Ashton Kutcher Helped Promote a Bogus Sex Trafficking Claim. Will We Ever Shake It?

The claim that 100,000 to 300,000 underage people were being sex trafficked in the United States was used in effort to destroy's founders.


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One hundred thousand to 300,000 underage people are sex trafficked every year in the United States.

The anti-child sex-trafficking movement has cited that statistic repeatedly. It was used to build a case against, the online classified site that's now the focus of a criminal trial. In 2011, Ashton Kutcher recited the claim several times, including on CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight in 2011.

The number sounded fishy to's former co-owner Michael Lacey. Reporters at The Village Voice, which Lacey also co-owned, traced it back to a 2001 University of Pennsylvania study by Richard J. Estes and Neil Weiner. That paper estimated that there were 100,000 to 300,000 children deemed at risk for sexual exploitation in the US, Canada, and Mexico—not just the United States.

The Voice also found out that the study's methodology was flawed because its figures were based on guesses at who might end up a victim of sex trafficking, instead of actual cases. Furthermore, the data was more than 12 years out of date by the time Kutcher and others were citing it. The Voice published its findings in a cover story called, "Real Men Get Their Facts Straight."

The Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire told researchers and journalists in 2008 not to cite the study and its lead author, Estes, told the Washington Post that "clearly, a new, more current study is needed for research."

The 100,000 to 300,000 number still appears in online stories and newspaper op-eds and it's often attributed to outdated government publications.

The video above is an excerpt from Reason's documentary "The War on Is a War on Sex Workers." Watch the complete film.

Darkest Child A by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (

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