The Washington Post’s fact checker has looked skeptically at estimates of the number of youths involved in the sex trade. Among claims that fell apart under scrutiny: that 300,000 children are at risk of sex exploitation, that 100,000 children in the U.S. are in the sex trade, and that on average, girls first become sex trafficking victims at 13. A big problem with any estimate is that data are sparse in the hidden world of trafficking.
Now, the Post reports a new study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice that has come up with an estimate that appears significantly lower than previous estimates. Researchers led by Rachel Swaner of New York University concluded that the total number of juveniles in the sex trade in the U.S. was about 9,000 to 10,000. To be cautious, the study said that range could be as low as 4,500 or as high as 21,000. The study found that about 15 percent of the children relied on a pimp and that the average age of entry into the sex trade was 15.8 years. The estimates were derived from interviews with 949 people engaged in the sex trade between ages 13 and 24, located in six cities. The interviews ranged from 30 minutes to two hours. The researchers calculated the number of people engaged in the sex trade by determining how many people who were interviewed had been arrested, and then cross-checked those numbers with official arrest data of people under 18. That then yielded an estimate of how many children are engaged in the sex trade in the United States.