The Trouble With Child Sex Trafficking StatisticsS

The Village Voice Media-owned City Pages has published a 3,000-word cover story debunking recent numbers showing a rise in child sex trafficking online. While it's quite damning to the group that put together the "study," the company is hardly an impartial actor here: Its Backpage.com has long been the target of anti-trafficking groups, who already helped take down the Craigslist counterpart.

"It's now clear [anti-trafficking groups] used fake data to deceive the media and lie to Congress," the story charges. "And it was all done to score free publicity and a wealth of public funding."

What's the meat behind those claims? The story details how the Women's Funding Network commissioned a study from a political consulting group run by Beth Schapiro, which devised a totally unscientific method for determining how many online classified ads depicted children. It entailed having a group of adults guess, by looking at a picture in an ad, how old the person depicted was, and then doing it again over time to fuel the charge of explosive growth. Experts interviewed by City Pages point out that this is ridiculous from a methodological point of view — among the many criticisms, there's no way of knowing how old someone is from a picture, there's no way of knowing when the picture was taken, and there's no way of knowing if the picture is even of someone behind the advertised service.

The study, which was funded with public money, was subsequently uncritically picked up nationwide in headlines trumpeting a massive rise in the trafficking of children.

An easy-to-miss editor's note concedes that there is some agenda here:

Certainly we have a stake in this discussion. And we do not object to those who suggest an apparent conflict of interest. We sat quietly and did not respond as the WFN held symposiums across America-from Seattle to Miami-denouncing Backpage. Indeed, we were never asked for response.

In a response to the story, Beth Schapiro details the precise nature of that conflict: "The Backpage website has an "Escorts" section that contains ads in which females use thinly-veiled language to advertise their sexual services and the rates for those services. Because Backpage charges a fee for and stands to profit from each posting, recent estimates are that Village Voice Media Holdings earns millions of dollars annually from all of these "escort" ads across the nation."

That conflict does not appear to have invalidated the methods of the story, which seems rigorously reported, but it certainly has inflected the tone, which all but says that anti-sex trafficking advocates willfully deceived the world to invent an epidemic.

It's not so simple. Advocacy groups shouldn't sacrifice the facts or their credibility at the altar of a good headline, however well-intentioned. The trouble is, we don't have good ways to measure the sex trafficking of minors — the particular nature of the crime means its victims are hidden and their ages ambiguous.

Still, you don't need to count images using dubious methods to find actual examples of underage trafficking on Backpage. Per Michelle Goldberg's December story on the Rebecca Project's campaign against the site:

In November, a South Dakota couple pleaded guilty to pimping girls through the site. A Texas couple was arrested for prostituting a high-school girl through Backpage in October. And that same month, a sting operation in Kansas netted two men who were trying to buy sex with a 14-year-old girl. "Ads soliciting sex, including prostitution and including likely human-trafficking cases involving children, appear to be rampant on Backpage.com," Kansas's attorney general told reporters. "I was shocked at the ease which our agents were able to apprehend the suspects in each of these cases. If agents from the attorney general's office are solicited this quickly, imagine how easy it is for pimps and traffickers to solicit sex."

But the implication that child sex trafficking doesn't exist, or is the product of "hyped hysteria," in the words of the editor's note, merely because advocacy groups haven't adequately measured it or aren't rigorous about their numbers, is also troubling, particularly when it comes with a commercial motive.

Women's Funding Network's Sex Trafficking Study Is Junk Science [City Pages]