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Human trafficking: a misunderstood global scourge

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One of the most public campaigns against domestic trafficking was launched last year by the philanthropic foundation of Ms. Moore and Mr. Kutcher. It was called "Real Men Don't Buy Girls," and used a campy, interactive video format that enlisted other celebrities, such as Justin Timberlake and Eva Longoria, to raise awareness about "child sex slavery in the US."

Moore and Kutcher gave interviews, made T-shirts, and rallied the Twitterverse to the cause. One of the most troubling statistics they shared was that there are 100,000 to 300,000 sex slaves in the US – figures repeated by interviewers, blogs, TV hosts and other movie stars.

The problem: The statistics are wrong.

Those figures came from a 2001 University of Pennsylvania study ("The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico") that estimated that there might be 100,000 to 300,000 children at risk of becoming trafficked prostitutes because of an array of negative circumstances, from homelessness to drug addiction. The number of actual sex-trafficking victims has been estimated by the US government to be in the tens of thousands, but even those numbers have been criticized as unfounded and far too high; between 2008 and 2010, federally funded human-trafficking task forces opened 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking for investigation. Among those cases, only 248 suspected sex-trafficking victims under the age of 18 were identified.

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