Archive for January 28th, 2011

I never guess. It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty. –  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four

The Schapiro Group’s newest sex trafficking manifesto revolves around their highly dubious claim that it is possible to scientifically guess the ages of women in photographs with a degree of certainty that allows those guesses to be equivalent to fact:

The key to the technique described in the marble example [see yesterday’s column] comes from the phrase “if  we knew from previous experience.”  The problem is, there is no scientifically reliable previous experience on which to base the probability that a girl selling sex who looks quite young is, indeed, under 18 years.  Therefore, we conducted a separate study to serve as this previous experience.  Basically, the study involved asking a random sample of  100 adults to guess the ages of  a variety of  females in photographs.  Some of  these pictures were of females whose ages were known (teenagers to young adults), and some were not…the pictures of  unknown girls came from erotic services postings on the Atlanta Craigslist web site…subjects were posed provocatively (e.g., a picture of  a female licking her lips).  Pictures of females of  unknown ages were selected because the subject appeared “young.”  In selecting the pictures, multiple reviewers agreed that there was at least some chance that each of  the females of  unknown ages in the pictures was actually under 18.  This is how we operationalize “young” throughout the study.  Study participants viewed each of  these pictures and estimated the age of each pictured female.  Importantly, study participants rated the average age of females from Craigslist (whose ages we did not know) the same as the average age of  pictured females whose ages we did know.  Study participants were balanced by race and gender, though the results indicated conclusively that participant demographics did not have an impact on age estimations, nor did the demographics of  the pictured females have an effect.

…study participants tend to overestimate the ages of provocatively posed females…across all ratings of known-age females, participants tended to assume the females were 2.5 years older than they actually were.  When a girl under 18 poses provocatively, participants tended to overestimate her age by 7-8 years, whereas when the subject was closer to age 22 or 23, the age estimate was much more accurate than the average overestimate of 2.5 years.  In fact, women age 24 and over tend to be estimated as younger than they actually are when posed provocatively.  This effect, which is represented by a curvilinear mathematical equation, allows us to speak definitively about the probability that a female of  a given estimated age is actually under age 18.  In fact, the study showed that any given “young” looking girl who is selling sex has a 38% likelihood of being under age 18.  Put another way, for every 100 “young” looking girls selling sex, 38 are under 18.

Reread that if you need to; the truth is cleverly hidden, but there.  Assuming that everyone could agree on what is “provocative” (which men and women don’t, but we’ll leave it there anyhow), the only ages of which the authors could be certain were the ones whose ages were known, none of whom were prostitutes!  This experiment might have been somewhat valid if the ages of ALL the pictured women were known, but since the experimenters improperly introduced an “x” factor into what should have been a controlled experiment there is absolutely NO way to know which percentage of the girls were actually under 18.  This is such a glaringly obvious mistake that I can’t believe the authors were unaware of it; what seems more likely is that they initially conducted a proper study which produced results too low to satisfy them (like New Zealand’s 3.54%, perhaps) and so were forced to redesign the study with an unspecified percentage of photographs of unknowable age (“some” is not a valid mathematical expression of percentage) in order to get the results they wanted.  Simply put, there is no way for the authors to know whether the girls of unknown age (who, since they came from Craigslist escort ads, were presumably automatically considered “provocatively” posed whether they were or not) were 7-8 years younger than they appeared, 2.5 years younger or actually older; the 38% figure is therefore completely invalid even if 100 cherry-picked experimental subjects were a large enough sample to derive such conclusions (which they aren’t).

The paper then goes into a long obfuscation about escort services (designed, no doubt, to convince the reader that the authors know what they’re talking about) which as I discussed in my previous column on these scammers ignores the fact that the vast majority of escorts tend to revise their ages down.  The section contains such portentous sentences as “Escort service operators have told our callers they have 17 year-old escorts specifically” and “we also know that many of  these phone numbers go to just a handful of call centers.”  Since the age of consent in Texas is 17 and many escort services have multiple phone numbers, these sentences actually have no semantic value but are included to make the services seem “shady”.  The use of the term “call center” makes it sound as though a third party was answering the phone, which is entirely incorrect; multiple phone numbers go to one business, not multiple businesses to one external “answering service”.  But even if they did, what of it?  Many doctors may use the same answering service; does that make them criminals?  The whole thing degenerates into a silly song and dance about “CSEC victims per service” which in the end translates (again) into “we guessed”.

The next section starts out with a statement which is either unbelievably ignorant or an egregious lie: “As of  November 2010, the tracking data do not include any content from Craigslist, as it closed the ‘adult services’ section of  its website in the U.S.  Recently the story was completely different. There were many websites, but only one main source for paid sex services ads in states across the U.S.: Craigslist.”  Yes, this paper is actually making the astonishingly stupid and easily disproved claim that prior to this year, there were essentially no other online sources of escort ads worth noting.  Backpage, Eros and all the various hooker boards did not, according to the Schapiro Group, exist.

This stunning idiocy is followed by the comparatively subtle “There were an estimated 52 CSEC victims advertised each day across all major websites…the data show that many of  these girls do not stay long on these sites, a finding that is consistent with the notion that many girls are trafficked state-to-state.”  Now,  this is a sensible statement if one makes the unwarranted presumptions that all young prostitutes are involuntary, controlled by others, and “trafficked” from place to place; unfortunately for the Schapiro Group, none of those presumptions are true.  The reason many of the ads disappear quickly is very simple:  Many young girls decide to try escorting, place an ad, discover in a call or two that they don’t like it, and never renew the ad.  Every escort service owner has had to deal with young girls who quit after their first call or two; this is no different from any other entry-level job (telemarketing, for example, has a very high attrition rate).  The only reason the authors’ assertions are not instantly perceived as ridiculous by their target audience is that they all buy into the underlying assumption that sex work is intrinsically different from all other work.

After a few more pages of mumbo-jumbo to justify still more guessing, the authors present their final numbers drawn from a hat, then claim that these self-generated numbers exceed the number of women who die by suicide, homicide, accidents, AIDS and childbirth combined.  Yes, I realize that comparing prostitution with causes of death is like comparing apples to hamburgers, but obviously the Shapiro Group hopes its readers won’t catch the non sequitur.  The rest of the paper consists of self-congratulatory statements about the “reliability” and “credibility” of their guesses (apparently they’ve never heard of that inconvenient thing called “peer review”) and advising readers on how to use the propaganda to convince legislators to divert money from programs dedicated to helping real victims by “provid[ing] you with a high degree of  perceived credibility among various audiences.”  I don’t think it would be inappropriate for me to apply the term “shameless” in this context.

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