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Village Voice: Craigslist sex trafficking scandal based on bogus stats

Last September, Craigslist shuttered its controversial adult services section, replacing the link with the word "censored" in bold black font.

The move came following mounting government pressure, largely due to a study that alleged online classifieds served as a platform for rapidly increasing underage prostitution and trafficking of women against their will.

Now, Nick Pinto of the Village Voice reports, and anti-sex trafficking experts agree, the study is a load of bad science hokum, leading to tax dollars diverted to a crisis that may or may not exist.

The study, commissioned by the Women's Funding Network and conducted by the Schapiro Group — a consulting group whose "members weren't academic researchers, and had no prior experience studying prostitution," got its numbers by guessing ages of people in the photos that accompanied adult services ads. 

Further, the Village Voice reports that the study did not account for the possible inaccuracy of the photos — that the photos may not be recent and/or are of someone other than the person providing the actual "service." This lack of reliable methodology, however, did not prevent the Women's Funding Network from presenting these findings to Congress.

At the same hearing last September of a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee, where Craigslist lawyers announced the end of adult services, Deborah Richardson, the chief program officer of the Women's Funding Network "told legislators that juvenile prostitution is exploding at an astronomical rate," Village Voice recounts:

In the wake of this bombshell revelation, Richardson's disturbing figures found their way into some of the biggest newspapers in the country. USA Today, the Houston Chronicle, the Miami Herald, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the Detroit Free Press all repeated the dire statistics as gospel.

The successful assault on Craigslist was followed by a cross-country tour by Richardson and the Women's Funding Network.

None of the media that published Richardson's astonishing numbers bothered to examine the study at the heart of her claim. If they had, they would have found what we did after asking independent experts to examine the research: It's junk science.

Experts consulted by the Voice concurred. These included:

• Eric Grodsky, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, who teaches about proper research construction.

• David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

• Ric Curtis, chairman of the Anthropology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who led a Justice Department-funded study on juvenile prostitution in New York City in 2008.

• Sgt. John Bandemer, head of the Vick Human Trafficking Task Force in St. Paul, Minnesota.

David Finkelhor at the Crimes Against Children Research Center says he understands the pressure on reporters to cite figures when they're writing about juvenile prostitution, but it's something they need to resist, because despite what groups like the Women's Funding Network would have you believe, there simply are no good statistics.

"You have to say, 'We don't know. Estimates have been made, but none of them have a real scientific basis to them,'" Finkelhor says. "All you can say is, 'This is the number the police know about, and we think there are more than that, but we don't know how many more.'"

The Voice report included the following disclosure statement, links to additional background on the story, as well as a link to the response on the Voice report from the Schapiro Group which conducted the study:

EDITOR'S NOTE: Village Voice Media, which owns this newspaper, owns the classified site Backpage.com. In addition to used cars, jobs, and couches, readers can also find adult ads on Backpage; for this reason, Women's Funding Network and their allies have often called attention to the site, sometimes going so far as to call for its closure.

Certainly we have a stake in this discussion. And we do not object to those who suggest an apparent conflict of interest. We sat quietly and did not respond as the WFN held symposiums across America — from Seattle to Miami — denouncing Backpage. Indeed, we were never asked for response.

But then we looked at the "science" and the media's willingness to regurgitate, without question, these incredible statistics. In the interest of a more informed discussion, we decided to write.

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