Over the last several years, I have been trying to correct the inaccurate notion that the “average age of entry into prostitution is 13″ wherever I see it, but it is becoming increasingly overwhelming. This figure is in newspapers, official reports from City of Portland, and many websites and pamphlets claiming to confront sex trafficking (but often conflate prostitution with trafficking, and take anti-prostitution stances that are actually harmful to women). When I contact them to correct the errors, they either don’t understand what I am explaining or just plain don’t care. I’ve also been accused of being a pimp, pervert, pedophile, and other unpopular beings, simply because I challenge the falsehoods.
Here is the latest example, found on The Oregonian on July 3, 2010. Columnist Eliabeth Hovde writes:
Boys and girls are being lured or forced into what they call “the life” at younger and younger ages. [...] The U.S. Justice Department believes that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13 and that 100,000 children are used for commercial sex each year in this land of the free.
Department of Justice does state this figure in its website:
Although comprehensive research to document the number of children engaged in prostitution in the United States is lacking, it is estimated that about 293,000 American youth are currently at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Richard J. Estes and Neil Alan Weiner, Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S, Canada and Mexico, University of Pennsylvania, Executive Summary at 11-12 (2001)
This led me to find the University of Pennsylvania study titled “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children In the U. S., Canada and Mexico,” which in fact states:
The age range of entry into prostitution for the boys, including gay and transgender boys, was somewhat younger than that of the girls, i.e., 11-13 years vs. 12-14 years, respectively.
But as the title suggests, this study only surveys minors (“children”), which means it does not include anyone who entered into prostitution at age 18 or over, or those who entered as a minor but has since aged out. Imagine conducting a research on those who died as minors: the average age of death would be somewhere near 10-12, but it would be ridiculous to claim that the average life expectancy for the general population is 10-12. Similarly, the “average age of entry” among youth who were studied does not tell us anything about the actual average age of entry for everyone who is in or has been in prostitution.
That’s not all. For the sake of discussion, let’s pretend that in a small town, six minors enter into prostitution each year, one individual each for ages 12-17. That means that there is one 12 year old, one 13 year old, one 14 year old, and so on. The average age of entry in this hypothetical town is the average of these six individuals, which is (12+13+14+15+16+17)/6 = 14.5.
But when researchers arrive in this town, they don’t just survey these six minors: they will also survey others who have started prostitution in the years past. So for any given year when the research is conducted, there are one 12 year old (who entered at 12), two 13 year olds (entered at 12 and 13), three 14 year olds (entered at 12, 13, and 14), and so on. The average among all of these youth will be: (12+(12+13)+(12+13+14)+(12+13+14+15)+(12+13+14+15+16)+(12+13+14+15+16+17))/21 = 13.7–which is almost one year younger than the actual average age of entry.
This discrepancy is caused by limiting the research subject to minors. Those who entered into prostitution at age 12 has six years in which he or she might be surveyed (at ages 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17), while those who entered at 17 has only one year, which artificially inflates the proportion of research participants who entered early. In short, we cannot know the actual “average age of entry” by simply averaging the age of entry reported by research participants.
Case in point. Below is a chart and table found in “The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking,” produced by Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking group.
This chart is based on Shared Hope International’s 10-city study on minor sex trafficking. In the same page where this chart appears, Shared Hope founder Linda Smith states “The average age that a pimp recruits a girl into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old.” But interestingly, the chart does not support this statement: the average of all responses represented in the chart/table is 14.97, which is much higher than Smith’s “12 to 14″ figure. Plus, simply averaging all the responses is not enough, for the reason I pointed out above. So when we adjust the numbers to compensate for the over-representation of those who entered early, the re-calculated “average of entry” turns out to be almost 16 (15.91).
This calculation is rudimentary and at best an approximation, since we don’t have access to the complete data or truly representative sample. But I suspect that it is much closer to reality than 13, which is what journalists, politicians, and many anti-trafficking activists claim.
There is also an element of common sense here. Assuming normal distribution (bell curve), the average of 13 implies that for every 20 year olds entering prostitution, there are equal number of 6 year olds doing the same. That, common sense should say, cannot possibly be true. The alternative is that the distribution isn’t normally distributed, but heavily clustered around 10-12 year olds to balance everyone who enters into prostitution 16 or older. This again is implausible, as we simply do not find that many 10-12 year olds in prostitution, at least in the United States. The only logical conclusion is that the average age is not anywhere near 13, but is much closer to 18.
That doesn’t diminish the fact that some very young children are victimized, and we should do something about it. But it is not trivial if the average age of entry is 13 or 16 or even 18, because it drastically changes what social policies we must enact to combat forced prostitution and trafficking. I feel that many journalists, politicians, and anti-trafficking activists use the lower figure merely for the shock value, to arouse strong emotional reaction toward the issue, but they are acting irresponsibly when they distort reality. We need to understand reality as they are and craft rational and sensible responses to the problem, rather than indulging ourselves in panicked frenzy.