The Village Voice’s Numbers Game

This summer, the Village Voice published an “investigative” series on the issue of sex trafficking in the United States. Framed as a hard-hitting exposé uncovering the truth, the series had a clear agenda: to disprove the existence of sex trafficking in the U.S. and discredit those who have criticized online sites that make it easy to buy and sell youth. But in its reporting, the Voice, ironically, engaged in the very behavior it’s accusing others of.

The entire thesis of the Voice article, and its excuse for a CNN-style interactive map, is that child-prostitution arrest data from various police departments throughout the country is a good gauge of the magnitude of child sex trafficking. (In a disclaimer at the bottom, the Voice notes this data is sometimes “incomplete,” in which case it refers to state and county statistics.) The Voice‘s choice to uphold police statistics as the gold standard for accuracy is perplexing given its investigative series “NYPD Tapes” last year, in which reporter Graham Rayman documented police downgrading and dismissing crimes in order to boost statistics, including reclassifying a rape case as “forcible touching.”

There are many reasons that numbers from arrest data do not accurately reflect the scope of the problem. First, prostitution is often considered a “victimless crime,” and thus fewer resources go toward addressing it. One sergeant on the West Coast told me that his unit referred to picking up girls on the street as a “trash run.” Second, youth in the commercial sex industry are frequently trained to lie about their age. While police may suspect that someone is a juvenile, processing her as an adult is far easier and therefore the path of least resistance. Third, many exploited youth are arrested on charges other than prostitution–things like weed possession and petty larceny–and thus don’t get counted as a prostitution arrest. Or, as is especially the case with girls, they are charged with status offenses such as running away. Finally, the glass-half-full view is that with a new emphasis on training and awareness so that first responders can better identify victims, arrests are beginning to drop. According to the Seattle PostGlobe, Seattle police recovered 77 minors in 2010 who were victims of commercial sexual exploitation, in contrast to the average of 19 arrests of minors per year reported on the Voice’s interactive map.

Given those commonsense factors that automatically skew police data, I was surprised to then read the following quote in the Voice piece:

“The Seattle Police Department totally have a handle on the situation and understand the problem,” says Melinda Giovengo, executive director of youth homeless shelter YouthCare. “That seems to be a very accurate count and is reflective of what the data shows.”

In any other story about any other issue in the Village Voice, a source that claimed that police were in “full control” would be framed as questionable at minimum. The newspaper has done multiple stories on cases of corruption and brutality within law enforcement. But in this piece, Giovengo’s quote is presented as fact, without any irony or skepticism.

There is a small but growing number of cops throughout the country who are working diligently on this issue, really understand the problem, and are sensitive to exploited youth. Even they would laugh at the idea that any police department. “totally has a handle on the situation.” The police who are truly committed to these victims talk about how challenging these cases are, how few victim services there are and how little support they receive from their superiors and fellow officers.

What also perplexed me was that a service provider such as Giovengo who works directly with these children could believe that these very low arrest numbers represent the full scope of the issue. And in fact, in a Seattle Times op-ed she published on June 5, Giovengo said otherwise:

As former U.S. Rep. Linda Smith indicated in a recent Seattle Times article … well more than 100,000 girls and boys are sexually exploited in this country each year. If you imagine that translates into small numbers here, don’t. Seattle bears the shameful distinction of having one of the highest rates of child prostitution in the nation. … A 2008 study estimated there were 300 to 500 prostituted youth in King County. … Meanwhile, Seattle estimates there are up to 1,000 homeless youth here every night. Judging from what we’re seeing at YouthCare and its peer organizations, this estimate needs to be raised.

Unless Giovengo had a significant change of opinion about the numbers of exploited children in Seattle in the weeks after her op-ed, it appears that either her quote for the Voice was taken out of context or she misheard the question. Regardless, while the Voice claims she agrees with its numbers, it would seem Giovengo actually supports in the very numbers the article is trying to disprove.

The crux of the Village Voice series is that numbers can be used to mislead people, especially when there’s financial gain involved. It’s almost comical then that the Voice would use unreliable, heavily spun statistics and quotes about child sex trafficking while running the for-profit classifieds site, which has long been accused of enabling such trafficking. What’s that saying about stones and glass houses?

Originally published on the GEMS website.

Image of the Village Voice June 29th issue from


  1. annoyed with the non sense says:

    It took over a month and this is the best you came up with? I’m not sure what your point is supposed to be. Are you actually arguing that the 100,000-300,000 of trafficked minors that has been given over and over again is accurate or even remotely reasonable? (If not, then what is this article’s purpose exactly? It seems useless to me.)

    And if that’s what you’re implying, you have to be kidding me. I really don’t see why it even matters a little bit whether Village Voice profits from backpages ads. Newsflash, I know it’s really hard to accept it, but the majority of these ads are paid for by consenting adults who have no involvement in trafficking of minors or adults. That is who pays for these ads. Do some traffickers manage to get an ad on occasion? I don’t doubt it but VV in fact is pro active and flags the ads suspected of involving minors.

    There is no stopping these same individuals from taking an ad out in a paper classifieds as well; there’s no difference except that the reality is that in 2011 everything has shifted online and this is no different. VV has nothing to gain from allowing or supporting trafficking, nor do these individuals represent an important part of the profit made from the classifieds.

    Why is there such an outrageous lack of logic in the way people are addressing this and proposing short sighted, useless solutions. We’ve been through it with Craigslist and I’m baffled that people seem to think that approach actually does anything to fight trafficking.

    Craigslit was harassed into shutting down their section for these ads. Even though they operate as non profit, the mob still bullied them until they complied. Did they think that would be resolved, problem fixed and they saved the day? Of course, as any rational person did predicty, the ads simply moved elsewhere. Village Voice got a lot of it and now the crusade to close down backpages is underway again.

    How ridiculous can people really be? Do people truly assume that this is the way to eliminate trafficking? That traffickers will simply be forced to give up because one website goes down and then another? Are people really that stupid? People should be happy when trafficking victims are found on backpages or cl (in the past) because the more visible they are, the easier they can be found.

    If they’re not advertised through VV, does this mean they don’t exist? No it means they’re harder to find! But they’re still being exploited. If they’re forced underground, victims will only be harder to find. If people just thought about it for a minute before they went hysterical, they’d realize the best way to fight trafficking is to look at it in a rational way and going on some moral panic with over inflated, ridiculous numbers of alleged victims does absolutely nothing to solve the problem.

    VV was 100% right to call out those bogus numbers. While they made a lot of noise when they did, they were not the first ones to discredit these numbers, many had already done so previously. So wasting time bashing VV is another waste of time that should be spent actually discussing in a constructive way the way in which we should approach it. Stop wasting time on irrelevant non sense.

  2. Not Surprised says:

    There is not a single fix for this problem. When you say ” No it means they’re harder to find! But they’re still being exploited” You say it as if to trivialize “harder to find” effects. Harder to find will not fix the problem but it will help.

    Police organizations don’t have “a handle” on anything. If “annoyed with the non sense” was a trafficked sex slave, he or she may not have the same opinion. There is no way to tell what the real numbers are. Common sense tells us that there are at least as many as the police report there being and as in ever crime category, those who are caught are a small portion of the total of those who commit the crime. for every shop lifter caught there are hundreds who get away with it. Assuming traffickers are stupid and do no learn how not to get caught is nieve.

    Using words like “stupid” and ridiculous shows that “annoyed with the non sense” is more concerned with his or her “feelings” about the issue then plain facts. No one should profit from sex trafficking (even through advertising) and suggesting that profiting from the enslaved is OK as long as it don’t represent an “important part of the profit”. Twice, the blog points out that we should be discussing a constructive way of approaching it, with not even the slightest hint of what that way might be.

    As long as children are being raped for some one else’s profit, I will have a hard time feeling sorry for those who might have to change business practices to prevent it.

  3. Village Voice has prostituted itself both through the ads Backpage sells for profit and through this article whose sole purpose was to push back against public condemnation of their slavery for profit business.

    People who have any kind of ethics should have nothing to do with Village Voice other than to resist their corrupt business model which puts profits above protecting children.

  4. Can I remind meembrs that we have longstanding resolutions on this issue of trafficking and suggest that you might cite the ones below in advocacy or look to them for possible actions:Human trafficking violates human rights (2010)The 30th IFUW Conference resolves that:1. National Federations and Associations (NFAs) educate their meembrs about the issue of trafficking as it relates to their countries, including addressing the primary causes that contribute to the practice;2. NFAs urge their respective governments to ensure that they have not only signed, but have also ratified the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (2003); if their countries have done so, NFAs monitor the status of their government’s implementation of the Protocol and take appropriate action where needed; and3. IFUW use its standing committees, its consultative status with ECOSOC, its website and member networks to advocate for measures that would reduce the incidence of trafficking.Trafficking and Exploitation of Women and Children (1998)The 26th Conference of IFUW resolves that NFAs:-urge their governments to support and implement the Declaration and Actions of the World Declaration Against Commercial Exploitation of Children, Stockholm, Sweden, 1996; and-urge their governments to protect women and children, both male and female, from exploitation by: 1.. implementing and enforcing laws prohibiting any type of exploitation of women and children especially trafficking and enforced prostitution; 2.. developing and supporting educational and training programmes to raise women and children’s awareness of how they can avoid becoming victims of trafficking and ensnared or enforced prostitution; 3.. developing and supporting educational and training programmes to raise public awareness of the social, cultural and financial implications of sex trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation; 4.. implementing and enforcing laws prohibiting sex tourism to foreign countries; 5.. ensuring that work permits, if applicable, for foreign workers are not just shields for exploitation of women and children; and 6.. assisting those who become victims of trafficking and exploitation.

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