The Futile Quest for Hard Numbers on Child Sex Trafficking

Social media posts describe child sex trafficking as a huge and growing problem, but credible estimates indicate smaller numbers.
JOSEPH PREZIOSO via Getty Images

As if we needed any more problems in 2020, the last few months have made it increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to child sex trafficking.

It was ― or at least should have been ― obvious that the online furniture retailer Wayfair was not selling children in overpriced cabinets. But what about those “Save the Children” rallies a few weeks later? Or all those posts bouncing around social media claiming that children were disappearing by the thousands?

Child sex trafficking is a fraught, troubling topic that’s hard to talk about in any medium and even harder online. But I’m here to help. For almost a year, I’ve been talking to anti-trafficking charities, academic experts and sex workers about the real threats to children and how they differ from the sensationalized screenshots currently taking over the internet.

The biggest problem, I’ve found, is the definition of “child sex trafficking” itself. Under the law, anyone under 18 who trades sex for money, drugs, a place to stay or anything else of value is a victim of trafficking. They don’t have to be recruited by a pimp, moved across state lines or forced into prostitution. A homeless runaway having sex with some sleazeball in exchange for a warm bed is a tragedy, but it’s a less salacious one than the “Taken” myths that trafficking memes circulating on social media imply. It’s also far more common.

Sketchy statistics also make it nearly impossible to know what to think about child sex trafficking. The internet is awash in exaggerated, misleading and downright fabricated numbers about how many children are forced into the sex trade every year.

This is my attempt to debunk all the false trafficking numbers and walk you through the reliable ones. Because child sex trafficking is indeed something that deserves your moral attention. But it looks nothing like the memes you see on social media.

Is there any truth to the stories about hundreds of thousands of children being trafficked?

In a word, no. Despite what your anti-vaxx aunt has been sharing on Facebook, there’s no evidence that children are being RFID-chipped so traffickers can keep track of them. Spammy text messages are not notifying traffickers of your location. In general, any theory that depends on insidious criminal networks communicating through back-window graffiti in a Kroger parking lot is not going to check out.

Where it gets a little harder to separate fact from fiction is in the numerical claims. One of the most circulated social-media statistics is the claim that 800,000 children go missing each year. You may have seen this figure or one of its various offshoots, such as the claim that 22,000 kids go missing per day (that math is wrong, but whatever) or that the annual victims of trafficking could fill a stadium a few times over (as if entire crowds of children were just vanishing at once).

This figure is false both specifically and generally. Specifically, 800,000 children do not go missing every year. That figure is from a 2002 survey that asked parents if they had reported their children as runaways in the previous year (the actual figure was 797,500, by the way). A more recent and credible figure, from 2018 FBI data, is 424,066.

That’s still a lot of missing kids! But what’s important to know about that number, and every other large estimate of missing children circulating online, is that it refers to reports of missing children, not the actual number of children who disappear each year.

This is a crucial difference. The vast majority of children reported missing — most reports put it at over 99% — return home, most within hours or days.

Nor do these reports represent children who are kidnapped by strangers. Roughly half of missing children reports relate to custody disputes — a father takes the kids for the weekend, doesn’t come back on Sunday night and the mother calls the cops. These situations can be tragedies in their own right, but they have nothing to do with trafficking.

The rest of the missing children reports mostly relate to runaways. Children in abusive homes (especially those living in foster care) often run away and sleep at friends’ houses or on the street for a few days. This includes queer and trans minors who run away from parents who have rejected them. Every time their guardian asks the police to help with the search, they end up in the statistics. Many of these children end up running away multiple times each year, so the FBI figures likely include a significant number of duplicate reports. Again: These are tragedies, but the overwhelming majority are not trafficking.

Those aren’t the only false statistics to go viral this summer. A widely shared graphic showing a spike in human trafficking arrests after President Donald Trump took office was found to be using fabricated figures. I wasn’t able to find the origin of the oddly resilient claim that children are “66,667 times more likely to be sold to human traffickers than die of COVID-19,” but if it were true, it would mean that roughly 7% of all children in the United States were trafficked annually. I’m going to need to see a citation before I smash that share button.

What is clear is that years of data indicate that a very small number of children are kidnapped by strangers every year. The generally accepted figure is 115 “stereotypical kidnappings” per year, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center.

And if that’s not enough to convince you, consider this: The Amber Alert system, which was specifically set up to address stranger kidnappings, sent just 161 alerts throughout the entire United States in 2018. Of those, 11 turned out to be hoaxes and 12 were based on misunderstandings.

Supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, seen here at a May rally in Olympia, Washington, have been behind much of the trafficking misinformation circulating online this summer.
Supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, seen here at a May rally in Olympia, Washington, have been behind much of the trafficking misinformation circulating online this summer.

OK, so the numbers in Facebook memes are bonkers. What about the numbers from legitimate anti-trafficking organizations?

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is one of America’s most prominent anti-trafficking organizations. “Of the more than 23,500 endangered runaways reported to NCMEC in 2019,” the organization states on its website, “one in six were likely victims of child sex trafficking.”

This is one of the most repeated statistics about child sex trafficking. However, it comes with major caveats.

First, it does not refer to all missing children. Staca Shehan, NCMEC’s vice president of analytical services, said the figure applies only to the missing-child cases reported to NCMEC.

Take a look at the organization’s name again: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Given the organization’s mission, the report it receives will be heavily skewed toward cases in which caregivers suspect exploitation. The 23,500 reports to NCMEC in 2019 are a small fraction of the roughly 420,000 total reports of missing children each year.

But that’s not even the most misleading thing about how that statistic gets used. The statistic is carefully worded: One in six children is a “likely” victim of sex trafficking. As Shehan told me, the organization considers a child as a likely trafficking victim if the person filing the report merely suspects the child was trafficked. NCMEC doesn’t confirm whether these suspicions are later determined to be true. Given the increasing prominence of child sex trafficking in media reports, conspiracy theories and blockbuster films, many of these reports will turn out to be false.

The same slippery definitions and careful wording show up in other sex trafficking statistics, like the frequently repeated statement that “300,000 children are at risk of being trafficked into commercial sex.” Everyone from the Department of Justice to prominent anti-trafficking organizations to Ashton Kutcher has repeated this number.

Not only is the figure meaningless on its face ― what exactly does “at risk” even mean? ― it also has no credibility among actual experts in child sexual exploitation. The estimate comes from a 2001 paper, which stated that 300,000 minors (it was actually 325,575) were subject to risk factors that make them vulnerable to trafficking, such as growing up in public housing, experiencing homelessness or being in a gang.

For each category, researchers estimated the number of potential victims. So for homeless youth, they calculated that there were 523,000 runaways, 35% of whom were gone for more than a week. That gave them 183,050 kids.

From there, they simply multiplied by the risk of being trafficked. In homeless shelters, the chances were 30%; on the streets, 70%. They ran the numbers and, presto, 121,911 children were at risk of trafficking. They repeated the same calculation for the other 16 categories to reach the total figure.

If you don’t have a background in statistics, it might not be clear to you just how garbage this analysis is. At the most basic level, the researchers’ categories aren’t meaningfully distinct from each other — lots of kids who grow up in public housing also end up homeless at some point in their lives — which means the authors could count the same kids two, three or four times.

Not only that, but nearly all of the numbers in the risk analysis are inflated. Not even close to 35% of runaway kids are gone for more than a week. Nowhere near 70% of street youth end up trafficked. The number is based on bad assumptions, bad methods and bad data.

But don’t trust me, trust actual experts. In 2008, the Crimes Against Children Research Center published a report that called the method behind the 300,000 figure “crude” and concluded, in bold type and capital letters, “PLEASE DO NOT CITE THESE NUMBERS.” When a Washington Post fact-checker contacted the author of the original report in 2015, he admitted that he would not use the same method if he had to do the paper again.

These figures are two of the zombie statistics regarding child sex trafficking staggering from meme to meme years after being debunked. Numerous fact-checkers have discredited the claim that the average age of trafficked children is 13 ― it’s based on the same sketchy 2001 study that produced the 300,000 “at risk” figure ― but it still shows up in government documents, academic studies and Facebook posts. There has never been any evidence that the Super Bowl increases human trafficking, yet the rumor appears in news reports like clockwork every year.

Then there are the numbers that are credible but meaningless. Every major estimate of the profits human trafficking generates (the numbers $32 billion and $150 billion get tossed around a lot) refers to forced labor in dozens of industries, includes both adults and children, and doesn’t differentiate between sex work and forced sex work — which is supposed to be the entire point of citing them.

The lack of credible statistics on child sex trafficking is noteworthy. Other threats to children, from gun violence (roughly 3,000 deaths per year) to car crashes (4,000 deaths per year) to sexual abuse (1 in 9 girls; 1 in 53 boys) are backed up by firm, consistent statistics about their prevalence.

Most estimates of child sex trafficking, by contrast, use figures from The National Human Trafficking Hotline, a database that collates anonymous reports from phone calls, texts and internet forms. The organization doesn’t make any effort to confirm those reports. As Caroline Diemar, the hotline’s director, told me in February, rising or falling call volumes may simply indicate growing public awareness of trafficking as a social issue, not a change in the prevalence of trafficking itself.

That’s why, over time, child sex trafficking organizations have drifted into one of two categories. Some provide no statistics regarding the prevalence of child sex trafficking at all. Others continue to use old, debunked or irrelevant statistics to declare that the problem is large and growing.

This is, to put it lightly, odd. Child sex trafficking is not a new problem. Advocacy organizations have been pushing for increased awareness of the issue since the late 1990s. Congress passed the first major legislation on the issue in 2000.

And yet, even as anti-trafficking groups have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in donations and carried out near-constant awareness campaigns, they still have not produced any credible research on the scale or nature of the problem they’re focused on addressing.

The U.S. Marshals Service operation in August widely described as a "trafficking raid" was a widespread effort to find endangered runaways, mostly from foster care facilities.
The U.S. Marshals Service operation in August widely described as a "trafficking raid" was a widespread effort to find endangered runaways, mostly from foster care facilities.
Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Marshals Service

So what do we know about the prevalence of child sex trafficking?

We don’t have perfect information, but what we do know indicates that child sex trafficking is less widespread than the viral social-media posts are making it seem.

The Human Trafficking Institute reported last week, for example, that federal authorities initiated 145 human trafficking cases in 2019. Of those, 88 involved children. Other sources indicate a similar scale: According to a Texas Christian University database of every trafficking case in the country, federal prosecutors took on a total of 642 cases involving sex trafficking of minors from 2000 to 2015, an average of about 43 per year.

These small figures, however, represent only federal prosecutions. According to a 2019 study, 190 suspects were charged under state laws on human trafficking in 2012, the most recent year for which data was available, and those charges included both adult and child victims.

While we’re at it, there is no evidence for the theory that human trafficking rings are tied to shadowy international criminals. A survey of every human trafficking case prosecuted from 2000 to 2015 found that none of the cases were linked to international cartels or organized crime.

Prosecutions, of course, don’t tell the whole story, but other data sources indicate child sex trafficking at a similar scale. According to a Department of Health and Human Services report, child protection authorities in 27 states identified 741 child victims of sex trafficking in 2018. But this, too, surely undercounts the problem. Commercial sex with children is an underground market that, by definition, isn’t perfectly captured by reports to authorities or law enforcement arrests.

But it’s also important to note that child sex trafficking is not the only crime that has these characteristics. According to Bureau of Justice figures, every report of sexual assault made to police indicates another three victims who don’t come forward. For domestic violence, roughly one woman reports her abuse for every two who are victimized.

And while it’s undoubtedly true that a significant percentage of trafficking victims are reluctant to come forward, under-reporting simply can’t explain the scale of the mismatch. Take, for example, a 2016 estimate from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin that claimed 79,000 people younger than 18 were victims of sex trafficking in Texas alone. The same report noted that law enforcement authorities identified a total of 320 minors who were victims of sex trafficking from 2007 to 2014.

If both those figures are correct, that would mean that just 0.41% of child sex trafficking victims, or 1 in 244, are reporting their experiences to police.

This ratio is unprecedented for other crimes against children. The same report that found 741 victims of child trafficking also found 72,814 child victims of physical abuse and 47,124 victims of sexual abuse in 2018 nationwide. The vast majority of these crimes were committed by parents and caregivers, making them even less likely to come to the attention of authorities than crimes committed by strangers. And yet authorities were able to confirm orders of magnitude more cases.

Awareness campaigns depict a version of trafficking that rarely happens in real life.
Awareness campaigns depict a version of trafficking that rarely happens in real life.
Department of Homeland Security

What’s a better way to think about this issue?

None of this means that child sex trafficking victims don’t matter or that we shouldn’t care. They do and we should. But Americans have spent the last two decades — and especially the last three months — hearing nonstop warnings that pedophiles are coming for our kids, that traffickers are everywhere and that we should maintain constant vigilance against outside threats. It is reasonable ― responsible, even ― to ask whether, of the wide array of things to panic about in 2020, child sex trafficking should be among them.

All available evidence indicates that child sex trafficking is one of a huge number of American tragedies concentrated among the most vulnerable children in our society. Most minors who engage in commercial sex do so out of desperation because they are homeless or abused or pushed out of their families because they are queer or trans. Though some children are indeed recruited into commercial sex by family members or domestic partners, these arrangements are almost always the result of lifelong trauma and vulnerability — the kinds of problems that societies solve by bolstering their safety nets and expanding social services.

That might be a boring conclusion, but it’s a necessary one. Caring about children doesn’t mean sharing lurid memes about the monster lurking around the corner. It means being honest about what truly puts children at risk — even if the solution requires doing something we should have done years ago.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot