When drinking water, think of its source. – Chinese proverb
For the past two years on this day, I’ve published examinations of the myth that the average age at which a prostitute starts working is about 13. As I pointed out last year, the idea is farcical on its face:
If the “average age” of a given group of people is 13, that means that (roughly speaking) for every 14-year-old in the group there is a 12-year-old, for every 17-year-old a 9-year-old, etc. In other words, if the “average age at which a girl enters prostitution” were really 13, for every woman who started at 25 there would be someone who started at 1. Obviously, this isn’t exact; one 40-year-old could also be balanced by nine 10-year-olds, but I honestly don’t think even the trafficking fanatics believe that kind of age imbalance could possibly exist.
In that column, I calculated the average age of entry as actually about 25, and that was a very conservative figure; it might actually be higher. Even among underage prostitutes, the average age of entry is really about 16, so how in the world did anyone arrive at the ludicrous figure of 13 (which is sometimes even more idiotically claimed as the average age of prostitutes rather than the age at which we start)? I had thought the Estes & Weiner study was the original source, but as it turns out that is not the case; several readers told me it is attributed by Melissa Farley to three sources: a 1982 study of 200 San Francisco streetwalkers, “Victimization of Street Prostitutes” by M.H. Silbert and A.M. Pines; a 1985 study with an even more melodramatic name, “Children of the Night” by D. Kelly Weisberg; and something called “Oppression Disguised as Liberation” by Denise Gamache and Evelina Giobbe. The latter was not a research paper but rather an obscure, unpublished “discussion paper” for a domestic violence conference in 1990 (which specifically attributes the figure to “Children of the Night”). Furthermore, all of Weisberg’s data (such as it is) was obtained by averaging figures from two studies with different methodologies and methods of calculation (in other words, she compares apples to oranges); one of them is Silbert and Pines. This means Farley has engaged in duplicity right from the start by pretending her figures derive from three sources, when in fact there is only one. Some prohibitionists do appear to recognize this, because Silbert and Pines is the paper most often cited as the source of the “average age is 13” figure; interestingly, it also produced another popular bit of misinformation, the myth that 80% of prostitutes are coerced.
Since the article wasn’t readily available online I asked my correspondent Mary Setterholm (one of those who pointed out the Farley attributions) if she could locate it for me. Mary is a Divinity student at Harvard who has done considerable research for anti-trafficking groups (including Swanee Hunt’s “Demand Abolition”) and has consistently worked to convince them of the necessity for eschewing sensationalized figures, agency denial, anti-sex worker rhetoric and “end demand” nonsense; she is one of the most thorough, honest and tireless researchers I know. After Herculean effort she was able to track down the Gamache/Giobbe paper, but what she found in investigating Silbert and Pines was even more interesting: it contained no statement at all of a particular starting age! The closest was the phrase, “Almost all the juvenile prostitutes in the study (96%) were runaways before they began prostitution,” which says nothing about an “average age”. Mary was intrigued, so she kept digging; in the backend data she found several quotes from another Silbert and Pines article (published the same year) named “Entrance into Prostitution”:
…Average age at which subjects had (first) sexual intercourse with a boyfriend was a mean x = 13.5. Of these 34% felt coerced or forced, either emotionally (29%) or else physically (5%). Although 66% reported no coercion involved, many of their open-ended comments suggested pressure…The average age of starting prostitution was 16.1…On the average, subjects were working regularly as prostitutes when they were 16.9…The eight months difference between the average age of starting prostitution (16.1) and the average age of working regularly (16.9) indicates a somewhat reluctant entrance into street life…
What this means is that the ultimate source of the “13” myth actually lists the same average age at entry as most other studies of underage streetwalkers, about 16; the only mention of the number 13 was the figure for first intercourse with a boyfriend. Now, it’s possible that in their haste to find damning “evidence” some prohibitionists blurred the numbers together in their minds, but given Melissa Farley’s skill at massaging figures to suit her purposes that did not ring true to me. I also remembered this passage from Dr. Calum Bennachie’s complaint to the APA about Farley:
…Colleen Winn, who was briefly employed by Dr Melissa Farley while she was in New Zealand [wrote]…“I believe Melissa did state that Māori women were entering prostitution as young as 9 years old. Part of my position as researcher on this study was to help to collate data as I viewed all the questionnaires. I did not see these figures in the study at all. However, there were two women who stated that their first sexual experience was at age 9.” Question 13 of the questionnaire reads: “How old were you when you had your first sexual experience of any kind?”…page 3 of [Farley’s] research…states: “An adolescent…had been in prostitution since age of 9…” Clearly, the answer to question 13 was put across as though it were the answer to question 1…[which asked] “What age were you when you first started prostitution?”
In other words, Melissa Farley has been known to intentionally conflate first age of intercourse with age of entry into prostitution in other cases, so it is very likely she did exactly that when quoting from Silbert and Pines’ backdata. The “average age of 13” myth, repeated nigh-constantly by prohibitionists, “sex trafficking” fetishists and yellow journalists alike, is thus revealed as nothing more than a lie created through intentional (and tripled) misquotation of a methodologically-unsound 30-year-old study, perpetrated by a neofeminist working to advance her anti-sex agenda by any means necessary.