This week, The Village Voice published an article entitled “Real Men Get Their Facts Straight,” directed at Ashton Kutcher’s recent efforts concerning the trafficking of youth in the sex industry and his project, the DNA Foundation. The Voice criticized Kutcher for falsely stating that 100,000 to 300,000 youth in the United States are at risk for being “enslaved and sold for sex” every year. The Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP-NYC) would like to distinguish that there are three overlapping issues here: the trafficking of youth into the sex industry, the service needs of youth with experience trading sex for survival and the rights of consenting adult sex workers.
The statistic of 100,000 to 300,000 youth refers only to youth who would hypothetically be at risk for prostitution, not youth who are already engaged in it: youth such as “runaways, thrownaways, victims of physical or sexual abuse, users of psychotropic drugs, members of sexual minority groups, illegally trafficked children, children who cross international borders in search of cheap drugs and sex, and other illicit fare.” This is an extremely broad hypothetical, not compiled data based on field research. It also does not refer exclusively to those trafficked into the sex industry; rather it sees all forms of sex work, both coerced and consensual, as the same. It is therefore only what might be, not what is.
“In order to truly help a population, you must first understand what it looks like. It’s very sad to think that already shaky research is being used to make the American public believe that all sex work is trafficking and that so many youth are already involved in it. Knowing the reality of these situations is key to providing services and promoting freedoms for all persons in the sex industry,” said Sarah Elspeth Patterson, M.Ed., SWOP-NYC member and researcher.
After a Twitter battle that escalated when Kutcher successfully encouraged companies like American Airlines to pull ad revenue from the Village Voice, Kutcher released a blog response on his site in which he acknowledged the overall lack of sufficient data on trafficking and conceded that he was misusing the statistic in question. This acknowledgement is an important part of separating the three aspects of the sex industry in discussion, which have long been conflated into one overused inaccurate analysis .
As community organizers that advocate for the rights of all persons in the sex industry, SWOP-NYC applauds efforts to call out the use of junk science as solid research. The recognition of such a widely used statistic as false and potentially harmful is one step towards a more informed discussion of trafficking issues and their role in the sex industry. It is a step towards separating consensual sex work from the language of human trafficking and coerced prostitution. This step might also serve as a call for academic researchers to pursue more rigorously studies on youth in the sex industry.
Sadly, much of what is missing in this conversation is an understanding of why youth enter the sex trade, whether by choice or through coercion. Poverty, lack of support for LGBTQ youth who may become runaways, and other issues often draw sex workers of all ages, including youth, to the sex trade. There is also a lack of substantial services for youth of all genders in the sex industry. Here in New York City, service organizations likeStreetwise and Safe and Safe Horizon are providing social services for youth and families on a voluntary basis, empowering people to make decisions on their own terms. However, they remain critically underfunded. It is imperative that such organizations be supported in order to continue the important work of empowering youth to make their own decisions about their lives.
We also encourage media outlets to contact SWOP-NYC for further questions and commentary on this matter: firstname.lastname@example.org