The false claim that human trafficking is a ‘$9.5 billion business’ in the United States

Jun 5, 2015
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“It’s estimated that child sex trafficking in the United States alone is a $9.8 billion industry.”

–Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), statement, May 19, 2015

“This [human trafficking] is domestically a $9.5 billion business.”

–Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), remarks at a congressional hearing, May 14

Readers should always be wary of false precision. The sex trade is an underground industry, so on what basis would the revenues from the trafficking of children–or children and adults–in the United States be calculated so precisely, either as $9.8 billion or $9.5 billion?

That’s what jumped out at The Fact Checker when we first spotted these figures, uttered by lawmakers as the House of Representatives considered the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act.  The figures came from two different sources, but it turns out both were practically invented out of whole cloth. Let’s explore.

The false claim that human trafficking is a '$9.5 billion business' in the United States

The Facts

For the $9.8 billion number, Goodlatte’s office originally directed The Fact Checker to an informational graphic posted on the Internet by Shared Hope International, which says it aims to eradicate sex trafficking. The graphic indicated that the statistic concerned all human trafficking in the United States—not just “child sex trafficking” as Goodlatte’s statement said.

“His statement should have said human trafficking, not child sex trafficking,” said Goodlatte spokeswoman Jackie Collins. “That was a staff error.”

But there’s a bigger problem. Shared Hope’s graphic gave as its source a 2005 International Labour Organization report on human trafficking. But that report contains no mention of a $9.8 billion figure for human trafficking in the United States.

Instead, there is only a broad estimate of about $13 billion in profits for “forced commercial sexual exploitation” for 36 industrialized countries (of which the U.S. represents about 30 percent of the population). ILO officials say they have never given a breakdown by country, only for broad groups of different types of economies.

The full methodology for the numbers in the report suggests the actual revenue for sex trafficking in this group would be close to $20 billion. It assumed turnover of $100,000 per prostitute, and then assumed profits of nearly 70 percent, or $67,000 per person. The report also estimated there were 200,000 people forced into prostitution in these 36 countries.

But these profit and revenue figures were based only a handful of examples and then applied across the board, making it a fuzzy number.  The estimate of the number of people forced into prostitution is also a broad estimate that could be off by as much as 25 percent, ILO documents say.

So the number is a result of multiplying two guesstimates, both with large sampling errors. Trying to figure out the U.S. share of that total would introduce even more fuzziness.

Continue reading…

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