perfect estimates of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States may not be attainable, improving the estimates is a worthy and attainable goal.
EXISTING ESTIMATES OF COMMERCIAL SEXUAL
EXPLOITATION AND SEX TRAFFICKING OF
MINORS IN THE UNITED STATES
Scholarly interest in commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors has been increasing, especially since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000.1 Still, this area of research is underdeveloped and uneven. Estimates of the incidence and prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States are particularly scarce. Further, there is little to no consensus on the value of existing estimates. This lack of consensus is not unusual and indeed is the case for estimates of other crimes as well (e.g., rape and intimate partner violence). As Best (2012) notes, no estimate is perfect, but some are more perfect than others. How perfect are extant estimates of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States?
Incidence and Prevalence
One of the most widely cited estimates of the commercial sexual exploitation of children comes from the research of Estes and Weiner (2002). That research, using data gathered from January 1, 1999, to March 31, 2001, indicates that between 244,000 and 325,000 children are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation in the United States, in addition to the estimated “105,000 children who are substantiated or indicated to be victims of other types of child sexual abuse annually in the United States” (Estes and Weiner, 2002, p. 46). Estes and Weiner’s 27-month study gathered data from a variety of sources in 17 U.S. cities, as well as cities in Canada and Mexico. These sources included, but were not limited to, interviews with key stakeholders, commercial sexual exploitation customers, law enforcement representatives, and human service representatives. In addition, the authors gathered information from 124 sexually exploited runaway and thrown-away street children and 86 sexually exploited children under the care of human service and law enforcement agencies.
The limitations of Estes and Weiner’s (2002) estimates are well documented (see, e.g., Stransky and Finkelhor, 2008) and are clearly acknowledged by the authors. First, these estimates focus on youth “at risk” for
1Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, Public Law 106-386, Division A, 114 Stat. 1464.