Challenging Nicholas Kristof’s Claim of “Thousands More Jeffrey Epsteins”

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

On September 14th, Nicholas Kristof’s NYT column was titled “Thousands More Jeffrey Epsteins Are Still Out There: They operate with impunity, continuing to sexually exploit children.”

Two questions can be raised in response to this bold assertion and to the substance of this column. First: How many children (individuals below 18) are actually being prostituted in the U.S. on an annual basis? Second, how can their pimps (if they have one) or clients, however morally suspect, be compared to the late well-connected billionaire and serial child rapist Jeffrey Epstein with any degree of credibility?

The Data

Kristof addresses the first question as follows: “In the United States, no one knows exactly how many children are sold for sex, but estimates have run between 10,000 and 100,000 in any given year. Whatever the number, it’s too many.”

The study linked to by Kristof in reference to “10,000” is an elaborate, informative in some ways, but methodologically tortured study (Swaner et al., Youth Involvement in the Sex Trade, 2016, p. 70) that, nevertheless, concludes as follows:

We calculated a range of estimates for the number of underage youth in the United States engaged in the sex trade . . . Based on available official data sources, there were 1,130 arrests of individuals under the age of 18 on prostitution charges in 2009. Given this number, and based on estimated percentages of the full population of interest that experiences a prostitution arrest in a given year (determined through the youth interview data), the most likely range of underage youth in the sex trade in the U.S. falls between 8,915 and 10,507.

The link referenced by Kristof regarding “100,000” is to a 2012 Statement by Ernie Allen, President & CEO of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children. It claims that “In the United States, University of Pennsylvania research funded by the Justice Department estimates that at least 100,000 American children each year are the victims of sex trafficking and prostitution.”

The link included by Kristof in reference to “whatever the number” refers to a 2015 Fact Checker column in the Washington Post, in which Glen Kessler wrote the following:

So (Ernie) Allen said he relied on two reports: a 2001 report written by Richard J. Estes and Neil Weiner of the University of Pennsylvania and the 2002 National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART), a random-sample survey released by an arm of the Justice Department.

Both of these reports rely on data collected in the 1990s, meaning it’s already a quarter-century (in 2015) old. Estes told The Fact Checker earlier in 2015 that his report was out of date, as the world of the 1990s “was quite a different one from that in which we live today.”

But the problems don’t end there.

As we have noted previously, the Estes-Weiner (Penn) report has been the subject of criticism by social scientists for years, and yet for some reason it remains the go-to source for anti-trafficking advocates.

The last link in the above quotation is to a seven-page 2008 summary by the most respected researcher in the field of child prostitution, David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire, and one of the authors of the 2002 NISMART study referenced by Ernie Allen in Kessler’s article.

Regarding the 2002 NISMART (Finkelhor) study, Kessler proceeds as follows:

But if you dig into the (2002) NISMART report, it shows that only 1,700 kids — less than one percent (of runaway children) — reported having engaged in sexual activity in exchange for money, drugs, food, or shelter during the episode. David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire professor who is director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and a key author of the (2002) NISMART report, said that figure would best represent sex trafficking, though the number is so small in the context of the report that its reliability is suspect.

“Given that running away has declined, I wouldn’t put any stock in these figures as indicators of what is going on today (2015),” Finkelhor said. A new NISMART report has been completed and is awaiting release by the Justice Department, but he said that it will not break down the data to this level of detail. “It’s not going to be any help to those looking for estimates of juvenile sex trafficking,” he said.

Moreover, to put that 1.7 million (runaway children) figure into context, more than three-quarters were away from home for less than a week; 99.8 percent of the children were recovered. So the pool of children who could end up being trafficked is relatively small.

Allen insists he was not trying to hype the number. “I don’t think it matters that it is 50,000 or 100,000 or 25,000. It is an underreported problem,” Allen said. “It almost doesn’t matter what the number is. There is abundant evidence that the number is significant.”

One can easily detect the “cover your rear end” pattern here regarding extravagant and baseless claims. Kristof asserts that “whatever the number, it’s too many.” Allen asserts that “it doesn’t matter what the number is.” The implication of both of these statements is that we are authoritatively compelled to understand that the number is both “significant” and “underreported.” It doesn’t really matter whether one overestimates the incidence of child prostitution by a factor 10 or 100 or even more (perhaps the more exaggeration the better!). Ultimately, the idea is to get the public’s attention by any statistical means necessary. Or as the late Alexander Cockburn might have said—in relation to his courageous reporting about the 1980s fabricated charges of satanic sexual abuse in daycare centers—the idea is to send the public into a moral panic.

In 2016, Kessler added an update regarding the aforementioned Swaner et al., linked to by Kristof’s “10,000” figure:

2016 study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, produced a figure of youth in the sex trade that appears significantly lower than previous estimates. The researchers, led by Rachel Swaner of New York University, concluded that the total number of juveniles in the sex trade in the United States was about 9,000 to 10,000. To be cautious, given the limitations in the data, the study said that range could be as low as 4,500 or as high as 21,000.

It’s also very much worth noting an analogous and incisive critique resulting from a 2011 Village Voice investigation in response to efforts by actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore to publicize child prostitution. Nicholas Kristof’s breathless hype is a current extension of a phenomenon which by now has deep roots in American culture, from Hollywood “humanitarians” to the New York Times, ably dissected eight years ago by three Village Voice investigative journalists: Ellis E. Conklin, Martin Cizmar, and Kristen Hinman. Their work is obviously relevant years later, and should be read in full.

More recently, this lurid 2016 article on HuffPost implicates a current presidential candidate:

It is not something that we as a society want to recognize, want to acknowledge, and to fight. It is horrifying and depressing. It makes us feel uncomfortable. Yet, child sex trafficking is all around us. It is in our cities, and even in our neighborhoods. And it is happening to our children, with the average age of a child being trafficked at only 12 years old. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn put it wisely when she said, “They’re not even old enough to go to a prom, not even old enough to get a driver’s license and yet we still are seeing more and more of it on the Internet.” The number of children being contacted by sexual predators online is disturbing and astounding at the same time. Approximately one out of every seven children is sexually contacted, or solicited, by a predator while online. Furthermore, many of these children are seriously pursued online by these predators, singling out these children in an attempt to lure them in.

The Epstein Analogy

Kristof writes:

Jeffrey Epstein got away for years with raping underage girls, and the public is properly outraged that powerful people seemed to shrug and let him off easy.

But the problem isn’t one tycoon but many tens of thousands of men who pay for sex with underage girls across the country. And society as a whole reacts with the same indifference that the authorities showed in the Epstein scandal.

It’s not at all clear, as reflected by both the dissemination of bombastic data and the attention of the police (well-documented by the Village Voice article), that the public is not “properly outraged” (that is, appropriately outraged) after at least two decades of data-driven provocation. While evaluating this proposition, keep in mind that even if one accepts the likely-inflated guesstimate of Swaner et al. for girls aged 13-17 (6,000 females yearly nationally), that would amount to an incidence of 6 per 10,000.

Nor is it clear that this alleged “indifference,” even if it is a thing (and it can never really be proved that it is a thing), is anything at all like the systematic and willful elite, prosecutorial, and media indifference (read denial and indeed complicity) that allowed Epstein to openly victimize girls with impunity for years in the company of rich and powerful individuals and to receive a light sentence even when his serial transgressions were well-known (even if not well-publicized by the media). Moreover, this sort of genuine, palpable, and systemic indifference ultimately required an intense, thorough, fastidious, and courageous investigation by Julie K. Brown and the Miami Herald in order for it to be overcome by public outrage in the wake of the “me too” movement. Note also that such an investigation was not conducted by the New York Times, in spite of New York being a prime location for Epstein’s crimes. Perhaps Kristof should be outraged about that, or at the very least perplexed.

Kristof himself is indeed mitigating Epstein’s crimes by merging them into public “indifference” regarding highly uncertain, speculative, questionable, and confusing data. In doing so, he is in effect letting off the criminogenic sexual and patriarchal environment of the ruling class with nothing more than a posthumous, oblique slap on the wrist. Kristof quotes Yiota Souras of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children: “Epstein is the tip of a very large iceberg.” But prior to Julie K. Brown, this tip wasn’t publicly visible, whereas the alleged iceberg was, albeit in greatly exaggerated form.

In any event, it might be more helpful to think about the iceberg as being the ruling class to which Epstein belonged and to which he ingratiated himself both with his financial manipulation (including his philanthropy) and sexualized, fetishized criminality. An understanding of the exploitative dynamics at the very heart of ruling class social relations with each other and with their immediate interpersonal victims might illuminate the vital context of so much of the exploitation that Kristof disingenuously claims to care about, sexual or otherwise.

David Green lives in Champaign, IL and can be reached at davidgreen50@gmail.com.

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