to humor and sarcasm. Otherwise, the sense of helplessness can bring you down.
    Fight the good fight, but don't let it consume you.

  • DenverJ||

    Also, friend, what is your source for all this stuff about Florida law? I'm sure some of it might be true, but alot of what you posted about Florida law is simply not possible in American Jurisprudence.
    I suspect you are reading... sensationalized... sites.
    Just because it's on the internet, and just because it validates your preconceived biases, doesn't mean it's true.

  • DenverJ||

    But the childrunz! Why don't you want people to love the childrunz?

  • jrom||

    I know what you mean. The politicians could care less about the children. They just want more power to micromanage people.

  • DenverJ||

    While that might be true, i doubt you know what I mean. It's a play on a running joke around here.
    The appropriate response would have been something about roadz.

    Also, you know who else wanted more power?

  • jrom||

    I guess you have been around this site much longer than I.

  • MSimon||

    No kidding.

  • jrom||

    Who wants more power besides all of the aforementioned people?

  • ||

    I know that Penn and Teller have done stories related to this issue, and John Stossel, but does anyone know of any other sources that have covered this issue?

  • Jay Dubya||

    i dont know but I like the Pogues.

  • hookstrapped||

    [Prohibitionists] typically portray sex workers as powerless victims and, of course, every story of victimization must have villains. Men who patronize sex workers are invariably portrayed as abusive and demeaning in order to fit that narrative. And I have no doubt that many are. But caricatures only get you so far in developing sound public policy.

    Diary of a Sex Tourist

  • Aardvark||

    Not just evangelical abolitionists and feminists. Don't forget self righteous progressives and other Liberty hating busy bodies.

  • carlpolizzi||

    This does not address the foster families who move from State to State to avoid tracking: they then feed the children into the black market as exposed by DynCorp and the Franklin cover up. Speaker Hastert was deeply involved in molesting boys for decades but his case will go nowhere because there are another dozen high ranking reps who would be outed.
    There are thousands of Satanic ritual sacrifices in the US yearly, some involving infants, so whores don't get me excited.

  • HenryC||

    The war on sex trafficing is much much older than the war on drugs.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    That gal is pretty cute from the front too.

  • StackOfCoins||

    Would just like to mention that, 2.5 years in, this article's premise is amazingly prescient. FOSTA-SESTA is quite possibly the most toxic piece of legislation to be passed with near-unanimity in 2018, and the year isn't even over!


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