The Atlanta Journal-Constitution trumpeted the report's findings under the headline "City's shame remains; despite crackdowns, Atlanta is still a hub in selling children for sex."
The Journal-Constitution did not, however, inform its readers that the "scientific study" was undertaken not by researchers adhering to rigid academic standards but by the Schapiro Group, an Atlanta public-relations firm hired by the Justice Fund.
Despite the claims to the contrary, there was nothing remotely "scientific" about the research. In order to gauge the number of men who pay for sex with underaged girls, the PR firm observed activity at major hotels and on streets thought to be frequented by sex workers. Staffers also called escort services, posing as customers, to inquire into the possibility of hookups with adolescent girls. And they created online ads featuring photos of young-looking females and inviting prospective customers to call a phone number — a line answered by PR firm "operators" posing as pimps and madams. (For more about the Schapiro Group's dubious methods, see "Weird Science," written by Nick Pinto and published in the March 24 issue of Village Voice Media's newsweeklies.)
Mary Finn is troubled by the murky provenance of the statistics but more so by the time and effort wasted on sensationalizing a problem instead of addressing it.
"This shouldn't be a race to the top," she contends. "We should be mobilized for a single victimization. Why do we need 300 or 500 or 1,000 to mobilize as a community?
"I guess that's what is most disheartening about the [dubious] numerical information that's coming out: We may not be putting resources where we need to put them, because we don't have a clear grasp of what the underlying problem is."
Anyone curious about the underlying problem in New York City can find numerous clues within the 122-page report documenting the several hundred in-person interviews at the core of the John Jay College study.
There are, for instance, the state-run group homes for orphans and kids whose families have kicked them out:
"...[H]e was like, you know, the little leeches that linger around," said a girl who told of being picked up by a pimp outside the group home where she resided at age 15. "And I was sittin' on my steps, and I was cryin', because they're givin' you allowance — 20-sumpin' dollars a week — and then you're not allowed to do certain types a jobs because you have a curfew. And if you miss curfew, they shippin' you somewhere else. So it was like, I was just at my rope's end. And the things that he was sayin' to me, it sounded good."
And the potential pitfalls of the foster-care system:
"My mother died, and I was placed in foster homes," said a girl who started hooking at age 15. "My foster father would touch me, and I ran away. I ended up coming to New York, and I was on the streets; nobody wanted to help me. And I ran into this girl, and she was like 38 when she passed away last year, but she taught me everything I know. She taught me how to do what I have to do — but not be stupid about it — to play it right and be smart."
Not to mention youth homeless shelters:
"I've been raped at Covenant House, three times," one young man stated. "It was by guys in the men's ward." (The three other youths interviewed for the study who spoke specifically about the New York-based nonprofit, whose mission is to care for kids in crisis, made no mention of sexual assault; they described the shelter as a place where kids shared knowledge about how to sell sex and/or characterized it as a popular place for pimps looking to recruit.)
One recurring theme is economic desperation:
"The fact that people think that I'm doing it because I want to — I mean, I get replies all the time on email, and they tell me, 'You know, why don't you just get a job?' " reported a boy with three years' experience selling sex. "Well, no shit, Sherlock! Honestly! I don't know, I would like someone to be able to offer me something."
Law-enforcement personnel, the kids say, are not always helpful:
"One cop said, 'You're lucky I'm off-duty, but you're gonna suck my dick or I'ma take you in,' " a transgender youth stated. "This has happened to me about eight times."