Unveiling The Numbers

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

This section aims to highlight commonly shared statistics that may be problematic, incorrect, or misleading to all audiences. Data is an important part of understanding the scope of human trafficking, existence, and prevalence in our State and in our communities. However, when those numbers are inaccurate, it can negatively impact policy, response, and services for victims of human trafficking.


"The average age of entry into human trafficking is 12-14 years old"


In 2016, Polaris Project released a series of myths and misconceptions. This statistic has been attributed to a number of different sources. However, the original source has never been verified and also the statistic has been disproved in a number of ways. The first problem is that this statistic is based on the average age of entry into commercial sex. This means that victims of labor trafficking are not included in this statistic. Secondly, victims can be trafficked multiple times in their lifetimes, for various amounts of time during each period of victimization. Victims can also be trafficked at any age- not just in childhood. Finally, given the fact that trafficking victims are a hidden population, meaning they are not easily identifiable to study or create a prevalence estimate, there is no way to accurately determine the average age of entry of human trafficking victims.

This statistic may falsely lead people to assume that only children are trafficked, or that all victims/survivors experienced victimization starting in childhood. People can be trafficked at any time in their life- young or old. Recognizing the diversity of experiences of victims/survivors is an important step to improve our understanding of the crime.


"There are 100,000-300,000 trafficked children in the United States"


In 2015, The Washington Post issued their statement on this statistic which is often cited without a source. The first time it was shared was during a 2010 congressional hearing discussing child sex trafficking that featured Ernie Allen, who was the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at the time. Following his testimony, this statistic spread rapidly to leading anti-trafficking organizations including the ECPAT-USA. However, under examination Allen stated that the statistic was a guess- not scientific empirical data. Additionally, this statistic specifically talks about sex trafficking, not all forms of trafficking. There are currently no reliable estimates on the number of people in the commercial sex industry in the United States, let alone a number for how many of those people are under the age of 18.

The Dept. of Justice conducted a study on youth involvement in the sex trade in 2016 and found that the number of youth in the sex trade (any youth under the age of 18 involved in the commercial sex trade are considered trafficking victims per the TVPA trafficking definition) is likely closer to 9,000-10,000. However, the study provides a large population estimate range, and recognizes the limitations of determining a hard number. The study states that by its estimates the number could be as low as 4,457 youth or as high as 20,994 youth.


"Runaways will be trafficked within 72 hours"


A 2009 Department of Health and Human Services report stated that this claim had been made by several experts in the anti-trafficking field. When the Modern Slavery Research Project at Loyola University New Orleans went ‘down the rabbit hole’ to find the original source, they found the first source they could find was a 1996 Christian Science Monitor article by Mark Clayton. The article stated that within 48 hours runaways would be lured into commercial sex, and the article did not list a source for the claim.

Runaway and homeless youth are highly vulnerable to human trafficking. The Modern Slavery Research Project performed a study titled “Sex and Labor Trafficking Among Homeless Youth: A Ten City Study." Though the project found that there is ample evidence to be concerned about trafficking of homeless youth, there remains no evidence to substantiate sensational claims about the 72 hour myth and other suspicious claims about trafficked youth.


"Human trafficking is a $9.5 billion industry in the United States"


This statistic has been attributed to several different sources, all of which have been proven to be professional estimates. Overall, this number was created out of several international guesstimates of how many people are being sex trafficked and how much each trafficked person generates annually, which were then divided to attempt to guess the US’s portion of that money. Many of these statistics conflate the illicit sex trade with human trafficking, and do not include estimations on labor trafficking revenue. The 2006 US Trafficking in Persons Report also claimed that the FBI released a report that estimated that trafficking generates 9.5 billion annually worldwide. However, the FBI officials have since debunked this claim. There is no reliable data to suggest the exact amount of money generated by human trafficking.

It’s important to recognize that victims/survivors have a wide variety of trafficking experiences. By attempting to standardize the ‘trafficking experience’ for the purposes of generating a number, we may be inadvertently erasing or ignoring those victims/survivors who experiences fall outside of the ‘average’ that our estimations generate. They can experience non-payment or partial payment, be trafficked for 2 days or 20 years, experience trafficking once or many times in their lives, or be trafficked in high-value or low-value work.

Stop the Sensationalism and Glamorization of Pimp Culture

“Why does all of this matter? The most immediate problem is that poor information, presented as fact, contributes to poor decision making and sometimes highly damaging, unintended outcomes.”

— Anne Gallagher

In 2017, Mellissa Withers, Ph.D., MHS, is an associate professor at the Institute on Inequalities in Global Health at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, released a statement that made us all realize how the glorification of pimp culture contributes to sex trafficking in the U.S.

Traffickers deliberately prey on vulnerable people, using tactics of brainwashing and torture to maintain control over their prey. Victims are often instructed by pimps to say that they are in prostitution voluntarily when questioned by law enforcement, insulating pimps from criminal exposure. "Pimping" is violent, destructive and dehumanizing. Although all states criminalize activities commonly referred to as pimping, TVPA broadly defines “sex trafficking” suggesting that individuals not engaged in severe sex trafficking should be prosecuted on the state level, state and local police have historically targeted prostitutes. Thus, pimps and traffickers whose actions may not rise to the level of severe sex trafficking often escape both federal and state prosecution and operate with effective impunity. In New Mexico, we are training our law enforcement officers to have a victim-centered approach to their investigations and we are proactively working on not criminalizing those who are being exploited, especially our youth, and instead referring them to services they need.