As they crack down on sex workers and pass outrageous new laws, our politicians and moral crusaders make some bold claims: Hundreds of thousands of children are at risk of sex trafficking is one oft-cited figure. Kids are entering sex work at an average age of 13, says another. But is any of this true?
Good data is hard to come by in an industry kept largely in the shadows. That’s why, from 2012 to 2014, we spent nine months walking a stretch of road in Las Vegas well known as a gathering point for sex workers and their customers. We were part of a team who tailed along with those sex workers as they plied their trade, ducking into cars and alleyways to sell their services. We handed out condoms and other harm-reduction material, and we had a definite purpose — we were researchers, paid through an Obama-era grant from the US Department of Justice.
Our goal was to collect the data needed to provide an accurate estimate of the extent of sexual human trafficking in the United States. The primary investigator, Ric Curtis, designed the study based on his experience collecting data from other “hard to reach” populations, like intravenous drug users in Atlantic City. His method offered a guide for researchers to collect data, without relying on law enforcement, on young and underage people engaged in what we defined as survival sex (trading sex on the street for something else of value like money, shelter, food, and clothing). The study had several teams collecting data in major cities across the US that had been dubbed as “hubs of sex trafficking.”
What the study revealed, after interviewing 949 people across 6 cities — 171 of them in Las Vegas — was that many of the assumptions that inform government policy on sex workers are merely myths. And those myths are easily disproved once you bother to get the data, which we did.