Let's get this out of the way first: It should go without saying that child prostitution is a Bad Thing, and that it is always a positive development when minors are rescued from a life of turning tricks. Even if you're talking about only one child in each of 16 major cities who is actually in this situation.
That wasn't the headline, of course. The headline was, 345 arrested, kids rescued in prostitution busts. Or, more simply, Hundreds nabbed in US child prostitution sting. Here's the AP lede: "Hundreds of people have been arrested and 21 children rescued in what the FBI is calling a five-day roundup of networks of pimps who force children into prostitution."
Wow, 345 people arrested for pimping out kids. Good work, FBI. Except, that's not exactly what happened. "In all, authorities arrested 345 people — including 290 adult prostitutes — during the operation that ended this week."
Let's see, 345 minus 290 equals 55 pimps. That's the grand total of people at the top of the food chain busted this week. There's a suggestion in the reports that at least some of the adult prostitutes may have been complicit in "luring" underage runaways and "throw-aways" into forced prostitution, but that's hard to verify, and shouldn't be assumed. In fact, it shouldn't be assumed that all those pimps were actually trafficking in children either. Let me explain.
In all, 21 child prostitutes were found in 16 cities. Thats an average of 1.3 children per city. Initial local reports are scarce, but one says that four of these children were recovered in Oakland. Which means at least some of the FBI busts in other cities must have involved no children at all. What did they involve? Here's the report from Miami.
Miami Beach undercover detectives who paid a $40 entry fee and boarded a stretch limousine bus Sunday found women onboard offering oral sex and lap dances for money, authorities said. Authorities arrested Christine Morteh, 29, of Miramar, and the driver, Clyde Scott, along with four other people Sunday. Miami-Dade jail spokeswoman Janell Hall said Morteh faces charges including offering to commit or engage in prostitution, conducting business without a license, directing another to a place of prostitution and deriving support from prostitution.
"The FBI isn’t investigating prostitutes and pimps, we’re investigating [the abuse of] children,” said a spokeswoman. But clearly that is not always how it works out.
Predictably, our old friends at the Center for Missing and Exploited Children are involved in this sweep, and here's what president Ernie Allen said about it: "These kids are victims. This is 21st century slavery."
Victims, yes. Slaves? Some, maybe. But as I've pointed out before, this casual conflation of all sex work with slavery has pernicious social costs. At least this time Allen and the media are acknowledging that these kids are runaways and throw-aways, instead of pretending that they're average middle class girls.
In case this story didn't already have enough of a "BOO!" factor, the AP felt the need to tack on a scary statistic: "A University of Pennsylvania study estimates nearly 300,000 children in the United States are at risk of being sexually exploited for commercial uses."
There's a goldilocks number if I've ever heard one. At least the AP stuck in "at risk." Usually this figure is given as the number of children actually being exploited. That's just wrong. The "at risk" version is correct inasmuch as that is what the study estimated. But it's still a bad number. The raw data for it comes largely from research by Professor David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, and he calls the Pennsylvania study (or at least that aspect of it) "entirely premature and without scientific basis." That's from a must-read article about media scares in Skeptical Inquirer. There's also an interesting fact sheet from the Crimes Against Children Research Center that begins with the all-caps warning, "PLEASE DO NOT CITE THESE NUMBERS." The figure, it concludes, "is essentially a guesstimate and not a scientific estimate."
But wait! Child prostitution! Run for your lives!