The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Cool Thesis: Commercially Sexually Exploited Children In Portland, OR

America’s news media loves horror-story narratives, and little makes for a better horror story than the commercial sexual exploitation of children. However, according to Rachel Cole-Jansen ’12, the media more often than not gets the story wrong.

Rachel, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has spent her senior year at Reed studying children in the sex trade in Portland with the goal of correcting misconceptions and shedding light on a frequently misunderstood phenomenon. Her Sociology thesis, which she is working on with Professor Alex Campbell, is the first large-scale study of commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC). The largest previous study, she says, accounted for only 12 child sex workers, which she says is “not representative.” “There are very very serious issues at stake,” she says, “but there’s not much data.” The problem, she says, is that “we don’t know who the people are as a population,” with the result that “we don’t know what made them vulnerable.”

Rachel’s thesis, which recorded information on over 600 variables for about 90 under-18 sex workers, attempts to change this. First of all, Rachel says, it addresses a problem in the Sociology literature regarding sex work: There are distinct and differentiable types of sex work, but “there wasn’t any way to conceptualize sex work” in a way that allows for direct comparison between these different categories. To address this, Rachel created a typology that accounts for what she says are the three main variables characterizing sex work. The first variable is whether the sex work occurs indoors or outdoors, which distinguishes prostitutes turning tricks on the street from sex workers in massage parlors. Outdoor sex work, Rachel notes, is much more dangerous than indoor, because it involves little protection from potential abusers. Another is coercion, which measures the agency of the sex worker in question, differentiating women who make an empowered choice to exchange sex acts for money from women and girls who are coerced physically, verbally, or through drug addiction, among other means. Rachel’s final factor is the formality of the exchange, which measures the difference between acts of sex that, for example, are exchanged for drugs or housing with sex work that is done for money, with explicitly delineated price structures. Using these three variables, Rachel believes she can effectively model the different types of sex work, from high-class call girls who are not coerced, do their work indoors, and receive money, to child sex workers who have little choice in their work, meet their clients outside, and may not participate in a formalized market, along with everything in between.

Rachel also acquired internships with the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice and Oregon’s Department of Human Services’s CSEC unit, and went over information on individual sex workers, from psychological reports to high school disciplinary records. With her large data set, Rachel attempted to acquire a picture of child sex workers built not from subjective evaluation of a few cases, but quantitative analysis of information representative of the full population. She used a method called Life-Course Analysis, which attempts to show the “full nuance of how people develop.” This methodology statistically models the complex relationships between a number of variables relating to a person’s life, accounting for everything from childhood physical abuse to race, and from fetal alcohol syndrome to drug abuse.

Rachel says she has some interesting findings from her research. She overturns a media narrative that tries to claim that child sex work “can happen to anyone.” She says that such a presumption is not actually true. Out of her sample, Rachel says, only three girls qualified as “middle class,” while three-quarters fell below the poverty line; this and a few other important factors make children “hyper-vulnerable” to being taken advantage of. Furthermore, she found that race does not make anyone more likely to become a child sex worker, except insofar as minorities are generally poorer than whites, and poorer people are more vulnerable. Rachel also found, as expected, that of her approximately 90-person sample, only four child sex workers were male, and two were male-to-female transgendered. Most of all, though, Rachel suspects that there is no one factor that can fully predict a child becoming a sex worker. Using siblings of child sex workers, who had similar childhoods but did not become sex workers, as controls, Rachel looked for the most important factors that might independently cause a child to become a prostitute. Instead—though she can’t yet prove this statistically—she believes that the “tipping point” is just a matter of getting unlucky and running into a pimp, of “just happening to meet the right person at the right (or wrong) time.”

Rachel says that going through all the data on child sex workers is “really emotionally taxing.” However, she says it is worth it to gain better knowledge of a little-understood phenomenon. “I just want to present objectively what’s happening with this population,” she says. “It’s really surreal to be doing something original.”

Do you have or know of a thesis that compels attention? Just want to see your face in the Quest? Email with “Cool Thesis” in the subject line.

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