U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes recently called on the U.S. to toughen its "zero tolerance" laws against sex trafficking.
"The average age a child is trafficked into the commercial sex trade industry is between 11 and 14 years old," Forbes, R-4th, wrote in a June 16 post on his congressional website.
Statistics from the murky world of child prostitution are spotty and become even more elusive when focused on the small subgroup of child prostitutes -- perhaps 10 percent -- who have been sold into the sex trade. So we wondered whether Forbes’ statement is accurate.
In his post, Forbes hyperlinked to a bulletin from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that says, "The children at risk are not just high school students -- studies show that the average age a child is trafficked into the commercial sex trade is between 11 and 14 years old."
Hailey Sadler, Forbes’ spokeswoman, pointed us to two other government agencies that have made identical or similar claims. She noted two instances by the FBI and one by the Congressional Research Service.
Sometimes the agencies didn’t cite a specific study as the source of the age claim. And when they did identify a source, they credited a 2001 study at the University of Pennsylvania on child sex trafficking in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The study was largely based on interviews with child prostitutes.
"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" the report said, adding that other studies from the 1980s and 1990s found similar results.
But there are issues with the research:
A small sample of child victims were interviewed -- just 63 boys and 107 girls.
None of the children were controlled by sex traffickers, according to Richard Estes, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who was lead writer of the report. "All were street children who had run away either from their homes or an institution," he emailed to us.
The survey dates back to the 1990s and even Estes doesn’t claim the findings are still relevant. "No one knows what the true statistical picture looks like today in 2015 given all of the very significant legal and public awareness changes that resulted from our investigation," he said.
Dan Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, told us it’s implausible that children enter the sex trade at an average age of 11 - 14.
"The use of the term ‘average’ would suggest that there’s a whole group that are starting younger than that (11-14 years old) to compensate for the kids that are older than that as well," Finkelhor said. "It’s just not true."
In other words, children who started at 16 or 17 would have to be balanced by those who started at eight or nine.
Sadler, in backing Forbes’ statement, also cited a 2009 report by Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking group. It says "research has shown that the average age of entry into prostitution and pornography is 12 to 14 years old in the United States." Although there’s no research footnote, the report says the statistic is "confirmed" by information officials in Clark County, Nevada gathered on 96 girls -- aged 11 to 17 -- they arrested for prostitution.
The report has a chart on the ages of the girls. We did the math and found the average was 14.96 years old. That’s young, but not as young as the average ages cited by Forbes or Shared Hope.
We couldn’t find updated national figures on the child sex trade, and for good reason. Jay Albanese, a professor and criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, said recent research has taken municipal looks at the problem. For example, Albanese said one study found that girls in Tijuana, Mexico were forced into prostitution between 14 to 17 years old. Another study focusing on child prostitutes in New York City found that the average age of entry into the sex trade was just over 15 years old. Another study found that in Atlanta sex trade workers interviewed averaged 14 years old.
"Therefore, studies have found variation in the ages of CSEC (commercially sexually exploited child) victims, which reflects the fact that these are local and regional studies---not national studies," Albanese said. "But it can be said that victims across these studies are overwhelmingly teenagers."
Getting back to Forbes, it should be noted that he is among many politicians and child advocates who have cited the average 11-14 starting age for sex trafficking victims. Finkelhor told us the claim has gained credibility by repetition, not research.
Sadler, Forbes’ spokeswoman, noted that the congressman offered a caveat further down in his web post, writing that "human trafficking is a crime that takes many forms, so it can be difficult to quantify or track … Victims are ‘hidden’ and so much is unknown about the crime."
With that proviso, Sadler said Forbes’ statement "is as accurate as possible given current data."
Forbes wrote,"The average age a child is trafficked into the commercial sex trade industry is between 11 and 14 years old,"
This widely-circulated claim is based on a small-sample, national survey from the late 1990s that focused on street children who resorted to prostitution. None of the children were controlled by sex traffickers. Even the main author of the report says his findings are outdated and may no longer be relevant.
We couldn’t find updated national research examining the age children enter the sex trade. Several studies in large cities put the average age around 14 or 15.
Forbes acknowledged further down in his statement that human trafficking "can be difficult to quantify or track," but he didn’t tie that qualifier to the age statistic, which he stated as fact. Child prostitutes obviously enter the sex trade at young ages, but the average age is by no means established and there’s evidence it may be higher that Forbes’ figure. And again, all of the age research deals with street children -- not those who are being controlled by traffickers.
On the whole, we rate Forbes’ statement Half True.