If you've followed public debate over sex work and trafficking in recent decades, you've probably seen some variation on this sentence: "The average age of entry into prostitution is 13."

Statistics have a reputation for being dull, but this one packs a punch. In only nine words, it conjures up a story worthy of Dickens. Hear that statistic, and you can't help but imagine the faces of children, as fragile and guileless as porcelain dolls; you imagine, too, the fear on those faces, and the violence that will be done to them to feed the greed and perverted desires of figures lurking in the shadows. Those nine words tell you that this is not a story that is the exception, but rather, the norm in the industry. A person would have to have a rare degree of monstrousness not to feel their heart break, just a little, on hearing such cruelty described so starkly.

Except for one thing: There is little basis for the claim that 13—or 12, as is sometimes asserted—is the age that most sex workers begin working in prostitution. 

It's hard to pin down where exactly the age-of-entry claim originated, partly because it's so often repeated without a citation or context, but also because it's become such a ubiquitous part of sexual politics. "I can't really remember a time when I didn't see it used, so I think it's been in circulation for quite a while," says Audacia Ray, of the Red Umbrella Project in New York. "And it's definitely used really broadly and without citation."

Most organizations, if they refer to a source at all, reference a study released in 2001: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U. S., Canada and Mexico, by Richard J. Estes and Neil A. Weiner.

As such studies go, it was a pretty extensive one. Estes and Weiner covered 17 major cities in the United States, four in Canada, and seven in Mexico. But the data samples they wrangled up with weren't very large. They sent out 1,130 surveys to various organizations that dealt with abused and exploited children in the target cities. Of those, 288 came back completed—a 25.5 percent response rate. Most of the organizations just didn't have the information that Estes and Weiner were looking for: "Difficulty in accessing information concerning the number of sexually exploited children in their care was one of the factors cited by many agencies for not completing the formal questionnaire," the report says.

They also did interviews directly with children, both on the streets and in the custody of law enforcement or social services. Here, the information collected was even sparser; in 17 major U.S. cities, they interviewed a total of 210 children.

The age-of-entry statistic seems to originate in a quote on page 92 of the report, summarizing the data from those 210 interviews:

Average age of first intercourse for the children we interviewed was 12 years for the boys (N=63) and 13 years for the girls (N=107). The age range of entry into prostitution for the boys, including gay and transgender boys, was somewhat younger than that of the girls, i.e., 11-13 years vs. 12-14 years, respectively. The average age of first intercourse among minority boys and girls was younger than that of the non-minority youth we interviewed, i.e., 10-11 years of age for minority boys and 11-12 years of age for minority girls.

Since then, that single paragraph has morphed into something much shorter and much different. The Estes and Weiner passage isn't a conclusion about sex workers at large, or even abused and exploited children; it is a description only of their sample group. But for almost 15 years, governmental and non-profit organizations have turned to it to make broader claims about people who work in the sex trades and how they came to be there.

Most current government and nonprofit policies on sex work define their goals as “rescue,” which makes perfect sense if the age-of-entry statistic is central to your understanding of the sex industry. Child abuse and trafficking are crises that require certain types of interventions. But these crimes do not characterize the sex industry more generally. In reality, many sex workers come into the industry as adults and without coercion, often because of economic necessity. By seeing the sex industry through the lens of the misleading age-of-entry statistic, we overlook the people who are most affected by discussions about sex work—the workers themselves.

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One of the strongest and most thorough critics of the statistic is activist Emi Koyama. Koyama says that even when applied only to underage subjects, the stat doesn't hold up, which does a disservice to the most vulnerable in our society.

"It conceals the reality that most of the young people in the sex trade come from families affected by poverty, racism, abuse (including homophobia and transphobia in families), parental imprisonment or deportation, or from broken child welfare systems, and do not have safe places to return to," she told me in an interview. "In fact, many young people are trading sex as a way to escape from violence and abuse that they have experienced in their homes and child welfare systems. By treating them as innocent and helpless 'children,' we fail to listen to the young people who are struggling to survive in hostile circumstances. We also fail to address the root causes of their vulnerability, and instead promote further surveillance and criminalization of street culture—which actually harms young people who survive there."

Even by mathematical standards, the numbers don't add up. In order for 12 or 13 to represent the national average age of entry, there would need to be a significant number who enter at ages younger than that. "The vast majority of young people who are 'rescued' by the law enforcement during Operation Cross Country sweeps are 16- and 17-year olds," Koyama says, "and there are rarely any under the age 13... For the average age to be around 13, there needs to be many more 5-12 year olds that are forced into prostitution than are empirically plausible." If the massive numbers of children exist in quantities enough to offset those who enter in their late teens or as adults, they’re not showing up in the arrests made by the Federal government, even high-profile ones like Operation Cross Country. 

In addition, Koyama says, the age of entry statistic flatters Americans that their own communities are safe, while playing on the fear of outsiders: "It gives the impression that children were safe until 'bad people' came into their communities to take them away, and therefore we must arrest and prosecute these 'bad people' (often racialized)."

Researcher and activist Melissa Ditmore agrees with Koyama that the statistic is invalid: "This has been debunked but no one will let go of it," she says. "They used to say 13, now they say 12. If that's the average age, we'd see people younger than that in the business, and I have not ever met pre-adolescent children selling sex."

But the biggest problem with the claim is that it automatically remakes any discussion about sex work into its own image. When you start the conversation believing that prostitution is rooted in the rape of children, any suggestion that sex workers can be adults who have made an economic choice sounds like an attempt to provide cover for the rapists.

"It distorts the dialogue because it's a very narrow view of how the sex industry functions," Audacia Ray says. "It also means the impulse is that all people are in the sex industry are victims of their situation who are disempowered and have no autonomy and no other skills. That's really damaging. And also, when you treat a whole population as victims, that very process is victimizing because it takes away agency and individual narratives about how they got there."

Kristina Dolgin, a former sex worker and activist with the San Francisco chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP-Bay) agrees: "By framing the discourse around sex work—and prostitution specifically—around children, you are taking away the agency of people and instilling a moral panic."

The result is policies that are ostensibly intended to help people in the sex industries, but are created and implemented without input from the workers themselves. As an example, Dolgin points to the CASE Act (Californians Against Sexual Exploitation), which was voted into law in the 2012 elections as Proposition 35. The law expanded the definition of human trafficking much more broadly than previously existing guidelines to include virtually anyone gaining financial benefit from someone else's sex work. "It does not differentiate between the various kinds of people engaging in the work," Dolgin says. "Human trafficking could incorporate a manager, it could incorporate staff, it could incorporate a friend who is looking out for your safety, it could incorporate partners who are sharing a living space with you—there is no statutory end to that definition."

Although the rhetoric of advocates depicted the CASE act as a tool that would improve the lives of people in the sex industries, it was strongly opposed by sex-worker activists. It was, however, endorsed by a long list of law-enforcement organizations, like the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. In the end, Proposition 35 passed with an overwhelming majority of 81.1 percent.

More recently, in June, 2014, the FBI raided and shut down a well-known website in the Bay Area called "MyRedbook" that hosted ads from escorts and massage parlors. Press coverage of the raid claimed the site was "linked" to trafficking and child prostitution. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children issued a press release congratulating the FBI: "We know that one of the main ways children are sold for sex in this country is via the Internet," President and CEO John Ryan said. "We are very encouraged by all of the efforts to help stop the online sex trafficking of children and help survivors reclaim their lives." Al Serrato, an assistant D.A. in San Mateo County, was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle praising the operation as a great step for preventing exploitation: "In my experience prosecuting these types of cases, the site is associated with the setting up of dates that often involve women who are being exploited or are victims of human trafficking," he said. "I view it as a positive development that the federal authorities were able to take such strong action against it."

However, neither of the two owners, Eric Omuro and Annmarie Lanoce, has been charged for trafficking offenses; the indictment against them lists 24 charges of money laundering and one charge of "facilitating prostitution." The response of the local sex-worker community was not one of relief or gratitude; instead, most saw the loss of MyRedbook as a catastrophe. Not only did the raid eliminate an important source of income, it also eliminated some of the workers' best tools for keeping themselves safe.

"[T]here was a whole section of [MyRedbook] that was chat rooms and forums," says Shannon Williams, a sex worker who is also active with SWOP-Bay. "Some for clients, and then a whole bunch for sex workers. And that's really important for sex workers because the vast majority really work in a very solitary way. They work alone, they don't tell anyone in their lives, so their friends and family don't know and other people don't know. They may hold down straight jobs and they're just moonlighting in the sex industry, so no one knows what they do, they're very isolated. As you can imagine, for the kind of work it is, that's an unhealthy way to work, and it's lonely. So Redbook, and a site that was linked to it called MyPinkbook, created a community for these sex workers who didn't have community in real life." The community didn't just give emotional support to people who couldn't find it anywhere else; workers also exchanged information about dangerous clients and tips about how to keep themselves safe from predators and law enforcement. They were also able to screen clients based on references from people who had seen the client before.

"A lot of sex workers I've talked to are really devastated by the loss of Redbook, because they've lost their online community," Williams says. "They've lost this way to share information that made them feel safer, and the reference system doesn't work as well when you don't known where the reference is coming from."

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At its heart, the reality of sex work is rather dull and pedestrian. The main reason that people go into sex work is neither because of predatory gangsters, nor to indulge some uncontrollable nymphomania: It's all about money. It's about the need to pay your rent, put gas in your car, and buy groceries. Like becoming a waitress, a store clerk, a plumber, or a mechanic, going into sex work is driven by the economics of everyday life. If we were start to think of it as being primarily about work instead of sex, the headlines would quickly become much less sensational. "I think that media coverage needs to be less of a dichotomy between people who freely and happily choose the sex industry and people who are coerced into the sex industry," Ray says. "Because there's a vast gray area of economic circumstances in between. Economic circumstances are the reason most people enter the sex industry. I think coverage and conversations about that need to be much more complex."

The age-of-entry statistic continues to hold its grip on the public imagination in part because mainstream society can't imagine it being any other way. Why would anyone sell sex unless they were coerced or suffered such extreme trauma that they lost all self-respect?

"I have talked to people who really, really chose to do it. They thought about it for a while, it felt like it was something that was really intriguing and fun to them, and they chose it even though there were other options," Williams says. "But for most people, I think it's a quick fix to a financial problem. And so most people, I think, go into sex work because it fits their current needs. Maybe they can't work a 9-to-5 job because they're in school, or they have young children so they need a really flexible job. That's why I started doing sex work. I was in school, and I had a child, and I needed something that I could work nights. I think that a lot of people do sex work for the time that they need this flexible situation, and then as soon as they're done with school, or their children are now in school, or whatever the initial situation was is over, they move on to another job."

Of course, some people do get stuck in prostitution when they really want to move on. Just like any other field, there are people working crappy, unrewarding jobs in the sex industry. The irony of sex work, however, is that the same legal policies and social stigma that drive "rescue" efforts often make it difficult for people to transition into a regular job. Williams herself isn't trying to stop doing sex work, but if she was, her options are much more limited than they once were.

In 2003, Williams was teaching high school in Berkeley, California, when she was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of soliciting prostitution. She was never convicted, but simply having a rap sheet ended not only her job at Berkeley High, but any chance that she would ever teach again. Even in Berkeley, with its reputation for radical bohemianism, a prostitute isn't considered fit to teach the community's children.

The stories of sex workers like Williams are never straightforward or easy. They aren’t contained by the narratives we’ve been told about ravished children or liberated outlaws. For those of us who write about sex workers and those who make laws that determine their lives, they are a reminder of our responsibility: To quiet the voices in our heads and listen, rather than repeating numbers without knowing what they mean or where they came from.