Well Intentioned Hysteria

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Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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18 Responses

  1. Avatar RTod says:

    Burt –

    I’m struggling to figure out how I feel about your post, in as much as I feel both in agreement and uncomfortable about it. I think the reason might be this:

    I basically agree with everything you said. The child trafficking myth especially hits a button for me, coming from Portland:

    http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2011/01/northwest_news_oregonian_exclusive_portland_s_reputation_as_hub_for_child_sex_trafficking_a_myth_ore.html

    And the issue of vaccination also is a biggie for me – I remember a lot of parents encouraging other new parents to not inoculate when we were new parents, and they often pointed to “news” stories that explained “both” sides of the argument equally, as if it were a matter of taste and not a scientific consensus.

    I think where I am having trouble then, is the focus on the celebrity issue. If anything, it seems like this is a trap that threatens to create what you criticize: There are a lot of things that need to be learned from the sex traffic myth, and you do mention a lot of them briefly: lazy reporting, the inability of journalists and public servants to notices conflicts of interest from those they get data from, or the troubling truth that in a free market media system sensationalistic untruths are rewarded more than diligent and often boring facts.

    The thing that we need to learn the least, I think, might have anything to do with Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher.

    Does that make sense?Report

  2. Avatar Jakecollins says:

    The vast majority of prostitutes begin as children… It is thus not unteasonable to think there are tens if not hundreds of thosands of child prostitutes in America.
    I agree we should be skeptical of moral panic… Especially if accompanied by calls for criminal enforcement. But this post goes too far in the other direction. If you think there are only a few hundred child prostitutes in America, then I pity your naïveté.Report

    • Jake, while it is true that most prostitutes begin as sexually-exploited youth, the ways in which they enter prostitution are quite variable. A large number turn to prostitution to support an addiction. Some are coerced by strangers into performing a sexual act for money, and it becomes an ingrained pattern of behavior. To be sure, some are abducted and forced into it, but it strains credulity to suggest that this is true for hundreds of thousands.Report

      • Avatar Jakecollins in reply to Russell Saunders says:

        Agreed. But the OP conflates exaggeration of forced trafficking with exaggeration of child prostitution in general.
        For example, it says that if there were really hundreds of thousands of child prostitutes, then presumably the cops would do something.
        But the cops don’t care about prostitutes… Which is a reason not to agitate for criminal enforcement.Report

        • But the cops don’t care about prostitutes…

          I’m not at all sure this is true, or to the extent it is true, I’m not sure it’s true in a way that significantly alters the equation. It’s probably safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of underage prostitutes are streetwalkers rather than escorts or working in brothels, especially since escort services have to at least maintain a veneer of legality. But streetwalkers are highly visible, and presumably require minimal effort by the police to catch. The stereotype of the hooker with the criminal record the length of my arm exists for a reason! But to accept the notion of anything approaching 100,000 underage prostitutes in the US, we would have to assume that less than 1% of them get arrested in a given year. That is a preposterously low arrest rate for a crime that requires relatively minimal police work, no matter how low an enforcement priority, and even if we factor out the influence of incentives for police officers to make lots of easy arrests.

          Additionally, there are only about 9 million girls in the US between the ages of 13 and 17. That means that more than one out of every ninety girls between 13 and 17 is a prostitute if there are 100,000 underage prostitutes in the US.

          Such a percentage would seem high, though perhaps at least somewhat plausible, were it confined to just 17 year old girls (by comparison, in Germany, where prostitution is quite legal and which has a comparable per capita GDP, no more than .3% of German women of all ages are prostitutes*) But it’s not! Instead, to believe such a percentage, we would need to either believe that 13, 14, 15, and 16 year old girls are just as likely as 17 year old girls to be prostitutes or we would need to believe that 1 out of every 25, or at least 1 out of every 50, 17 year old girls is a prostitute. This seems more than a little implausible.

          Indeed, as the article cited above points out, the basis for the 100,000-300,000 figure that is thrown about is a study that only claims that 100,000-300,000 are “at risk,” and in determining whether a girl counted as “at risk,” it included, for instance, any girl living near the Mexican border with a means of transportation to the border. So if one wishes to cite the number from this study as a reasonable estimate of the number of child prostitutes in the US, one needs to in effect define any teenage girl with access to a car as a prostitute. That is, to say the least, absurd.

          *If you include Central and Eastern European prostitutes working in Germany, the number increases to about 1% of the total population. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to factor them into this equation since the unique legal status of prostitution in Germany, combined with the effects of EU open borders policies and Germany’s comparative wealth, obviously creates an incentive for prostitutes from other countries to emigrate there. IOW, if prostitution in Germany had the same legal status as it has in the US, few of its foreign-born prostitutes would have emigrated there in the first place).Report

    • Avatar RTod in reply to Jakecollins says:

      “If you think there are only a few hundred child prostitutes in America, then I pity your naïveté.”

      Jake, did you read the story? The claim that is being disputed isn’t that there aren’t 100-300k prostitutes, it’s that there are that many children who have been kidnapped out of neighborhoods just like yours and are shipped around the world and forced into prostitution. These are very different claims.Report

      • Avatar Jakecollins in reply to RTod says:

        The OP also goes out of it’s way to downplay the scope of cold prostitution in general.
        Did YOU read the OP?Report

        • Avatar RTod in reply to Jakecollins says:

          That is a point worth discussing, sure. But that is a different argument than claiming Burt believes there are only a few hundred prostitutes in America.Report

          • Avatar Jakecollins in reply to RTod says:

            The OP is confused about the issue. If his premise is that the media conflates child prostitution with forced trafficking, then Burt should NOT CONFLATE CHILD PROSTITUTION WITH FORCED TRAFFICKING.

            But then I suppose every site has it’s sycophants that will defend OPs at all costs. Keep up the good work!Report

            • Avatar RTod in reply to Jakecollins says:

              I was about to reply, but then I noticed that you make your point with all capital letters. I have no defense against that; I humbly admit defeat.Report

            • Jake, he does include a link to a very lengthy article in the Village Voice (hardly a publication that would pooh-pooh an issue of this nature) that calls into question the 100,000 – 300,000 number for child prostitutes, whether from human trafficking or other modes of entry into exploitation. I agree with your contention that law enforcement are typically under-concerned with the plight of prostitutes, but such a large disconnect between the number of children picked up for prostitution and the figures claimed is a reasonable basis for questioning so high a number.Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jakecollins says:

              Dude, at this site I expect no mercy. If I advance a proposition that is not intellectually tenable, I expect to get savaged for it. I do not believe I equated child abduction and child prostitution. Nor did I pooh-pooh the serious nature of either crime.

              A weak defense against a formidable ALL CAPS ASSAULT, I know, but it’s the best I can do from my mobile phone between court hearings.Report

    • Avatar Michael Price in reply to Jakecollins says:

      Where is the evidence that “most” prostitutes or even a large minority start as children? To claim that there are more than 100,000 “child” (defined how? Are we counting 17 year olds?) prostitutes when there is less than 1,000 children arrested for prostitution is absurd. Even assuming that the cops don’t realise it’s a kid 9 times out of 10 that’s still less than 1 arrest ever ten years as a prostitute for the average kid. The kids should stop selling their bodies and hire themselves out as undercover cop detectors for drug dealers.Report

  3. Avatar David Cheatham says:

    Um, while I’m in agreement about the idiotic effects of things like Megan’s Law…what exactly is the problem with Amber Alerts?

    Admittedly, I’d like to see a more general ‘notification’ system, I think it’s absurd that in this day and age we can’t have government-issued geographical alerts. Every cell phone tower should send them out free of charge, there should be computer programs people could install and put in their location, and people should be able to sign up email or get rss feeds or whatever.

    There should be a way for the government to get information to us, whether it’s ‘tornado sighted’ or ‘someone missing’ or ‘escaped prisoner’. The days of using the Emergency Broadcast System are way behind us…the average person is within sight or hearing of an network-enabled electronic device _at all times_, and it’s inane to not use them.

    The fact that my county uses giant sirens instead of having the cell company send a text message to every phone on the tower is idiotic. Remember, text messages are sent in the communication overhead of towers, and hence are ‘free’ for all practical purposes. (And people should be able to block the display of such messages in their cell phone, if they wish.)

    So I wish the alerts were more general. I’d actually like a specific government agency dedicated to that, working closely with state agencies.

    But I’m failing to see any sort of _harm_ that Amber Alerts cause. Some people assert that they continue to mislead people about the almost nonexistent danger of strangers kidnapping children, but, frankly, that’s much more the media that the alerts themselves, which don’t make any such claims at all.Report

  4. Very nice post, Burt. I’m going to respond to it over at the sub-blog, hopefully tomorrow — Monday at the latest — because you hit upon something I’ve done a decent amount of thinking and writing on myself vis-a-vis human rights, civil society, and the thin line between inspiring action and causing fatalism.Report

  5. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    I know that I’m poking a can of worms with a stick, here, but I think it’s worth pointing out that the definition of “child” in the study is “as young as twelve”. Which is, in general, the onset of sexual maturity.

    And yes, I know that physical maturity generally predates mental maturity, but I think that “child” in most people’s minds implies “presexual human”. If the term were “teenage prostitutes” it would be more accurate, but it’s easier to convince people to give you money if you’ve got pathos on your side.Report

  6. Avatar dhex says:

    celebrities are important vessels of the ideas of others. probably not the coolest thing ever, but the way things actually are. it sucks that jenny mccarthy helped kill a bunch of kids, some of whom haven’t even been born yet, but elsewhere some pretty face with nice hair and straight teeth and a snappy suit/dress/tux/whatevs is helping raise money for something less infanticidal. it would be nice if we left important questions of fact out of their hands entirely, but such is the nature of the american mythosphere.

    i often joke that we’ll ask musicians their opinions on economics – generally some variation on “stuff should be free and stuff” answer – but we very rarely, if ever, ask economists to work as music critics. i don’t know if it would be better or worse, but i think parity and fairness demands it.Report