All Commentary
Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Junk Science Smites Craigslist

Freedom rests on a flimsy foundation. took its Adult Services section offline permanently last September as a result of pressure from Congress and at least 17 state attorney generals. The most damning accusation leveled at the classified advertising network was that its adult section facilitated child prostitution.

Child prostitution of course is something to be concerned about, but hysteria about it, in the absence of real evidence, should not be allowed to limit adults’ free-speech rights.

One study was particularly influential. In early 2007 the Atlanta-based  anti-prostitution group, A Future Not A Past, asked the Georgia legislature for money to track juvenile prostitution in the state. The group’s campaign director, Kaffie McCullough, admitted, “We had no research, no nothing. The legislators didn’t even know about it.” Nevertheless, the group received 20 percent of what they requested. The group then asked the Georgia-based Schapiro Group to construct a study on juvenile prostitution.

McCullough provided statistics during the legislature’s next session. “It gave us traction — night and day,” she said. “That year, we got all the rest of that money, plus we got a study commission.” (You can listen to the Village Voice interview with McCullough here.)

Eventually several Atlanta groups banded together, most prominently the Women’s Funding Network, which financed similar studies in New York, Michigan, and Minnesota. It was the Network’s chief program officer, Deborah Richardson, who revealed the bombshell data to a September congressional hearing into Craigslist: Child prostitution had “risen exponentially in three diverse states.” She offered exact figures, “Michigan: a 39.2 percent increase; New York: a 20.7 percent increase; and Minnesota: a staggering 64.7 percent increase.”

Craigslist had been one of the prime data sources for researchers. The methodology of the state studies can be illustrated by the Minnesota one. Before a full study began, researchers asked a group of 100 observers to judge the ages of young women in photographs. (The observers are described both as a “random sample” and as “balanced by race and gender.”) The accuracy rate was 38 percent. The same people were then shown similar online ads of young women seeking sexual partners and answered the same question about age. (It was assumed the online photos were current and matched the person advertising.) Researchers multiplied the resulting number of allegedly under-aged photos by 0.38 to arrive at a total number of presumed child prostitutes.

Full statewide studies treated the 38 percent success rate as a constant even though they assigned a handful of new observers to count presumed child prostitutes on advertising sites like Craigslist and Backpage.

The claim of an exponential rise came from the estimate of presumed under-aged girls: In February the count was 68; in May, 90; and in August, 112. (The rise was attributed to increased prostitution rather than increased advertising.)

On March 23 the Village Voice ran an exposé titled “Women’s Funding Network Sex Trafficking Study Is Junk Science: Schapiro Group Data Wasn’t Questioned by Mainstream Media.” Quoting experts on research methodology, the article concluded, “[T]he numbers are all guesses. The data are based merely on looking at photos on the Internet. There is no science…. In fact, the group behind the study admits as much. It’s now clear they used fake data to deceive the media and lie to Congress. And it was all done to score free publicity and a wealth of public funding.”

Indeed, after Craigslist surrendered its Adult Section, Richardson and the Women’s Funding Network did a celebratory cross-country tour to make the most of the uncritical media coverage.

Those who used the flawed child-prostitution studies as supporting evidence dismissed the Village Voice critique on the grounds that the newspaper is financed by the same group that supports Backpage. But the list of critics within academia and the alternate media grows daily.

Nevertheless, Women’s Funding Network and similar groups seem to have political will and media sensationalism.

In announcing the permanent closure of its Adult section,  William Clinton Powell, a director at Craigslist warned that the ads would simply migrate elsewhere. Accordingly, 21 state attorneys general have set their sights on Anti-Backpage articles are beginning to appear in the mainstream media; a headline in the Seattle Times declared, “State should join effort to put’s sex-trafficking ads on the front burner.”

The Women’s Funding Network has announced its intention to have the study conducted in all 50 states.

Will hysteria or science prevail? I am rooting for science but betting on hysteria. After all, both children and illicit sex have been thrown into the mix, and it is an election year. It doesn’t take much to assault First Amendment freedom’s these days.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.