How Many Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Are there in the U.S.?
There is a highly publicized debate going on over the accuracy of statistics quoted by Ashton Kutcher and the Demi and Ashton Foundation (DNA) over the number of sexually exploited children in the United States. While it might be easy to criticize celebrities for lack of substance, the DNA Foundation is in fact using the very same statistics that every advocate, government agency and policy maker uses–including ECPAT-USA.
We use those statistics knowing and admitting that they are dated estimates because everyone–policy makers, media and the public–push to know the number of victims. We use these statistics because these are the most recent and comprehensive numbers we have.
Despite the many appeals made by advocates over the years, there has been no funding for an expansive attempt to count the number of commercially sexually exploitation children (CSEC) in the US since the controversial 2001 University of Pennsylvania study. Partially funded by the US Department of Justice, it remains the most complete published study on the commercial sexual exploitation of children. The current controversy lies in the 100,000 – 300,000 children reported in the study to be at risk in the US for commercial sexual exploitation. The findings were then and continue to be criticized and questioned. But with no similar study to compare it to, it is difficult to draw a conclusion on the accuracy of the figures. In addition, the underground nature of the activities makes them especially hard to measure, leaving us with best estimates.
At present there is a new prevalence study underway by the Center for Court Innovation and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in several U.S. cities. These are the same respected research institutions that published a study of commercial sexual exploitation in New York City alone in 2008. The study counted almost 4,000 child victims in New York City, not counting foreign victims and possibly undercounting pimped girls. We look forward to the publication of this new study.
Funding is difficult to come by because commercially sexually exploited children are barely a blip on the radar screen of the policy world. CSEC victims are largely invisible, and therefore easy to ignore. The lack of funding for research to count and understand them is just one of the many manifestations of this oversight. But it is imperative that there be support for research, not just to count the number of CSEC victims, but to understand their needs and how to prevent the exploitation from happening in the first place.
No one wants new studies to challenge the old findings more than those of us who advocate for the protection of children from sexual exploitation. We eagerly await a new “number” if for no other reason than when we are regularly asked how many commercially sexually exploited children there are in the US we will have a better answer than “Well, there was this one study done ten years ago…“
In the meantime, ECPAT-USA applauds the DNA Foundation for being willing to speak up for the most vulnerable and abused children in America – the invisible, undercounted and under-studied children who should be at the center of the public’s attention.