Exploiting Child Exploitation

By Michael Fumento

American Outlook, Spring 2002
Copyright 2002 Hudson Institute

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A new study that grossly exaggerates the extent of child sexual abuse in the United States is just old-fashioned America-bashing in disguise.


Americans love a good hysteria. And never are they quicker to turn off their brains and open their mouths than when children are involved. That’s the threat posed by the findings of a study released on September 10 by the National Association of Social Workers and the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work. The study asserts that one out of every one hundred American children – or approximately 244,000 to 325,000 kids-each year are victims of sexual exploitation. Richard J. Estes, the study’s lead author, calls this alleged explosion of evil "the nation’s least recognized epidemic."

John Walsh: A career as a fear salesman.

The panic created by such claims is nothing new. The celebration of Halloween, for instance, has never recovered from the frenzy created in the 1970s by warnings of poisoned candy and razor blades in apples. A former salesman from Florida, John Walsh, remains among America’s most wanted television celebrities two decades after he riveted Congress and the nation with the astonishing claim that "Fifty thousand [American] children disappear annually and are abducted by strangers for reasons of foul play" and the horrifying statement that "this country is littered with mutilated, decapitated, raped, and strangled children." (The actual number of such crimes investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1981 was thirty-five.)

Such claims can, however, in themselves create other innocent victims. Columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz has crusaded tirelessly in the pages of the Wall Street Journal on behalf of child-care workers rotting in jail because they were falsely convicted of ghastly crimes such as raping children with magic wands, spreading peanut butter and jelly on kids’ genitals, and forcing tykes to witness sacrifices of giraffes and elephants to Satan.

Numerous such convictions have been made based on the testimony of children too young to understand fully the difference between fantasy and reality and to realize the dire consequences of their statements. Their horror stories are frequently teased out by psychologists employing absurdly leading questions (ones that inexorably guide the child to the very answer the interrogator seeks), and are often accepted not only despite a lack of corroborating evidence but even when in direct contradiction of the known facts of the case. The infamous McMartin preschool case, which dragged on from 1983 well into the 1990s, is just one vivid example of the mayhem evoked by the ongoing hysteria fomented by Walsh and his allies.

Homegrown Horror

The Pennsylvania report adds a new twist to this pattern. "This is not a problem in poor, distant, developing countries," Dr. Estes claims; it’s homegrown. And in the home. His study concludes that less than 4 percent of child sexual abuse in the United States is committed by strangers.

In short, we’ve met the pedophile, and he is us.

Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the highly publicized study has found that, despite a myriad of overlapping federal, state, local, and private organizations intended to fight sexual exploitation of children, we have yet to scratch the surface of the problem. We need to spend much more money, pass and enforce tougher laws, and send more people to the slammer. Lots more.

Or do we? For all of the report’s imposing five hundred pages (including appendices), only about thirty pages of it actually discuss the data-and much of that space is used to argue against accepting official figures! The Pennsylvania researchers want us to throw out the official figures compiled by government agencies and instead trust the researchers’ statistical renderings, which are based partly on official data but mostly on "interviews" with private groups and alleged victims.

Download this and you’ve just been exploited.

The report provides the reader no access to those interviews, however, which makes it impossible to verify the authors’ numbers. Nonetheless, the methodology the authors do admit to allows their work to be dismissed as a terrible waste of trees. It is rather stunning, for example, to discover that the report defines "child pornography" so broadly as to include "cases in which children had been involuntarily exposed to pornography." Thus a youth surfing the Internet who accidentally brings up Pamela Anderson’s bared bosom is placed in the same category as one forced to strip and pose for a pervert with a Polaroid. This is not just a statistical problem. Defining child sexual exploitation so broadly could ultimately have the paradoxical effect of diminishing its seriousness – if it’s so common and usually so trivial, why pursue it? Treating murderers and jaywalkers identically would ensure that the former got off scot-free, and this is exactly what the Pennsylvania researchers’ methods would bring on in the matter of child sexual exploitation.

"It really annoys me that the academic establishment lets people get away with this sort of thing," says Iain Murray, a senior research analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) in Washington, D.C. He notes several blatant flaws in the report. "Their field research was confined to big cities," Murray says. "How they feel they can extrapolate from these to the entire nation is beyond me." In addition, he observes, "Two hundred children are reported as porn subjects by U.S. customs officers in Dallas. They don’t consider the obvious possibility that these might not be American children."

When there were no figures available for the researchers to misinterpret, they invented entirely fictional numbers. "The number of transgender [transsexual and transvestite] youth [the report claims] at risk is simply made up," says Murray. The report’s authors admit that there are no data on this, so they used what they call a "place-holder" figure of three thousand. Along similar lines, the study’s authors "conclude that half of all juvenile illegal aliens are at risk," Murray notes. "Would [Mexican president] Vicente Fox agree with this? On the other hand, they think that all children brought into the country legally by sponsors are at risk, although the evidence they provide is purely anecdotal." Confessing to mixing his metaphors in evident exasperation over such blatant statistical chicanery, Murray characterizes the Pennsylvania report as "a house of straw, built on sand, resulting in a castle in the air."

Dr. Distortion

This is Estes’ Bulgarian paradise.

Dr. Estes, it should be noted, is no stranger to the realm of apparently preconceived "statistically based" conclusions. For decades he has made headlines with frequent "studies" ranking nations according to their ability "to provide for the basic social and material needs of their citizens." In each case, the United States somehow comes out smelling like a Third World sewer. In 1997, for example, America came in seventeenth, behind Poland, Slovenia, and the garden paradise known as Bulgaria. Curiously, though, the United Nations Human Development Index, from which Dr. Estes drew his data, ranked the United States fourth.

"In terms of responding to basic human needs," Dr. Estes explained to the New York Times, "Bulgaria enjoys the legacy of social provision that characterized all of the states and partners of the former Soviet Union." Yes, Estes clucks, Bulgarians live in poverty and squalor, but by golly, they spread it around a lot more evenly than we distribute our vastly greater wealth. That’s social justice according to Dr. Estes, and that is why he ranks economically woeful Bulgaria above the United States. Obviously, such tendentious nonsense is utterly worthless as a foundation for social policy, and this is equally true of his absurd claim of an epidemic of child sexual exploitation in the United States. Such an important subject merits serious treatment, and Dr. Estes’s study disserves the real victims and all those who want to help prevent future instances of this horrifying behavior.

Commenting on his national rankings, Dr. Estes makes clear his belief that America is a wicked place – a den of racism, intolerance, and economic divisions where far too much money is spent on guns and far too little on butter. Now he is trying to convince us that the United States is a nation of pedophiles as well, preying on its most innocent citizens. Given Estes’s long history of distorting evidence, none of this should surprise us.

Dr. Estes’s sexual abuse report addresses real and serious problems. But the last thing children and their parents need is yet another concocted hysteria based on obviously false claims of rampant child victimization. Basing child-protection efforts on the conclusions of Dr. Estes and his colleagues would be as wise as moving from the wicked United States to the Balkan paradise of Bulgaria.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on crime and on alarmism.