Child sex trafficking: why statistics should matter to the Rescue Industry

After the other day’s question about Ashton Kutcher’s ability to count, I received messages from people who probably had not visited me before. One person lamented that we are all squabbling. The Daily Beast calls it a feud. Both words minimise, or even belittle, the issue at stake – numbers claimed as victims of child sex trafficking in the US. Someone said Can’t we just all work together to rid the world of this scourge? ‘Together’ is the difficult keyword here, since working on a common cause requires a common understanding of just what constitutes the problem.

But a consultant who earns a fee choosing social causes for celebrities to sponsor and then runs their campaigns feels no such scruples, writing emotively There are a few things in life I know in that ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt’ way. One is that children shouldn’t be sold for sex. Dismissing the idea of getting ‘perfect data’, Maggie Neilson asks Who is supposed to monitor, collect, analyze and disseminate it? Cash-strapped governments? Nonprofit organizations that work their hearts out every day and spend every last penny helping people?

Which sounds lovely and smarmy but misses a couple of key points: 1) Since the US government already plows very large sums into denouncing trafficking and attempting to catch traffickers and to rescue victims, some of the money could be spent on well-run research, in order to make the whole operation more efficient; and 2) Organisations may be ‘non-profit’ but those that run and work in them make salaries, receive employee benefits and enjoy social prestige and the possibility of long careers. They cannot be considered self-sacrificing, and the pennies they are spending don’t come out of their own pockets.

Not to mention that they often don’t help people, whether they spend all their pennies on it or not, which is why I entered this field in the first place long ago and wrote Sex at the Margins and keep up this blog questioning the Rescue Industry.  So I left the following comment on Ms Neilson’s piece (misleadingly titled Setting the Record Straight):

Posted: 7/6/11 by Laura Agustín

If facts don’t matter, if we only guess about the extent of a problem, then we have a good chance of attacking that problem the wrong way. What about the frightened guesses from spies for the US government on those non-existent weapons of mass destruction? How many people have died in that pointless cause?

Helping people in danger is not easy. They don’t all want the same things, or to be saved the same way. That is why a lot of children run away from home in the first place and run away from helping projects, too.

The original estimate said 100,000 to 300,000 children in the US ‘could be at risk’. Everything about the statement is so vague as to be meaningles­s. If you want to Do Something about the risk, then you have to get better informatio­n about exactly which people are at risk and how. And you have to be very careful not to undertake actions that smash up the lives of a lot of people that don’t need the help you are offering – collateral damage, if you will.

Referring to critical thinking as ‘inaction’­, as Neilson does, is a cheap shot. Some of us work hard to get closer to the truth and base ‘helping’ projects on that: it is not inaction, it is not a lack of caring, and I object to its being called that by someone making a good living from the ‘actions’ of clueless crusades.

Do you suppose these writers read the comments people bother to make? I doubt it, but I read mine, and was gratified the other day to receive this one from an anti-trafficking activist:

I like your writing. It is interesting and I think you are after the truth, not whatever will support your point of view. I admire that. nikki junker

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

6 thoughts on “Child sex trafficking: why statistics should matter to the Rescue Industry

  1. Jess Cochrane


    Given the risks, both social and political, involved in seriously questioning a cause widely held to be undeniably philanthropic, your work is courageous, raising legitimate doubts regarding practices that have been much lauded, publicly and almost universally. To be a true critic takes guts. You’ve got ’em, and something even better: integrity. Thanks for what you do.

    1. Laura Agustín

      thank you so much for the kind words, jess. you know, i started out just describing what i knew, never expecting it to turn into such a big thing!

  2. Jonathan Frieman

    Laura, we’ve communicated before, in January of this year, 2015. Since then things have progressed greatly, and I will write you in a private email a bit more, but I want you to know that your work is suportive of my work. It has spurred me on greatly: I’ve met MAggie O’Neill and Charles Hill, communicated with Norma Jean Almodovar and met Maxine Doogan, and infiltrated…well, OK, so I joined the coalition on anti-trafficking here in Marin and gave them loads of info to alleviate the hysteria they seem to be latched into–and they liked it. Working from within will help greatly.

    Also excellent was getting one of the local groups to withdraw their anti-trafficking flyer. Again, your work was very helpful in that.

    Thank you!


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