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."