Underage sex workers are often portrayed as girls lured into prostitution by brutal men who pimp, traffic, exploit, brutalize, and enslave them. A new study found that pimps were only responsible for luring minors into sex work in a very small number of cases. “A holistic understanding of the factors that push minors into sex work and keep them there is needed to design and implement effective policy and services for this population,” wrote the authors in their study appearing online in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Perusing past studies, the team of researchers observed that many depended on post-arrest testimonials by former prostitutes and pimps in either prison or some form of rescue institutions. For this reason, the researchers decided to dwell on young girls who were currently working in the sex trade. The researchers turned to data collected from three separate studies of active pimps, underage prostitutes, and young adult sex workers in New York and New Jersey; essentially, this comprised the largest dataset ever collected on U.S. underaged sex workers.

Immediately, a few surprising statistics jumped out at them. Only 10 percent of these underage prostitutes had a pimp (at the time of research), and only 1.6 percent lived with a pimp. In fact, a full 47 percent reported not knowing a single pimp. Unusually, the researchers discovered that pimps were responsible for initiating less than one out of every 10 (8.1 percent) of the minors into sex work. More frequently, the minors were initiated into the sex trade either by their peers (47 percent of all cases) and by customers (23 percent).

"We argue that the narrative of pimp trickery and coercion distorts reality in three ways," the researchers wrote. "First, it overestimates the role of pimps in street sex markets; second, it overemphasizes the impact of the initial recruitment stage on subsequent practices; and third, it masks or simplifies the difficult and complex choices and contingencies faced by minors who sell sex."

Digging deeper into the numbers, the researchers discovered that while 87.2 percent of these young sex workers reported wanting to leave their line of work, a controlling pimp was not the reason they stayed. More often, economics was the real reason they stayed: 61.4 percent described themselves as homeless, while others reported having difficulty finding employment due to their restricted educational opportunities.

Source: Marcus A, Horning A, Curtis R, Sanson J, Thompson E. Conflict and Agency among Sex Workers and Pimps: A Closer Look at Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking. The Annals. 2014.