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Underage sex trafficking is everywhere local law enforcement looks, but will their budgets hold out?

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While Melton, Burchell, and others say adult classifieds and Backpage have become ubiquitous in child sex trafficking, VVM contends it's made significant investments in technology and editing staff to screen its adult ads. The site says its editors report suspicious cases to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and has even assisted in investigations. Similar scandal enveloped Craigslist in 2009 over its adult classified, eventually pushing it out of the adult-classified business.

VVM's open letter to critics reads, in part: "Neither government officials nor God's advocates can dictate such arbitrary control of business or free speech. … Complicated issues require sophisticated solutions, not PR flurries."

Perhaps most striking, VVM's own reporters have jumped into the squabble with a series of pieces aimed at discrediting a widespread "sex-trafficking panic" pumped by what the writers called "sex prohibitionists" — those bent on ending "the world's oldest profession," along with porn or adult entertainment of any kind. (With critics estimating VVM makes $22 million a year from sex ads, the company certainly has a dog in the fight and readily admits so in each of its installments.) One feature, circulated in all but one of the company's weeklies last June, targeted celebrity Ashton Kutcher for publicly citing faulty data on sex trafficking. "Real Men Get Their Facts Straight," read the headline, a snarky jab at Kutcher's "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" PSAs.

Indeed, much of VVM's coverage dwells on the widely cited data surrounding sex trafficking, contenting the feds have given millions in grants to advocacy groups, often to launch public-awareness or education campaigns, who hype the scope of the problem and inflate the numbers.

In attempting to get at the scope of child sex trafficking, advocates have touted suspect statistics.

In one study, the Women's Funding Network alleged exponential increases in underage sex trafficking over the course of mere months in targeted markets after studying a handful of major American cities. A Texas version of the study was replicated for the Dallas Women's Foundation in 2010 as authorities issued dire warnings to the media that Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium would bring a deluge of underage prostitutes. Arrests ultimately proved to be negligible. Neither of the studies actually surveyed or much less located any underage sex workers. Researchers concede there's no direct way to safely study, or make contact with, children in the sex trade. Their methodology essentially amounts to perusing ads for hookers and escorts over a period of weeks and marking which ones appear to be underage. The verdict? "The latest Texas statewide data suggests 188 girls under 18 are commercially sexually exploited on a typical weekend night via internet classified websites and escort services," reads Shared Hope's most recent report on domestic minor sex trafficking in the state. It's a figure the Current erroneously cited in December when reporting on the release of the report.

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