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Under current safe harbor laws, a Missouri minor can use coercion as a defense for prostitution charges. A new bill proposed by state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, would take it a step further, giving all those who were under the age of 18 when convicted of prostitution a chance to expunge records of the offense.
While introducing the bill at a General Laws Committee Hearing, Coleman used some alarming statistics.
"The average age that a girl enters, and it’s typically a girl, enters into prostitution is age 14," she said Jan. 23. "She enters prostitution in the same way that most sex victims and sexual assault victims do, which is through a grooming process, often at the hands of a family member. Her life expectancy is seven years after entering into prostitution."
Sex work is a dangerous trade, especially for a person forced into it, but are they dying after seven years? We decided to find out.
When we asked Coleman about her source for the statistic, she cited a 2011 FBI document.
The document in question, which doesn’t cite a specific study, states, "The average age of a new child prostitute is 13, and the life expectancy after becoming a child prostitute is 7 years."
But when PolitiFact reached out to the FBI for a 2015 fact check, an agency spokesman backtracked, saying in an email that "it should not be considered a general statement of FBI findings."
There are not many studies on sex work or child prostitutes, but the studies that exist don’t support the the seven-year claim.
In a long-term study of mortality in women sex workers in Colorado Springs, researchers tracked over 1,600 female sex workers from 1967 to 1999. Of these women, 100 died over the course of the 33-year study.
COYOTE-RI, a sex work advocacy group in Rhode Island, surveyed around 1,500 U.S. sex workers in 2017. While the study has not yet been published, executive director Bella Robinson said in an interview that the average age of entry into prostitution was 22 and the average age of the respondents was 33 years old.
Robinson said the seven-year life expectancy statistic is far-fetched — in part because she’s been in the industry for 35 years herself.
Part of the problem with the seven-year claim comes with lumping sex work and sex trafficking together. Robinson explained that there are many different kinds of sex work, so it’s next to impossible to make any accurate generalizations.
Melissa Torres, director of the Human Trafficking Research Portfolio at the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, said that the seven-year statistic is often cited in tandem with the average age of entry being 12 years old. These numbers are used and reused with abandon, but Torres said there’s just no way of knowing that information.
"There's way too many factors ... to know if (the claim is) true, but from what we do know, it's unfounded at the moment," Torres said.
Coleman said a girl’s "life expectancy is seven years after entering into prostitution."
There have been no large-scale studies done to prove this statistic. Some smaller studies, including COYOTE-RI’s, show sex workers living much longer than seven years.
Coleman based this claim off an eight-year-old budget report. The FBI did not state a source for this number and has since denounced it.
We rate the claim False.
Academic.oup.com, "Mortality in a Long-term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women," American Journal of Epidemiology published April 2004
Interview, Bella Robinson, Executive Director of COYOTE-RI, Feb. 12, 2019
Interview, Melissa Torres, Director of Human Trafficking Research Portfolio at University of Texas Austin, Feb. 14, 2019
Interview, Rep. Mary Coleman, Feb. 7, 2019
Justice.gov, "FY 2011 Budget Request At A Glance," Federal Bureau of Investigation, undated, accessed Feb. 8, 2019
PolitiFact.com, "Does becoming a prostitute mean you've only got about 7 years to live?" May 31, 2015
ProstitutionResearch.com, "SexTrafficking of Minors: How Many JuvenilesAre
Being Prostituted in the US?" Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, revised 2012
ProstitutionResearch.com, "Prostitution, Liberalism, and Slavery," Melissa Farley, 2013
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