Nine months later, Dank and Curtis had far surpassed their goal, completing interviews with 249 underaged prostitutes. From that data, they were able to put a number on the total population of New York's teen sex workers: 3,946.
Most astonishing to the researchers was the demographic profile teased out by the study. Published by the U.S. Department of Justice in September 2008, Curtis and Dank's findings thoroughly obliterated the long-held core assumptions about underaged prostitution:
• Nearly half of the kids — about 45 percent — were boys.
• Only 10 percent were involved with a "market facilitator" (e.g., a pimp).
• About 45 percent got into the "business" through friends.
• More than 90 percent were U.S.-born (56 percent were New York City natives).
• On average, they started hooking at age 15.
• Most serviced men — preferably white and wealthy.
• Most deals were struck on the street.
• Almost 70 percent of the kids said they'd sought assistance at a youth-service agency at least once.
• Nearly all of the youths — 95 percent — said they exchanged sex for money because it was the surest way to support themselves.
In other words, the typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery, and is not held captive by a pimp.
Nearly all of the boys and girls involved in the city's sex trade are going it alone.
Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank were amazed by what their research had revealed. But they were completely unprepared for the way law-enforcement officials and child-advocacy groups reacted to John Jay's groundbreaking study.
"I remember going to a meeting in Manhattan where they had a lot of prosecutors there whose job was to prosecute pimps," Curtis recalls. "They were sort of complaining about the fact that their offices were very well staffed but their workload was — not very daunting, let's say. They had a couple of cases, and at every meeting you'd go to, they'd pull out the cherry-picked case of this pimp they had busted, and they'd tell the same story at every meeting. They too were bothered by the fact that they couldn't find any pimps, any girls.
"So I come along and say, 'I found 300 kids' — they're all perky — but then I say, 'I'm sorry, but only 10 percent had pimps.'
"It was like a fart in church. Because basically I was saying their office was a waste of time and money."
Jay Albanese, a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who headed the Justice Department's research arm for four years, says the findings of the John Jay study are among the most interesting he has seen.
"Whether you are a kid or an adult, the issue becomes: To what extent is this voluntary?" Albanese says. "Because you make more money in this than being a secretary? Or because you really have no choices — like, you're running from abuse or caught up in drugs? The question becomes: If Curtis is correct, what do we do with that 90 percent? Do we ignore it? How hard do we look at how they got into that circumstance? You could make the case that for the 90 percent for whom they couldn't find any pimping going on — well, how does it happen?
"It's a very valid question," Albanese continues. "A policy question: To what extent should the public and the public's money be devoted to these issues, whether it's child prostitution or child pimping?"
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is the only agency that keeps track of how many children the legal system rescues from pimps nationwide. The count, which began in June 2003, now exceeds 1,600 as of April of this year, according to the FBI's Innocence Lost website — an average of about 200 each year.
Through interviews and analysis of public records, Village Voice Media has found that the federal government spends about $20 million a year on public awareness, victim services, and police work related to domestic human trafficking, with a considerable focus on combating the pimping of children. An additional $50 million-plus is spent annually on youth homeless shelters, and since 1996, taxpayers have contributed $186 million to fund a separate program that provides street outreach to kids who may be at risk of commercial sexual exploitation.
That's at least $80 million doled out annually for law enforcement and social services that combine to rescue about 200 child prostitutes every year.
These agencies might improve upon their $400,000-per-rescued-child average if they joined in the effort to develop a clearer picture of the population they aim to aid. But there's no incentive for them to do so when they stand to rake in even more public money simply by staying the course.