Village Voice Media’s Investigative Series on Sex Trafficking Still Rocks

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The Voice no longer publishes a print edition, but, thankfully, its articles live online. (Stan Wiechers via Flickr)
In 2011, the Village Voice Media chain of weeklies published a series of articles debunking the bogus stats, flawed studies and urban legends that support the moral panic of sex trafficking.

Some of the best work on the sex trafficking panic was done in 2011/2012 as part of investigative series by Village Voice Media (VVM), an alt-weekly chain founded in 1970 by Arizona State University dropouts Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin with their publication of what became known as the Phoenix New Times.

In late 2012, Lacey and Larkin announced that they would sell their interests in VVM to a group of company executives, who later renamed the chain, Voice Media Group (VMG).  Backpage.com, an online classified listings site created to compete with Craigslist.org, split from VVM, with Lacey and Larkin retaining control of the listings giant. Lacey and Larkin sold Backpage in 2015.

At the time that these pieces were written, Backpage and VVM were still one company and enduring the full brunt of the sex-trafficking panic over adult advertising posted to Backpage by the site’s users. With the in-depth journalism that was VVM’s hallmark, the chain’s scribes took on the the non-profit networks that made bank by conflating sex trafficking ( or forced prostitution) with commercial sex among consenting adults.

From Pete Kotz’s brilliant take-down of “The Super Bowl Prostitution Hoax,” to Kristen Hinman’s “Lost Boys,” a devastating piece on the rescue industry’s failure to address the problem of trafficked males, these articles still resonate, largely because the sex trafficking panic continues to dupe the public with lies, half-truths and myths.

Please Note: Voice Media Group sold the Village Voice in 2015; Lacey and Larkin founded Front Page Confidential in 2017 to report on issues related to freedom of speech, including their ongoing First Amendment battle with the U.S. government.

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  • The Super Bowl Prostitution Hoax,” by Pete Kotz, February 2, 2012: Kotz’s brilliant piece on the urban legend of a sex trafficking spike during the Super Bowl never grows old. Published just before Super Bowl XLVI between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots in Indianapolis, IN, Kotz’s article bears rereading before Super Bowl LIV in Miami this February, as the panic he described in 2012 remains little changed eight years later.
  • Real Men Get Their Facts Straight,” by Ellis Conklin, Martin Cizmar and Kristen Hinman. Conklin, Cizmar and Hinman took on one of the biggest false statistics used to justify the moral panic over “modern-day slavery”: i.e., that there are between 100,000 to 300,000 child-sex slaves in the U.S. at any given time. The factoid has been parroted by every news outlet on the planet, and it was the impetus behind an idiotic series of PSAs funded by goofy man-boy actor Ashton Kutcher and his then-wife Demi Moore, titled, “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls.”

VVM reporters discovered that “during the most recent decade,” there had been “8,263 arrests across America for child prostitution,” or 827 arrests per year. So where did the 100,000 to 300,000 factoid come from? A flawed 2001 study from two University of Pennsylvania professors, which posited that up to 300,000 children might be “at risk” for becoming victims of “child sexual exploitation.” One of the authors of the study admitted that the number of kids kidnapped and sold into slavery would be “very small,” perhaps, “a few hundred people.” Another researcher in the same field declared that the University of Pennsylvania study had “no scientific credibility to it.”

  • Women’s Funding Network Sex Trafficking Study Is Junk Science,” by Nick Pinto, March 23, 2011. Pinto’s piece obliterated a study done by the Women’s Funding Network, which claimed that “the number of underage girls trafficked online has risen exponentially in three diverse states … Michigan: a 39.2 percent increase; New York: a 20.7 percent increase; and Minnesota: a staggering 64.7 percent increase.”

Naturally, mainstream news outlets such as USA Today and the Houston Chronicle repeated these alarming numbers without question. But Pinto revealed that the study had been conducted by an Atlanta business consulting group and was based on little more than guesswork and “junk science.” Pinto’s story showed how the non-profit rescue industry helps perpetuate the sex trafficking panic by funding bogus studies that confirm the false narrative of a child sex trafficker on every corner and behind every bush.

  • Lost Boys,” by Kristen Hinman, November 2, 2011. Hinman delves into the pioneering work of Professor Ric Curtis, chair of the anthropology department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, who went to great lengths to interview actual teen sex workers in New York City for a study published in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Justice. What Curtis found undermined many of the oft-told myths peddled by sex-trafficking panickers. For instance, “nearly half of the kids—about 45 percent—were boys,” only 10 percent of them had pimps, and “about 45 percent got into the ‘business’ through friends.”
  • What Nick Kristof Got Wrong: Village Voice Media Responds,” by VVM, March 21, 2012. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was a frequent critic of Backpage and its then-relationship with VVM. He often vilified the classifieds’ listing outlet from his vaunted perch on the Grey Lady’s shoulder, but VVM took issue with many of the spurious facts he used to prop up his assertions. This editorial takes Kristof to task for one such column that didn’t seem to jibe with what VVM knew to be true.

For more on the sex-trafficking panic, please check out the following:

Activists Continue to Exploit Super Bowl Sex Trafficking Myth to ‘Raise Awareness’ (and Money)

Sex Trafficking Conspiracy Theorists Peddle Same Old Lies in the Lead-Up to Super Bowl LIII

The Millionaire Abolitionist: Oil Heiress Swanee Hunt’s Crusade to Stamp Out Sex Work

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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