Statistics about sex trafficking, especially about minors, are notoriously difficult to document. For example, this newspaper once tried to show whether Portland is the child sex trafficking hub thatelected officials and national media say it is, only to find that nobody really knew.
PolitiFact Oregon likes statistics and we like to know where they come from, especially when politicians use those statistics to shape public policy. Which is how we’ve come to Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel, an east county resident who has made combating human trafficking, especially child sex trafficking, a priority.
McKeel told columnist Elizabeth Hovde, who writes for The Oregonian’s editorial page, that the average age of entry into the sex trade industry is 12 to 14. It’s not the first time McKeel has cited the statistic. In a 2010 guest column about at-risk girls, she also wrote that "studies show the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old."
A statistical average between 12 and 14? Wouldn’t that mean a large number under 12? Also, was she talking about the average age of entry for all trafficked prostitutes, including adults? Or just juveniles?
She clarified in an interview that, "the issue for me is the commercial exploitation of children. The average age of entry is 12 to 14. This is about our children being bought and sold on the street."
The commissioner’s office provided us with numerous links. Many of the sources go back to a 2001 University of Pennsylvaniastudy.
It’s big and fat and the number in question is on page 92, under the section "ages of first intercourse and entry into juvenile prostitution." The age range of entry for boys "was somewhat younger than that of the girls, i.e. 11-13 years vs. 12-14 years, respectively." We emailed Dr. Richard Estes, the lead author, to learn more about sample size and methodology.
His response was not illuminating. "Any numbers you come across, even mine, represent best estimates of the situation. Because of the secretive and hidden nature of the problem it simply is not possible to get an accurate ‘head count.’"
Another widely cited report comes from a Vancouver, Wash., based group called Shared Hope International. The2009 reportstates that "research has shown that the average age of entry into prostitution and pornography is 12 to 14 years old in the United States."
There’s no research citation, but there is a pie chart breaking down age of entry into prostitution, based on a Clark County, Nevada, survey of girls arrested for prostitution-related offenses. The 96 girls were ages 11 to 17. We did the math, and the average we got was 14.96, almost 15 years old. That’s young, but not 12 or 13.
Our email requesting clarification got no response from Shared Hope. We were stumped.
We scoured the Internet for more sources, reading abstracts and tracking down anyone who might have a clue. A criminology professor we queried wrote back saying that "good estimates are hard to find, and good data are harder yet" and wished us luck. He directed us to yet another paper, which we read, diligently.
We queried the U.S. Department of Justice. McKeel’s office provided links to testimony and a report tied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which state the average ages as 11 to 14, or 12. But a spokeswoman at the Bureau of Justice Statisticssaid those are not bureau numbers and that the bureau has no average age for entry into sex trafficking.
"The likelihood that it comes from a nationally representative study is very low," wrote Kara McCarthy in an email.
Eventually, we spoke with David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, and a respected researcher in the area. He, too, had nothing concrete but offered skepticism. The average age is higher if adults are included. Older teens simply may escape survey. "There isn’t a lot of good research on this; they’re relatively small samples," he said.
But he did suggest another academic article, which led us to Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, a professor at the School of Social Work at Arizona State University.
Is the average age of entry into prostitution and sex trafficking between 12 to 14 years old?
"That is statistically impossible," the professor said. "If she were to say, minor trafficking often starts between the ages of 12 and 14 across the country, that is somewhat supported."
Roe-Sepowitz said the statistic as it applies to girls is used by many, if not all, advocacy groups; the studies on which those statistics are based date back to the 1980s. Indeed, after we spoke with her, we found a 1985 study that reports the average age as 14.
Finally, we called Multnomah County Deputy Sheriff Keith Bickford. He manages the Human Trafficking Task Force. Was he aware of an average age? Short answer: No. "You’ll hear 12, you’ll hear 14. I have yet to nail down an actual average from the people I talk to," he said, adding that he is reading more accounts involving younger children..
We’ve galloped across the country and found that definitions are fuzzy, statistics are murky and nobody knows for sure. We’ve learned that many organizations continue to repeat the statistic that the average age of entry into juvenile prostitution is between 12 and 14 years, despite the research being old and limited.
We found a professor who said there is some research backs up the claim, and another expert who warned that sample sizes are inadequate and research limited. One of the most widely cited sources told us that any numbers, even his, are estimates.
We conclude McKeel’s statement is partially accurate -- there are some studies -- but missing important detail. The studies speak only to juveniles, and the studies themselves are speculative. There is no nationally representative, comprehensive sample. We rate the statement Half True.