MEET Dr. Alex Trouteaud, Lead Researcher of the Georgia Demand Study

Originally published on MeetJustice.org on July 27, 2011.

Dr. Alex Trouteaud, Lead Researcher of the Georgia Demand Study

Over the past decade, dedicated organizations and individuals have been raising awareness around the city of Atlanta to reveal that innocent people are being victimized over and over again, on our streets and on our computer screens. In 2009, Men Who Buy Sex: A Scientific Research Study, also known as The Georgia Demand Study, raised a new kind of awareness by exposing and analyzing the men who are purchasing and exploiting adolescent females.
Dr. Alex Trouteaud, currently a researcher at the Harold and Kayrita Family Foundation, has been at the forefront of researching commercial sexual exploitation since 2007. Dr. Trouteaud worked as the Lead Researcher of The Schapiro Group, a team that used innovative methodologies for tracking the men who purchased sex with young women over the internet. Here, he discusses the Georgia Demand Study, explains the procedures and challenges of gathering information, describes society’s role in the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), and addresses the opponents of the anti-CSEC movement.
You were lead researcher of the Georgia Demand Study in 2009, which has informed a lot of the movement to drive CSEC out of Atlanta. Would you mind telling readers a little about it?

The purpose of the Demand study was to take a first shot at understanding men who buy sex from kids. There really wasn’t any information at the time that was specific to this particular population, and there still isn’t. There were good studies at the time and there are good studies now that look at men who purchase sex from victims of all ages, but nothing about men purchasing sex from children, so it’s important to think back at the time to how little many of us knew- we had a fair amount of assumptions about what was going on, but we knew very, very, very little about these men. There weren’t many of them being prosecuted for anything, so very rarely did they make any impression with district attorneys or cops or anything like that, so there was a real lack of information. So the Georgia Demand Study was about getting a general sense of who these guys are, and how they end up purchasing children for sex.

What is the most surprising or significant fact that you and your team learned while you were conducting this experiment?

Easily the most surprising finding from the study was the percentage of men who continued with the ‘transaction’, we’ll call it, where they were knowingly purchasing sex with a child despite multiple warnings that they were about to do so.

I really thought at the time, that the original goal of building in those three warnings (after the men indicated there was interest in making the purchase) was “Well, let’s figure out what level of information will get them to abandon the transaction for any reason. Let’s make sure there is no ambiguity here whatsoever that they’re about to buy a child.” I honestly thought at the time that it was going to be figuring out at what point will we have gotten 100% of the men to abandon the transaction. So there were three escalated warnings, the last of which there was no confusion whatsoever that this is a child. But still, basically half of the men [ 42%[1] ] [continued with the transaction]. That blew my mind, honestly. It was saddening, too.

We ended up learning that most of the men doing this aren’t going out there saying, “I want a child.” Without a doubt, they want a young female, and they don’t want to engage with you about the issue of age. So the question was, “Well, is it that it’s inconceivable to them that they are getting a child?” Because they don’t want to know age! So, is it that it was completely implausible for them to think that it might be a child because they assumed that only adults get into this? Or is there something else going on? And yeah… there’s something else going on.

Have you seen a lot of change on how people understand the issue?

Oh, huge change! When we first got the call to think about the methodology for tracking CSEC victims in Georgia, I really thought, “You’ve got to be kidding. This isn’t happening. Maybe one or two kids here or there, but it’s an anomaly. It’s going to be equivalent to or less than the homicide rate for kids.” No one was saying ‘prostitution of children’ at the time. Or very few, I’ll say. There were folks who did some concerted work, but very few. And now, the explosion of the issue has been absolutely tremendous.

But it’s not just the number of people involved: it’s the perceived barrier to people being involved that I think has really changed a lot. Earlier on, there was this thought process that we need to proceed with caution and be very delicate with folks- we thought no one was going to believe us. That has changed dramatically. You’ve got this foundation of awareness, and once you’ve got the foundation of awareness it’s far easier to engage people. You don’t have to tread quite as lightly to get them involved. So that’s changed dramatically.

You mentioned the mindset that CSEC is not really happening; that it’s an anomaly- there are a lot of people who still think that way. We’re an awareness organization and we constantly encounter people who attack the statistics and research, so I’d like to ask your opinion on how to respond to that.

Let’s be abundantly clear on who the “they” are. The “they” is Village Voice media. The “they” is the number one site for prostituting children online. There is a difference between reporting and corporate propaganda.

How would you suggest we present statistics and data to the reader- should every number have an explanation or a link to the study?

Every study that’s out there is an estimate of sorts. The United States census is an estimate. 5% of households get what’s called the long form- that’s where we get all this information about the makeup of family and income. So we take that information from a sample, and we use that to say what’s going on in the United States as a whole. So when someone says 200,000,000 American families make less than x-thousand a year, that’s not based on talking to every single family- it’s an estimate. That’s how science happens. The challenges are even greater for something like CSEC where it’s a criminal enterprise. Every one of these studies that you have is going to be an estimate-based study, and the second you abandon that, it’s laughable. It is beyond laughable to say you’d look just at arrest data to get an accurate picture of the count [of CSEC victims]. That’s a farce! [ In reference to the Village Voice media report ]

The quality of your estimate is based on how much data you are able to feed into that estimate. All research starts on a basis of empirical data. You have to look at the empirical data that they are starting from and say, “How good do we feel about that estimate?” So I say, look at all the numbers, understand where they are starting from and go from there. The procedure involved in 2007 that we developed to count victimization in Georgia was based on more empirical data than any of the other estimates at the time. There are drawbacks and benefits to each [estimation procedure], so put them all out there! That’s just how research works.

So the more studies and research we have, the better picture we have of CSEC.

Exactly! I’d love nothing more than a team of professors to take on this issue and come up with a better way of doing it. You want science to be living, breathing, and changing over time- to be getting better and better.

You started to touch on this already. But from your perspective as a researcher, why do you think it’s so difficult to gather information and statistics about CSEC?

CSEC is so difficult because first, it’s a criminal enterprise, and the people that benefit from criminal enterprise have a vested interest in making sure information is not out there.

I think the bigger issue though, is that it ultimately comes down to being an issue of age. Some people don’t like this idea that we’re taking the issue and assigning an age to it. And that’s fine; I think there is room for everyone to take a stand on this issue (or any issue) in any way that they want. The more the merrier. Let everyone take their own particular stance and perspective on what the problems are. For those of us that have focused our attention just on the child aspect of commercial sexual exploitation, you have to at some point say, “This is the age cut-off.” Researchers in particular always ‘operationalize’ what they are looking at. We’re going to put boundaries on it- and that’s not to say that something that falls outside the boundary is something we don’t care about. It’s just that for research purposes we have to have a pretty clear boundary.

I understand all of the issues around that from an advocacy standpoint. But from a research standpoint, we have to do something. So we use the age of 18, and that is the biggest problem from a research standpoint because human beings look very different from different ages, especially once you’ve sexualized the notion of that person. That can really mess with the way you perceive someone’s age. So you have to have good ways of getting around that. You have to have good ways of acknowledging that age is not an easy thing to decipher. And there are a few different ways to do it, and none of them are perfect, but you acknowledge how you’re doing it and you accept that as an inherent limitation in the research.

Would you say that was your biggest challenge- identifying age?

No, I think it’s the easiest challenge from a research standpoint! The approach I take is this: unless you have objective third-party information to say specifically what someone’s age is, then you have to base it on probabilities. So, if I somehow knew there was a 20% chance that you were under the age of 18, and you have a friend over here and I somehow knew that there was an 80% chance that that person was under the age of 18, I say well I’ve got two of you together, she has an 80% chance and you have a 20% chance. Then I’m going to add that together; the sum is equal to one and therefore I’ve counted one person under the age of 18. Once you start counting hundreds or thousands of people this way, summing up those probabilities is a very, very robust way to estimate the unknown population of people under the age of 18 among those [who were on Craigslist]. We do that all the time with poplulation projections.

What is the biggest challenge you faced as a researcher in demand study?

It’s access to the men we are counting, and that is something that has changed since 2007. In 2007, you could log onto Craigslist and see thousands of images of women of all ages- not all of them really young children, but you could look at them and think, “Wow, that girl needs to get back to school.” They’d be incredibly graphic sexual images. No one was out there saying, “Can you believe this?”

And then suddenly, the images could no longer be pornographic on Craigslist. And then credit cards were required. I am not getting my order of offense correct, but over time the images ended up being more and more restricted, so people knew that others were watching. They were paying attention. So, was it as easy to get an image of a child up on Craigslist anymore? Probably not. But at that time, BackPage was offering all the scandalous images that Craigslist had disallowed at that point. And now Backpage is starting to take the images and make them be no longer crudely pornographic. But now you get the same problem that you had with Craigslist, which is that it doesn’t matter what they do to the images because people still feel complete safety in posting another person for sale online.

It’s more underground now, so does that make it harder for researchers like you?

Yeah, it’s harder from a research standpoint, but as a human being, I’ll take that any day. As a human being, I say to myself, tell me whatever you want about how easy it may be to find victims, but as a society, we should not allow in any way, shape or form, the apparent, unbridled exploitation of any human being, anywhere. You should never say that there is any excuse for why we should allow thousands of women to be prostituted online. The second you start saying it’s okay, you probably need to take a step back from the issue, take a deep breath, and remember what this is about. It’s not about saying “These victims are always going to be here, so let’s make sure we can find them easily.” It’s about saying, “We don’t tolerate this as a society, and eventually, it’s not going to be here.”

The real thing in all of this, is how many men are able to go online and peruse and order up a young girl like she’s a piece of pizza. As a parent, that’s what you don’t want. You don’t want any men having easy, anonymous access to buy your child, your young daughter, your older daughter or your sister. I want to make it as hard as possible for someone to go out and buy another person.

There are so many misconceptions about CSEC. If you could pick one that you could clear up for our readers, what would it be?

There are so many, but the one that there is great data out there to readily clear up for readers is the misconception that the men who buy sex from kids are all pedophiles, or that they all have mental disorders, or that they’re addicted to sex. We sit here on the human rights end of all of this, and we say, “in order for someone to do this there must be something wrong with him. The programming must be off.” I’d like to believe that and all, but if you just do the math and think “ Let’s just say safely in a month, maybe 1,000 unique women – and that’s conservative- gets bought and sold for sex, four times per weekend. You have four weekends in a month, so each one is bought and sold sixteen times per month. So that’d be 16,000 transactions (This is extraordinarily conservative math!) And let’s say of the men who bought them, half were unique and half were repeat customers. You’re telling me 8,000 men every month [are pedophiles, mentally ill, or sex addicts]? That’s a bigger population than pedophiles! That’s a bigger population than sex addicts, a bigger population than men who have disorders.

We don’t think of it that way, though. We always think of it on the victim’s side. But we’re talking about thousands and thousands of men in Georgia. As a sociologist, I see numbers like that and say by definition there is something normal about this for it to be happening at that rate. I describe it as sadly normal. We should not accept that it’s “normal”, but there must be something normal for it be happening at the rate that it must be happening, but no one wants to talk about sexual deviancy.

The worst thing to do is think that the people buying sex from kids or people of any age have some disorder or something wrong with them. You’re way underestimating the magnitude of this problem, and you’re devaluing the role that our society plays in perpetuating the problem. Ultimately, for it to be happening at that level, it’s a problem for all of us. It’s not the problem of just a few sick men.

[1] Georgia Demand Study- Men who buy sex with girls: A Scientific Research Study, 2009. Schapiro Group.

View The Georgia Demand Study here.

Visit The Harold and Kayrita Family Foundation here.

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