Arizona State University professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz's study relied on flawed methodology and found zero evidence of sex trafficking.
The authors of a recent study of “sex trafficking” in Hawaii claim that online prostitution is rampant in the Aloha State. But critics say the study’s methodology is flawed, pointing out that the authors offer zero evidence of actual sex trafficking.
The study was co-authored by Arizona State University professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz and Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women. It was funded by the Kaimas Foundation, a Colorado-based nonprofit that, according to its website, supports projects that “focus on providing solutions to economic, environmental, social/cultural and education related problems both locally and internationally.”
“Sex Trafficking in Hawai‘i Part 1: Exploring Online Sex Buyers” concludes that in Hawaii, one in eleven men over age eighteen has purchased sex online. In part, the authors base their conclusion on the number of phone calls and texts they received when they placed a total of four decoy ads on the now-defunct online listings site Backpage.com. Two of the fake ads referenced Hawaii’s most populous island, Oahu, which includes Honolulu, the state’s capital; two others were for the less populated but geographically larger Big Island.
The researchers described the results from the Oahu decoys as “astronomical” when compared to the far lower rates they encountered in conducting previous studies on the U.S. mainland. According to the authors, this indicates an online sex market “significantly more robust than other large cities on the continental U.S.”
Local news outlets in Hawaii responded to the study’s conclusions with credulous coverage that tilted toward the lurid. On September 16, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Hawaii’s largest daily, ran an uncritical story on page one, accompanied by an illustration of a dark figure of what appeared to be a woman trapped inside a desktop computer monitor.
Some academics, social workers, and sex workers say the results of the recent study are biased by the worldview of lead author Roe-Sepowitz. An associate professor at the school of social work at Arizona State University, Roe-Sepowitz directs ASU’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research and is a vocal opponent of sex work.
Roe-Sepowitz is a contentious figure in the field of sex-trafficking scholarship. For several years, she has allied herself with Phoenix beer heiress Cindy McCain. The widow of Arizona Sen. John McCain, Cindy McCain is a member of the Human Trafficking Advisory Council at her late husband’s namesake think tank, the McCain Institute for International Leadership, which has sponsored some of Roe-Sepowitz’s past research on the topic.
In addition, the report’s authors note that photos for the decoy ads were provided by the CEASE project — an apparent reference to Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation, a nationwide anti-prostitution effort funded by multimillionaire oil heiress Swanee Hunt and her organization, Demand Abolition. (Conveniently, Hunt also sits on the McCain Institute’s human trafficking council.)
During a phone interview with Front Page Confidential, Roe-Sepowitz freely admitted her bias but said it has not colored the results of her research. About halfway through the thirteen and a half years she has spent in the field, she said, she was “forced by the sex worker community” to decide where she stood with respect to prostitution. As a result, she said, “I absolutely enter into my work with my own personal bias.”
She further admits her research is inextricably informed by a certain point of view.
“This is definitely from an anti-trafficking perspective,” she explained. “It is not a pro-sex-work perspective. It is understanding that prostitution, almost exclusively, is violence against women, or violence against the person who is involved in that situation.”
As part of the study, researchers from Roe-Sepowitz’s team twice placed a decoy “sex advertisement” in the “Women Seeking Men” section on Backpage.com for Oahu and Big Island, respectively.
The researchers then tallied the number of phone calls and text messages that came in during the 24 hours each ad was posted.
The first Oahu ad, placed on March 23, 2018, attracted 756 responses from 407 unique phone numbers; the second (March 30), pulled in 239 unique numbers.
According to the study’s authors, 407 respondents represents “an astronomical response rate” compared to studies in “any other city in the U.S.” They cited a “typical response rate” from previous studies in various locations that ranged from 20 in Denver, Colorado to 45 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Other response rates cited include Boston, 22, and Chicago, 25.)
But the researchers didn’t stop there.
Extrapolating from their data, they concluded that that “the online sex buyer market in Oahu at any given time is 18,614 individuals.”
How did they arrive at that figure?
They multiplied the number of unique callers (U) by the number of similar advertisements (A) to calculate the online market (M). Thus: U * A = M.
The researchers counted 58 other Backpage ads offering sex work in the Oahu section at the time they posted their decoy ad the first week, and 57 ads the second week. Assuming that every ad attracted the same number of unique responses as theirs did, they plugged the numbers into their formula, averaged the two weeks, and voilà: 18,614 .
The numbers for the Big Island were much smaller: 113 unique calls and texts to the decoy ad, with two other advertisements posted concurrently the first week, and 65 unique callers to the decoy, with two concurrent ads the second week.
The authors warned that “interpretation of the Big Island estimate should be made with caution,” because only two similar ads appeared during each week of the study, and “assuming that all of the other advertisements received a similar number of unique contacts…is unlikely and has considerable error without knowing the pattern of sex buyer behaviors (how many advertisements does a potential buyer call before they find a seller or give up, do they have preferences for race, age, or photos).”
But wouldn’t the same hold true for the far larger figure that was calculated for Oahu?
In her conversation with Front Page Confidential, Roe-Sepowitz conceded that it would.
“We just make that as an assumption — that the same number called the others,” she said. In order to “do an estimate of an invisible population,” she added, one must make certain assumptions “that are not perfect.”
Using a more complicated formula, the researchers calculated that there were 53,541 potential sex buyers in Hawaii. Matching that against an estimate of Hawaii’s current population, they suggested that “one out of every eleven males (9 out of 100) over the age of 18 and living in Hawaii are online sex shoppers.”
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The study did not supply screenshots of the two decoy ads they placed.
The researchers describe the fakes as “normative sex advertisements” — a term they proceed to define as “an online prostitution advertisement that has language, art, and photos similar to most of the other advertisements in the region.”
The study boasts that Roe-Sepowitz’s office had “previously conducted online sex adverstisement [sic] response research around the U.S. and the Arizona State University Institutional Review Board has approved this methodology.”
But equating an online “sex advertisement” with an online “prostitution advertisement” is hardly a demonstration of academic rigor.
In fact, for a researcher to blithely label an online classified ad a “prostitution advertisement” is to make an assumption that defies the scientific method.
Writing for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 2015, Judge Richard Posner recognized the perils of engaging in such illogic. The court found in favor of Backpage.com, which had sued Cook County (Chicago, Illinois) Sheriff Tom Dart for using his office to threaten credit-card companies that were processing payments for ads posted on the website.
In his published opinion in the case — which ought to be required reading for Roe-Sepowitz (or anyone else who researches or investigates the world of online advertising for adult services) — Posner wrote:
“[…]Nor is Sheriff Dart on solid ground in suggesting that everything in the adult section of Backpage’s website is criminal, violent, or exploitive. Fetishism? Phone sex? Performances by striptease artists? (Vulgar is not violent.) One ad in the category ‘dom & fetish’ is for the services of a ‘professional dominatrix’ — a woman who is paid to whip or otherwise humiliate a customer in order to arouse him sexually. […]It’s not obvious that such conduct endangers women or children or violates any laws, including laws against prostitution.
“The district judge [in this case] remarked ‘that the majority of the advertisements (in Backpage’s adult section) are for sex’ — a majority is not all, and not all advertisements for sex are advertisements for illegal sex. There is no estimate of how many ads in Backpage’s adult section promote illegal activity; we just gave examples of some that do not.”
Some of Roe-Sepowitz’s fellow academics take issue with other troublesome aspects of her methodology.
Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a professor of criminology and the author of Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium, told Front Page Confidential that she finds the estimate of Oahu’s sex market “absolutely preposterous” and added that the study’s conclusions “are not supported by that data.”
Mehlman-Orozco said it’s wrong to assume that each ad in Oahu on March 23 yielded more than 400 unique potential sex buyers.
“She can’t multiply her estimate times each advertisement, because they’re not going to be unique individuals,” Mehlman-Orozco explained.
It stands to reason that there would be significant overlap, she said, because many (if not all) callers would have been likely to respond to more than one of the ads. Nor is it correct to assume that every caller intends to buy sex. Some might simply want to talk to a sex worker and fantasize as they do so.
Meda Chesney-Lind, a professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Department of Women’s Studies and president-elect of the American Society of Criminology, was also less than impressed by the study. She described the methodology as “odd” and said the study contains “a lot of intellectual fuzziness.”
And she homed in on a massive problem with the research: “We can’t replicate their findings, because they used a website that no longer exists.”
Indeed, as the researchers note, the FBI seized Backpage April 6, one week after the study ran its second and final faux sex ad. The seizure was part of 93-count indictment of seven current and former co-owners and executives of the online classifieds’ colossus, which once boasted sites that covered scores of cities in the United States and abroad. The charges include allegations of conspiracy, money laundering, and facilitating prostitution in violation of the federal Travel Act.
(Full disclosure: Two of those indicted were veteran newspapermen Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin. The duo co-founded Backpage in 2004 and sold their interests in the business in 2015. Lacey and Larkin established Front Page Confidential in September 2017 to report and explore issues related to freedom of speech and the First Amendment.)
“This study did not look at trafficking whatsoever.It attempted to look at the level of demand for prostitution.” –University of Hawaii professor Meda Chesney-Lind
Another issue both Chesney-Lind and Mehlman-Orozco cited: the report’s problematic use of the term “sex trafficking.”
Federal law defines sex trafficking as “a commercial sex act…induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”
Prostitution, by contrast, involves a consensual commercial sex act among adults and is normally prosecuted locally.
“This study did not look at trafficking whatsoever,” Chesney-Lind said. “It attempted to look at the level of demand for prostitution.”
The authors explicitly state that they did not intend “to look for persons trying to buy sex from a child or an obviously sex trafficked person.”
Yet the first bullet point in a prominently featured list of “key findings” states, “In 2018, people, including children, are being sold for sex in Hawaii.” And, further down the list: “Attention, intervention and prevention of online sex buying directly links to addressing sex trafficking in Hawaii. Sex trafficking victims are bought and sold for sex to online sex buyers.”
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During an interview with Front Page Confidential, Dominique Roe-Sepowitz admitted that, like many in the anti-sex-trafficking movement, she conflates sex trafficking and prostitution.
“You can’t have sex trafficking if you don’t have prostitution,” she said. “So they coexist. That is inherent.”
The two terms “are not separate,” Roe-Sepowitz went on, adding that it is “very difficult to use words that do not conflate the two.”
“You can’t have sex trafficking if you don’t have prostitution. So they coexist. That is inherent.” –Arizona State University professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz
As to the fact that her own data in the Hawaii study shows no evidence of sex trafficking, Roe-Sepowitz explained that she and her colleagues are “building evidence” to demonstrate that a connection does exist. She said the second phase of the study will include interviews with nearly two dozen survivors of sex trafficking, whom she contacted through local non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Crucial to Roe-Sepowitz’s view of sex work is her assertion that adult women almost never consent to engage in commercial sex.
“We’ve rarely if ever seen a person who was prostituted who had not been trafficked as a child or had a third party who was not coercive or had force, fraud or coercion,” she said. “It does exist; it’s just very infrequent.”
Tracy Ryan, executive director of Harm Reduction Hawaii and an advocate for the decriminalization of prostitution, disputes that assertion. Ryan’s nonprofit helps provide services to vulnerable communities, including survivors of sex trafficking.
“I’ve personally known hundreds of people [who’ve done consensual sex work],” Ryan told Front Page Confidential. “They have their own organizations, conventions.”
Ryan did not dispute the existence of sex trafficking, but she insisted that its victims aren’t being aided by the “hysteria” that greeted Roe-Sepowitz’s study.
When it comes to the U.S. public’s perception of trafficking, hysteria is not too strong a word. Despite a dearth of actual data, politicians and journalists alike continue to enthusiastically spread unsupported claims.
For several years, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, an associate editor at Reason magazine, has been debunking the hype surrounding human trafficking — a term that includes both sex trafficking and generalized forced labor such as involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, and slavery. Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler also weighs in with regularity. (See here, here, here, and, most recently, here.)
The bottom line: Arrests for human trafficking are scarce in most states, Hawaii included. According to FBI crime statistics for 2016 (the most recent year for which there is data), authorities reported two cases involving sex trafficking in Hawaii, and zero arrests.
Alivia Leveauxxx, a Hawaii-based sex worker and co-founder of that state’s chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), says she has never been trafficked and that she engages in the trade because it suits her lifestyle.
“I’ve had more fun and made more money and had better sex in this business than I’ve had in my personal life,” she told Front Page Confidential. “The only damaging part of my life in this business has come from law enforcement.” Leveauxxx added that in her experience, sex workers who enjoy the job “are not rare.”
Leveauxxx also questioned why researchers at a mainland university would lead this study when locally based academics at the University of Hawaii are just as capable and more familiar with the situation on the ground.
Front Page Confidential reached out to Dominique Roe-Sepowitz’s Hawaii-based co-author, Khara Jabola-Carolus, director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, but she declined a request for an interview.
Had Jabola-Carolus sought to partner with a less-distant expert, she may have done well to reach out to Professor Chesney-Lind. The UH Manoa sociologist has written extensively about the plight of girls in the criminal justice system.
In sharing her thoughts about the study with Front Page Confidential, Chesney-Lind said she remains unconvinced that Oahu is somehow vastly different from other places when in terms of its market for commercial sex.
She pointed to a study released in 2013, which found that about 14 percent of U.S. men had paid for sex at some time in their lives, and that only about 1 percent had done so in the last year. She said researchers have been studying the issue at least since the time of Alfred Kinsey.
“That demand for prostitution exists — to discover that is like discovering gravity,” Chesney-Lind said. “We know it exists. That’s why we have prostitution.”