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A 2010 study from Rutgers University professors James Finckenauer and Ko-lin Chin took an in-depth look at Chinese women working in America's illicit massage parlors, which are routinely denounced by politicians as hotbeds of sexual slavery. Indeed, Finckenauer noted that 93 percent of the women he interviewed would be considered sex trafficking victims under common legal definitions, which include any person who arrives in a foreign country for sex work regardless of whether force or coercion is involved. Yet not one of the 149 Chinese women interviewed said she was sold into prostitution, and only one reported being forced or coerced into it. "There is more diversity among the parties involved in prostitution than is commonly supposed, and to portray them all in the same way as victims is an oversimplification," the researchers concluded.
Under federal law and most state laws, anyone under 18 who is engaged in prostitution is considered a sex trafficking victim. But study after study has found most youths in the sex trade do not have "pimps." And if they are forced or coerced into the work, it's often at the hands of a family member or romantic partner, not some child-snatching stranger.
Pimps themselves claim to steer clear of underage sex workers. In interviews with 73 people who had been incarcerated for crimes such as promoting, profiting from, or compelling prostitution, the Urban Institute found that most tried to avoid business relationships with teens (though these respondents, along with the police officers Urban interviewed, also claimed it was common for teenagers to lie about their ages). "I was determined to stay away from the younger bitches; 16 gets you 20," said one respondent. "Bitch better have a felony charge and stretch marks to mess with me," said another. "I know she is grown and been to jail."
"This particular business ain't about pimps going to high school and recruiting a girl," said a third. "Government don't understand how this game original come about. Girl run away from home, look older than what she is. They think pimps are going out and enticing them."
By any estimation, teen runaways make up a major proportion of underage individuals in prostitution, forced or otherwise. Runaways are especially likely to engage in what sociologists call "survival sex"—exchanging sex not for a set fee, but for food and a place to crash.
Sixty-eight percent of minors engaged in street-based prostitution in New York City say they've sought help from youth services organizations, according to Kate D'Adamo of the Sex Workers Project. "New York City funds roughly 200 beds for a population of 4,000 unaccompanied, homeless youth," D'Adamo told TechCrunch. "When all the beds are full, it is street economies like the sex trade which they turn to in order to provide basic needs. If we want to identify the most vulnerable, all we have to do is provide support when someone stands up and says 'I need a place to sleep tonight.'"
Instead, we fund police task forces to monitor Internet ads for weeks in search of suspect code words or tattoos. We pass laws mandating more prison time for pimps. We set up elaborate sting operations for both sex workers and their customers. We hang "Are you being trafficked?" signs at strip clubs and highway rest stops, and train airport staff on how they can spot the signs of sex trafficking. We act as if sex traffickers are organized, jet-setting, diabolical, and legion. We are chasing our own mythology, to the detriment of actual results.
A look at human trafficking investigations in the U.S. makes this clear. In July 2015, for instance, Homeland Security, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and other Arizona state agencies conducted a joint "human trafficking enforcement operation" that involved randomly stopping commercial trucks as well as running the license plates of passersby. The 30-agent, nine-hour stunt resulted in 28 stops, the checking of 5,576 license plates...and zero arrests for human trafficking. Police did arrest one woman for prostitution, however, and are continuing to investigate another who said she worked in "adult entertainment."
Last April, the FBI released its first crime data on state-based trafficking investigations. In the 13 states reporting for last year, law enforcement looked into a total of 14 human trafficking incidents, ultimately making a grand total of four arrests.
Between 2008 and 2010, federally funded task forces investigated 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. An "investigation" was defined as "any effort in which the task force spent at least one hour investigating" the incident. Of these cases, only 6 percent led to arrests. From 2007 to fall 2008, federal dollars funded 38 sex-trafficking task forces, of which 15 found no confirmed victims or suspects, 14 reported between one and four cases, and nine reported more than five. Of the total 1,229 suspected incidents that year, sex cops found just 14 underage victims.
"Given the obstacles to locating victims in black markets" some disparity between estimated numbers and confirmed cases should be expected, wrote the sociologist Ronald Weitzer in a 2011 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology paper. But "a huge disparity between the two should at least raise questions about the alleged scale of victimization."