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Women's Funding Network Sex Trafficking Study Is Junk Science 

Schapiro Group data wasn't questioned by mainstream media.

Wednesday, Mar 23 2011
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Schapiro's grasp on empirical rigor is such that when asked point-blank to choose between her two contradictory interpretations — estimates or facts — she opts for both. "I would square the circle by saying that you can look at them both ways," she says.

Any reporters who had read the methodology of the Schapiro report would have been left with doubts, and any reporters who followed up would probably have been treated to the same baffling circuit of nonanswers. The fact that the study's findings continue to be rebroadcast by national news outlets suggests that not one of these reporters has bothered to read the study about which they are writing.

"You see this kind of thing a lot, unfortunately," says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute who writes frequently about statistics. "The kind of skepticism that reporters apply to a statement by a politician just doesn't get applied to studies."

Finkelhor says he understands the pressure on reporters to cite figures when they're writing about juvenile prostitution, but it's something they need to resist, because despite what groups like the Women's Funding Network would have you believe, there simply are no good statistics. "You have to say, 'We don't know. Estimates have been made, but none of them have a real scientific basis to them,'" he says. "All you can say is, 'This is the number the police know about, and we think there are more than that, but we don't know how many more.'"


In her own online photos, the woman who commissioned the Schapiro Group study looks to be in her 50s, with blue eyes, graying hair, and a taste for dangly earrings. Kaffie McCullough first approached the group about conducting a study of juvenile prostitution in Georgia in 2007 when, as director of A Future Not a Past, she realized that having scientific-sounding numbers makes all the difference.

In early 2007, McCullough approached the Georgia Legislature to ask for money for a regional assessment center to track juvenile prostitution. "We had no research, no nothing. The legislators didn't even know about it," she recalls. "We got a little bit. We got about 20 percent of what we asked for."

Later that year, the Schapiro Group made its first counts, and when McCullough returned to the Legislature the following session, she had the study's statistics in hand. "It gave us traction — night and day," she says. "That year, we got all the rest of that money, plus we got a study commission."

McCullough touts the fundraising benefits of the study whenever she can. Since the Schapiro study was picked up for replication nationwide by the Women's Funding Network, she has acted as a sort of technical consultant for state groups as they debate whether to invest in the project. Whenever she's asked, she tells the local groups that the money they spend will come back to them with hefty dividends. "I would say, 'The research costs money, but we've been able to broker — I don't know what it is now, I think it's over $1.3, $1.6 million in funding that we never would have gotten,'" she says.

McCullough initially maintained that she stands by the Schapiro Group study, in part because she says she was told that "it is the same scientific methodology that science has been using for a long time to measure endangered species." But when pressed on whether she really believes that counting Internet photos is reliable, she grants that the sex-work industry isn't exactly the gold standard of truth in advertising. "That's absolutely correct," she says. "That's part of how that business operates: It's a bait-and-switch."

And given the tricky nature of the photographs, she admits that counting pictures isn't a precise way to measure juvenile prostitutes. "I can't guarantee that any picture that four of those six people said looked young — that may not be the girl that you'd get if you called up," she concedes.

Asked whether she has any reason to believe that the six observers in the study have the identical 38 percent error rate as the 100 random citizens who were the initial test subjects, she allows that it might be worth revisiting that question.

The basic truth is that the study exists in service of the advocacy, and if news outlets present the Schapiro Group's numbers as gospel, it certainly doesn't hurt the advocates' cause.

Admitting that there is no authoritative scientific count of juvenile prostitution, as Finkelhor recommends, isn't an option for McCullough. She recalls an early presentation she made in Nebraska, when a politician gave her a piece of advice that stuck.

"He said, 'If you all as a movement don't start having numbers, you are going to lose the money,'" McCullough recalls. "'How can you justify millions of dollars when there are only hundreds of victims that you're actually serving?'"


Editor's conclusion: On March 16, the drumbeat continued in the U.S. Senate with a briefing on domestic sex trafficking of minors that featured actress Mira Sorvino and the startling statistic that 100,000 children are trafficked for sex annually in America. Trafficking — in labor and sex — became a defining issue in the administration of President George W. Bush. But as an investigation by the Washington Post in 2007 revealed, victims in the sex trade were difficult to come by. Today, advocates have shifted media attention to allegations of trafficking in children. But facts to suggest a plague of underage perversion simply do not exist, despite claims to the contrary.

In a deficit-obsessed Congress, there is a long line of those seeking tax dollars to raise awareness of trafficking: government agencies, nonprofits, religious groups, the well-intentioned, as well as abolitionists opposed to pornography and adult services.

About The Author

Nick Pinto

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