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Scope of the Issue

Scientifically credible estimates of the number of young people who have experienced sex trafficking do not exist. The reason for this is that they are considered a “hidden population.” Because no list of all the young people who trade sex exists, the size of the group is unknown and researchers may never be able to have a random sample of the entire population. Additionally, even when asked, youth may not acknowledge that they are engaging in these behaviors because they worry about being judged, stigmatized, or arrested.

Below is a description of some of the most frequently cited estimates of this population and their limitations.

Estes and Weiner (2005) estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 young people are at-risk for involvement in sex trades.

Arrest data is another source that is used to assess the scope of young people’s involvement in the sex trade. In 2012, 564 youth were arrested for prostitution related offenses (Federal Bureau of Investigations, 2013).

Longitudinal survey data is another source that can provide estimates about the number of young people who trade sex. Between 1994 and 1995, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health administered interviews to approximately 20,000 young people in grades 7-12. Between 2001 and 2002, the researchers administered another interview to 12,240 of those young people, now ages 18–26. None of those interviewed in 2001/2002 had reported buying or selling sex at the time of their first interview. Since the first interview, 2% (n = 244) reported paying for sex and the 2% (n=244) reported selling sex (Kaestle, 2012).

This finding is limited in that it only represents those who attend school and were present for the survey. It does not account for youth who are not connected with school. The data does not indicate the age at which respondents first traded sex. This may have occurred prior to or after turning 18.

As we can see, no reliable estimates exist about the entire population of young people who trade sex. However, the example from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health highlights how valid estimates are possible. The key is to limit estimates to specific sub-populations and not generalize the findings beyond that sub-population.

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