For years, we have all been dogged by the “factoid” that the “average” age of entry into prostitution for girls is 12 to 13 years of age. As researchers who work with sex workers, and as sex workers, too, we “know” this can’t possibly be right. Anti-prostitution activists love to throw the “fact” into debates, yet when challenged, they too have difficulty citing any reliable source for their statistic.
I finally traced this “fact” to its source. The original academic article, “Victimization of Street Prostitutes,” was published in the journal Victimology in 1982 (7 : 122-133). The data came from research conducted by Mimi Silbert of the San Francisco Delancey Street Foundation and Ayala Pines of UC Berkeley, who interviewed 200 women and girls in SF, all of whom were Delancey Street clients. The authors note that the number of juveniles arrested for prostitution had “doubled” from 38 to 86 from 1976 to 1977. Still, this was 86 minors among more than 2,300 adult women arrested for prostitution in 1977. (FWIW, I was one of the women arrested that year. The SFPD and was engaged in a major crackdown at the time, especially in Union Square and the Tenderloin areas as developers had begun eying those neighborhoods. There were arrests across the entire /hetero/ sex industry: clubs, parlors, bars, hotels, streets, etc.).
The methodology section of the Delancey Street study states:
“200 juveniles and adults, current and former women prostitutes in the SF Bay Area served as subjects of this study. The mean ages of the subjects was 22. The youngest one was 10, the oldest 46. 70% of the current prostitutes were under 21; about 60% were 16 and under; many were 10, 11, 12, and 13 years old.
“78% of all the women interviewed reported starting prostitution as juveniles. 69% of them were white, 18% were black, 11% were Hispanic, 2% American Indian, 1% Asian, … [insert heteronormative assumptive data on marital/relationship status here]
“Despite the fact that two-thirds of the sample came from families of middle or higher income, the average financial situation of all women interviewed was described a ‘just making it.’ 88% of the current prostitutes and 92% of the juveniles described themselves as either ‘very poor’ or ‘just making it.”
It’s important to understand this data from a historical perspective. In 1977, the drinking age was 18. That meant that “juveniles” could work in strip clubs, serve liquor, and obtain a license from the city to work in a massage parlor or encounter parlor. (There were no educational requirements to receive a massage license at that time). A young person only had to show an ID stating she was 18. (And remember, this was when many states issued a driver’s license on paper, and did not necessarily include a photograph.)
Nowhere in the Delancey Street report is the term “juvenile” defined. There was (and remains) legal and social science obfuscation of this term, especially for females. An 18 year old woman is not necessarily viewed as an “adult.” Even at 21, rampant sexism meant that young, unmarried women were still considered “minors” who, though they could vote, could not sign a lease, get a credit card without a (male) co-signer.
The mean age in the survey group was 22 (n=200). If the researchers defined an “adult” as a woman over 21 years of age, then of course it would appear that “juvenile” prostitution is rampant, even though arrest statistics by the SFPD don’t support this assertion. Pines and Silbert claim that the ready availability of fake IDs meant that there were more juveniles arrested than the numbers suggest, but indoor parlor licenses were issued by SFPD, and were thus “verified” by the police, in those pre-internet times.
A second observation about the report and the academic article, and this is perhaps scarier from a social science perspective, the methodology in this study is the same one used in later studies, perpetuating the same biases. For example, Jody Raphael and Deborah L. Shapiro copied the methodology and even the survey instrument for their report on Chicago’s “prostituted women,” Sisters Speak Out (2002). This study also appeared later in the academic journal, Violence Against Women. (Raphael and Shapiro, “Sisters Speak Out: The Lives and Needs of Prostituted Women in Chicago; a research study,” [Center for Impact Research, Chicago, IL, August 2002]; Raphael and Shapiro, “Violence in Indoor and Outdoor Prostitution Venues,” Violence Against Women 10 (2004): 126-139.) Their work was challenged by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP) which investigated “girls, including transgender girls in the sex trade and street economy” because they believed the numbers were skewed and the methodology flawed.
Third, the original report, issued in 1981, was conducted for and funded by Delancey Street mission, where Pines worked. It was conducted to justify the need for more funding from government and private donors. Pines and others would say that they were attempting to identify client “needs.” However, the recent investigations of “tragedy porn” stories circulated by Somaly Mam and other rescue missions should give us pause as the credibility of this research.
But finally, because I’m such a research-footnote-tracing nerd, it’s useful to know that the Pines & Silbert report didn’t actually have a lot of traction on its own. It is not the source most often cited in the 1980s when this “age of entry” entered the discussion. Unfortunately, it first appeared in public circulation in an essay by Priscilla Alexander, the co-director of COYOTE, in Sex Work, (Cleis Press, 1987, and 1998). Alexander was also the co-editor of the anthology with Frederique Delacoste. Indeed, in the first reviews of Sex Work published in the radical feminist newspaper off our backs, both reviewers cited that statistic.
The sad fact is that because the “factoid” appeared in a “pro-sex work” book, the antis seized on it, and began spreading it around. There’s another on our backs article, this one by Melissa Farley, “Prostitution: The Oldest Use and Abuse of Women,” (Vol. 24, No. 5 [May 1994], pp. 14-15, 22) that also uses Sex Work as its reference.