The “Age of Entry” Statistic is a Fake: Silencing Sex Workers With Numbers

Steve Rhodes
Last Friday, I published an article that I’ve wanted to write for a long time: it’s a debunking of the too-common claim that the average prostitute starts when she’s 13. It’s an excellent example of how myths are privileged over the voices of the people who are actually affected by the laws and policies against prostitution. It’s also my first article in The Atlantic, which is one of the few big magazines that I still respect. Now I know why. Working with Rebecca Rosen, the Business Editor, was a genuine pleasure. She was supportive, enthusiastic, and actually asked me to expand the piece when I expected her to cut it. I think it’s a much better piece because of her.

Most current government and nonprofit policies on sex work define their goals as “rescue,” which makes perfect sense if the age-of-entry statistic is central to your understanding of the sex industry. Child abuse and trafficking are crises that require certain types of interventions. But these crimes do not characterize the sex industry more generally. In reality, many sex workers come into the industry as adults and without coercion, often because of economic necessity. By seeing the sex industry through the lens of the misleading age-of-entry statistic, we overlook the people who are most affected by discussions about sex work—the workers themselves.

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One of the strongest and most thorough critics of the statistic is activist Emi Koyama. Koyama says that even when applied only to underage subjects, the stat doesn’t hold up, which does a disservice to the most vulnerable in our society.

Emi Koyama has done some of the best research into the problems with the "age of entry into prostitution" factoid.

Emi Koyama

“It conceals the reality that most of the young people in the sex trade come from families affected by poverty, racism, abuse (including homophobia and transphobia in families), parental imprisonment or deportation, or from broken child welfare systems, and do not have safe places to return to,” she told me in an interview. “In fact, many young people are trading sex as a way to escape from violence and abuse that they have experienced in their homes and child welfare systems. By treating them as innocent and helpless ‘children,’ we fail to listen to the young people who are struggling to survive in hostile circumstances. We also fail to address the root causes of their vulnerability, and instead promote further surveillance and criminalization of street culture—which actually harms young people who survive there.”

Even by mathematical standards, the numbers don’t add up. In order for 12 or 13 to represent the national average age of entry, there would need to be a significant number who enter at ages younger than that. “The vast majority of young people who are ‘rescued’ by the law enforcement during Operation Cross Country sweeps are 16- and 17-year olds,” Koyama says, “and there are rarely any under the age 13… For the average age to be around 13, there needs to be many more 5-12 year olds that are forced into prostitution than are empirically plausible.” If the massive numbers of children exist in quantities enough to offset those who enter in their late teens or as adults, they’re not showing up in the arrests made by the Federal government, even high-profile ones like Operation Cross Country.

In addition, Koyama says, the age of entry statistic flatters Americans that their own communities are safe, while playing on the fear of outsiders: “It gives the impression that children were safe until ‘bad people’ came into their communities to take them away, and therefore we must arrest and prosecute these ‘bad people’ (often racialized).” –Read More

Mindy Chateauvert, author of "Sex Workers Unite!" traces the early history of the "age of entry into prostitution" stat.

Melinda Chateauvert, author of “Sex Workers Unite!”

After you read that, I strongly suggest that you go and read this piece, by Melinda Chateauvert, who goes even farther than I do in my article. Just after the article went up, she said on my Facebook comments, “I really wish you’d contacted me about this,” and boy, do I wish I had. Turns out that she had some of the exact information I’d been looking for. See, although the most common reference for the statistic nowadays is The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U. S., Canada and Mexico, by Richard J. Estes and Neil A. Weiner, it’s been around before 2001. The earliest citation I’ve seen is a 1982 paper by Mimi Silbert and Ayela Pines. Unfortunately, I couldn’t for the life of me find a copy of the paper. All I had was a title. Mindy does a great job of debunking the pre-2001 version of the “average age of entry” factoid:

The original academic article, “Victimization of Street Prostitutes,” was published in the journal Victimology in 1982 (7 [1982]: 122-133). The data came from research conducted by Mimi Silbert of the San Francisco Delancey Street Foundation and Ayala Pines of UC Berkeley, who interviewed 200 women and girls in SF, all of whom were Delancey Street clients. The authors note that the number of juveniles arrested for prostitution had “doubled” from 38 to 86 from 1976 to 1977. Still, this was 86 minors among more than 2,300 adult women arrested for prostitution in 1977. (FWIW, I was one of the women arrested that year. The SFPD and was engaged in a major crackdown at the time, especially in Union Square and the Tenderloin areas as developers had begun eying those neighborhoods. There were arrests across the entire /hetero/ sex industry: clubs, parlors, bars, hotels, streets, etc.)….

It’s important to understand this data from a historical perspective. In 1977, the drinking age was 18. That meant that “juveniles” could work in strip clubs, serve liquor, and obtain a license from the city to work in a massage parlor or encounter parlor. (There were no educational requirements to receive a massage license at that time). A young person only had to show an ID stating she was 18. (And remember, this was when many states issued a driver’s license on paper, and did not necessarily include a photograph.)



Poe’s Law, As Applied to Breastfeeding

Woman Breastfeeding Baby. Her breast is pixellated with a giant caption: Bottle Not Boobs

Bottles Not Boobs

It actually did take me a few minutes to figure out whether this was real or fake, which shows you just how solid Poe’s Law really is, when you apply it to real life. For the record, it is a parody, taken from the Facebook page of a group called Christians for Michele Bachmann. Naturally, that’s another factor against me: Bachmann herself has intentionally taken enough stands that were totally out there that it’s not entirely beyond the scope of reason that this might actually be from her, or a group supporting her.

However, Christians for Michele Bachmann is way too honest about the things that she’s actually said in real life. For instance:

There are also quiet a few people, left and right, who have really weird obsessions about women who breast-feed in public. All that said, I’m relieved that it’s a parody, although I do kinda love the term “sinbags.”

New Post at Slixa: Decriminalization Isn’t Enough

"Belle" -- Statue in honor of sex workers in Amsterdam.Although I shamefully neglected to mention it in the actual piece, my most recent post at Slixa was done as part of Maggie McNeill’s Friday the 13th event, in which she encourage non-sex workers who are allies to write about the decriminalization of sex work. Mine talks not only about decriminalization, but about how we have to destigmatize it as well. Tolerating sex work with a distasteful grimace is little better than calling for its prohibition:

But ironically, decriminalization is as inadequate as it is radical. The stigma around sex work is at least as damaging as the laws. Stigma adheres to all branches of sex work, whether legally or not. It might be perfectly legal to make, market, and sell Lesbian Spank Inferno, Vol. 17, but having it on your résumé will guarantee you don’t get a job teaching grade school. The idea of sex workers as “fallen,” broken, or amoral is the soil in which the laws grow. The State of California was able to enact a regulation denying aid to victims of rape because stigma allows people like Ms. R to be considered disposable.

In the end, decriminalization isn’t enough: we have to say that sex workers — like any other legitimate work — can be a positive thing, not an inevitable blight that has to be tolerated. That’s not just radical in the current climate, but unspeakable. Right now, it’s hard enough to get people to use the phrase sex work  without a lewd, patronizing grin.


Would You Ask Me to Guard Your Computer?

Photo Booth - Self Portrait

Do you want this person guarding your laptop?

I keep wondering why the hell people in coffee shops look at me and decide that I’m just the kind of guy that they should ask to guard their expensive computer hardware while they go take a poop. I have that kind of sullen, brooding look that should rightly be associated more with the leader of the Satanic cult that moved in down the street just before all the dogs and cats started disappearing from the neighborhood. Not the all-American boy who would never think of walking your precious laptop down to the pawn store and hocking it. [Read more...]

Listening to Anger: Two Good Responses to JT Eberhard and Atheist Racism

I can’t even say how deeply disappointed I am in JT Eberhard’s recent behavior on the subject of racism. But even more, I’m disappointed in the failure of the atheist community to address it better.

Bria Crutchfield

Bria Crutchfield

Actually, some prominent atheists have addressed it very well: Jen McCreight and Greta Christina articulated the problems with JT’s comments about Bria Crutchfield and his defense of those comments beautifully. The fact that Jen, a white feminist, was one of the first people to speak up gave me some initial optimism; when white people create a mess, white people should be first on the scene to clean it up. It should not constantly be up to people of color to explain what’s so fucked up about racism. [Read more...]

Can Carrying Condoms Be a Crime?

I have a new piece up at Slixa, about the fight to ban New York police and district attorneys from using condoms to arrest people for prostitution.

"I was walking towards the LGBT youth center I'm staying at because right now I don't have another place to live, and the police stopped me. They searched my bag & took away my condoms." Art by Lauren McCubbin

“I was walking towards the LGBT youth center I’m staying at because right now I don’t have another place to live, and the police stopped me. They searched my bag & took away my condoms.”
Art by Lauren McCubbin

In light of the decision yesterday that stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional, my piece seems to be especially well-timed. “Condoms as evidence” is little more than a sub-category of stop and frisk that’s used to target the people who need safer sex resources the most. The fact that it’s been allowed to exist as long as it has is due to the fact that over the last couple of decades, it’s become more and more acceptable to criminalize whole populations of people, instead of behavior that actually does harm.

But in the eyes of district attorneys and police departments, condoms aren’t for everyone. For white, middle-class, straight-looking people, a few condoms in their pocket or purse represents a sophisticated, responsible sexuality. For those who fit police profiles of sex workers, having condoms on their person might be the thing that gets them arrested on prostitution charges.

“That’s something that we’ve had to clarify again and again,” says Emma Caterine, from New York’s Red Umbrella Project. “I think it’s just a habit in any kind of rights-based activism and organizing to say, ‘Oh, this could happen to me,’ and of course, that really isn’t the case in this situation. The people who are affected by this legislation are people who are profiled as sex workers. That includes sex workers, of course, but it also includes people who are profiled as sex workers because of different stereotypes we have about sex workers.”

The people who fit law enforcement profiles of sex workers are overwhelmingly young, low-income, people of color, or visibly queer or transgender. In other words, arrests target precisely those populations most at risk for transmission of HIV and other STIs.

This seems like a particularly cruel joke in New York, the only major American city to issue its own official condoms. Since 2007, the city’s much-acclaimed “NYC Condoms” program has distributed tens of millions of male and female condoms per month to the five boroughs. In 2012, the city distributed 37.2 million condoms — about 70 per minute. This February, NYU commemorated the program’s five-year anniversary with a retrospective of graphic design and public relations material.

But even as New York’s elite celebrate the condom as a pop icon, thousands of residents are faced with a dilemma: carry condoms to protect themselves against STIs, or risk harassment or arrest by police. “These are the populations that the CDC and other public health authorities have targeted for universal condom access,” says Megan McLemore, a Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch. “They’re really trying to make sure that these populations use condoms every time. So the fact that people who are doing this work and who are profiled as doing this work are carrying fewer condoms than they need has serious consequences for HIV prevention.”

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Red Equals Signs

Clockwise from upper left: Atheists; Sex Workers; Queers; Undocumented Immigrants

Clockwise from upper left: Atheists; Sex Workers; Queers; Undocumented Immigrants

I have to admit, at first the little red squares on people’s Facebook profiles made me cringe. There were two reasons: first, this sort of thing has always triggered my most cynical side. Even in the 1990s, when people started wearing red ribbons to express solidarity with HIV/AIDS patients, I had really complicated, ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, it was a definite improvement over the dominant attitudes of the 1980s, which ranged between malign neglect and homicidal scapegoating. But on the other, the red ribbons seemed to quickly become more of a fashion accessory than an active political statement. Sometimes they seemed to be more about the person wearing them than the people who were at risk. It was even worse when Lance Armstrong’s “Livestrong” bracelets hit the scene. Imitators hit the scene before everyone had completely absorbed the idea of the originals. Even more than the red ribbons, they came to represent marketing more than social justice.

I have more examples of that sort of thing than I care to think. Every other day, it seems like we’re being asked to tweet a hashtag, recolor our avatars, or buy a special product to show what good people we are. We do it, and nothing changes, because we’re not really doing anything. [Read more...]

Why I Love Being a Scarleteen Superhero For the Day

Scarleteen Superhero

My little piece of Scarleteen’s front page: February 24, 2013.

I’ve always wanted to be a superhero. As a kid, my superhero of choice was Spider-Man, partly because I identified with Peter Parker as a scrawny, picked-on science nerd. Also, there was something really cool about the fact that his science nerdness came into play when fighting villains like the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus as much as his spider-powers did.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not ever going to be able to stick to walls or have spider-strength, but getting my name on the front page of Scarleteen is a pretty decent compensation prize. For today, February  24, 2013, my name is on the front page as the “Scarleteen Superhero” because Heather Corinna is highlighting people who have donated $240 or more to the site. That, according to her, is the amount of money it takes to keep the site up for one day.

[Read more...]

Sign Adam Lee’s Petition, Expand Atheism

Ayn Rand picture with signature

Ayn Rand: The woman who made it hip to be a selfish asshole.

Here’s words you won’t see me write (or hear me say) very often: sign this online petition. Generally, I think that online petitions and surveys are naught but meaningless wankery, but this one I think can do some good. One of the problems I have with online petitions is that they seem to take on Grand, Important Problems by allowing you to do nothing more than click a link. Adam Lee’s petition, on the other hand, is very specific about who it’s talking to, and what it’s talking about:

We support making the atheist movement more diverse and inclusive. It’s long been clear that the skeptical movement has a preponderance of white men. While we don’t disdain their participation, we believe skepticism is valuable and important to people in all walks of life, and in accordance with that principle, we consider it vital to have a movement that reflects the demographics of the society we live in. If our community continues to be dominated by white men, it will become increasingly out-of-touch and irrelevant as Western society becomes increasingly multiracial and multicultural and as non-Western countries gain economic and cultural power.

To that end, we urge the atheist and skeptical organizations to make a conscious commitment to diversity: to intentionally reach out to people of all ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds to speak at our conventions, to serve on our boards of directors, and to be the public faces and representatives of skepticism. We believe that there are talented, dedicated and eminently qualified people of every gender and every race, and that seeking them out will strengthen our movement and broaden its appeal.

[Read more...]

Natalie Reed Interview: Transphobia in the Hawkeye Initiative

For my most recent piece at the SF Weekly, I wrote about the controversy that’s been boiling up around a new Tumblr Blog, The Hawkeye Initiative. In a way, it’s a blog that I’d like to applaud. It’s based on a very real and serious criticism of superhero comics for depicting female bodies in really weird, oversexualized, and distorted ways. The most famous example is the “boobs and butt” pose, which has become ubiquitous in superhero comics. A few examples of female characters contorting their spines in order to give the viewer tits and ass are seen below:

The Hawkeye Initiative has tried to critique this over-the-top aesthetic by having fans submit redrawn versions of comic book art that substitutes the Marvel character Hawkeye for female characters, in the hopes that it would make the absurdity of the poses more visible to people who take the boobs and butt approach for granted. And at first, there was a lot of positive response. The Hawkeye Initiative became the meme of the month for December of 2012, with media coverage from Wired, Geeks Are SexyBleeding Cool, and i09, among others. But there’s also been an increasing amount of criticism on grounds that Hawkeye Initiative is using the very old trope of mocking effeminate men to make its point.

Transfeminist blogger Natalie Reed has been a very vocal critic of the Hawkeye Initiative. She was one of the first people I interviewed for the SF Weekly piece, and in fact, her thoughts make up the bulk of the quoted material in there, along with the ever-fabulous Kitty Stryker. One of the most painful parts about writing the article was figuring out just what I could cut and what to leave. She has a lot to say, and says it very well, and with her permission, I’m posting the full text of the interview here. There’s a lot to think on here; not only about gender and how we perceive it, but also about how to build and maintain truly intersectional analyses, instead of fighting one evil by building up another.


Chris Hall: First of all, could you summarize for me your criticisms of the Hawkeye Initiative?

Natalie Reed: So, my main concern with the Hawkeye Initiative, and related strategies of critiquing the representation of women in comics by placing men as substitutions in the poses, costumes or anatomy of female characters, boils down to how much of this strategy is based in the basic idea of “But it would be ridiculous if Hawkeye / Batman / Iron Man / Captain America were placed in this pose”, which is the suggestion that a male character being placed in the same pose/costume/anatomic-style will be perceived as more ridiculous than the female character, or make the ridiculousness more obvious while obviously the basic “point” here is to expose the ridiculous, impractical or anatomically impossible nature of the way female characters are represented, that point ends up falling over pretty heavily into transphobia and femmephobia by imagining these representations become more ridiculous by placing men in them. Frequently, in the Hawkeye Initiative or similar strategies, you see things like word balloons saying “I’m so pretty!”, or caption jokes about “look at Tony Stark’s seductive face!”, wherein the humor and “ridiculousness” of the drawing comes not from the basic preposterousness of the female representation itself, but from the way our culture perceives it as innately or intrinsically ridiculous, funny, disgusting, absurd or frivolous for a man (or person whose body we perceive as male) to dress, behave, or perform in “feminine ways.” This idea that it’s somehow inherently comical, or ridiculous, for a man, (or someone so designated), to do “feminine” things is one of the cornerstones of both trans-misogyny and femmephobia (the idea that femininity is inherently more superficial, silly, ridiculous, weak, or impractical than masculinity). [Read more...]