When it comes to underage sex trafficking, pimps may not be the problem

Media portrayals of underage sex trafficking include pimps luring girls into prostitution and then controlling, exploiting, and brutalizing them as if they were slaves, but just how representative are these images?

A new study finds that pimps are only responsible for luring minors into sex work in a very small number of cases, and that they are not the reason why young prostitutes stay in the industry. This study was published in a new article from the May issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

In one part of their study, the researchers analyzed the largest dataset ever collected in the U.S. from minors working in the sex trade, and found that only 10% of the minors had a pimp at the time of research, only 1.6% lived with a pimp, and 47% reported not knowing a single pimp. Furthermore, pimps were responsible for initiating only 8.1% of the minors into sex work; minors were initiated by their peers 47% of the time and by customers 23% of the time.

While 87.2% of these young sex workers reported wanting to leave their line of work, none of them stated that a controlling pimp was their reason for staying. Instead, the most popular issue was economic status with challenges, including finding other employment, restricted educational opportunities, and housing – 61.4% of those responded were self-described as homeless.

“We argue that the narrative of pimp trickery and coercion distorts reality in three ways,” the researchers wrote. “First, it overestimates the role of pimps in street sex markets; second, it overemphasizes the impact of the initial recruitment stage on subsequent practices; and third, it masks or simplifies the difficult and complex choices and contingencies faced by minors who sell sex.”

In a total of three separate studies, researchers Anthony Marcus, Amber Horning, Ric Curtis, Jo Sanson, and Efram Thompson analyzed data collected from active pimps, underage prostitutes, and young adult sex workers from New York and New Jersey.

“We recognize that situations of oppression and captivity do exist among this population,” they wrote. “However, they were rare enough in a statistically representative sample in New York City and an intensive ethnographic census in Atlantic City to question the degree to which the dominant narratives of underage sex trafficking and resultant policies can protect the majority of vulnerable youth engaged in commercial sex markets.”

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Have a question? Let us know.


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6 thoughts on “When it comes to underage sex trafficking, pimps may not be the problem”

  1. Really interesting topic. The media especially (the in the music industry) nowadays encourages promiscuous sexual behaviour. More youth in general are beginning to engage in sexual activities sometimes with wrong or incomplete information leading to unsafe and risky behaviour

  2. Coming from a place where prostitution is legal, the Netherlands, I have always known that “pimps” are not to blame. Back home you don’t even have such. There, woman of all kinds, all sizes and all colours classify prostitution as a way of living simply because either they have no other way out, or perhaps because it makes good money. I have spoken to one of these ladies before and she is a normal human being like all of us. She says she is in the industry because she isn’t educated and cannot find a job. She isn’t ashamed though. Not at all. She says it doesn’t make her any lesser of a person. Cases of rape and abuse are much and much lower there than in other countries and she says it’s because (problematic) men have the ability to relieve themselves at a brothel rather than through alcohol and forceful sex. Therefore she says that women like herself are necessary too. And it really isn’t some sick joke. They all use protection and follow strict rules. They get tested for sexually transmitted diseases nearly on a everyday basis and have the ability to walk out of the business any time they want. Every day a social worker speaks to them and asks them if everything is okay; they do this to find women that have been put there unwillingly through sex trafficking, mainly from the Middle East. Perhaps it isn’t the way we would want to live our lives, but in such places where prostitution is legal and controlled, it actually isn’t too bad.

  3. For decades pimps have been blamed for mistreating and forcing sex workers into selling their bodies. These new findings are proof that it is not the pimps who are to blame but in fact society itself.

    I believe society is to blame for creating such a demand for this trade. One can compare this to economic parlance. Those who pay the sex workers are the ‘demand’ side of the equation, with the sex workers as the commodity or ‘supply’. Without buyers, there would be no demand, and therefore, no supply. There is little to no criticism directed at those who create the demand.

    We are quick to judge sex workers but take little time to put ourselves in their shoes and consider what their reasoning may be. Many argue that it is a choice. I believe it is a choice made by those who have no choice. Women are driven into prostitution by poverty, desperation to support family members as well as drug addictions. Other forces include a lack of education or a job that does not pay a living wage.

    The grim truth is that the chance of the demand drying up is more than slim. This is why I applaud organizations such as the sex workers project. This organization provides client-centered legal and social services to individuals who engage in sex work, regardless of whether they do so by choice, circumstance, or coercion. Instead of judging sex workers, they offer help to those who would like a way out.

  4. This was an eye opener to read. I learnt a lot about the misconception that we have about pimps and sex workers. The percentages and results gained from the study were surprising to see that pimps are not the main cause for minors to go into this industry to work as sex workers. This new information regarding the choices and reasons for going into selling sex should be looked at and taught to the rest of the population.

    • It was a bigger eye opener for me hey! what we always knew was that young girls were abducted or forced to go out there and sell their bodies.This makes me think twice about judging the next girl I see on the streets because I don’t know why they are there. This research has shown me how sad this world can be and how cruel it can be. People should stop judging these young girls and try to help them!

  5. Very interesting to know that actually people around my age sell sex without being forced but it makes me wonder whether they really do it willing is it life throwing a curve ball on them? Life can get really hard to a point where one has to do the craziest things to survive or to get out of a bad situation.

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