Flawed USC Study Shouldn’t Be Used for Policies Designed to Increase Demand for Prostitution

NCOSE Press Statement logo

Washington, DC (November 18, 2021) – The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) warns that a new University of Southern California (USC) study should not be used as “evidence” to bolster efforts to fully decriminalize prostitution. 

USC’s new study purports that current policing of sex trafficking in the U.S. is a failure, that police enforcement of prostitution should be drastically reduced, and police funding redirected to victim identification and services. 

“This USC study’s conclusions will set a dangerous precedent for policy matters throughout the U.S., made even more urgent by the fact that the day after it was released, it was used to advocate for policies to cease prostitution law enforcement efforts within Oregon,” said Dr. Michael Shively, senior advisor on research and data analysis, National Center on Sexual Exploitation.  
“While packaged as substantial research, the reality is that this study relies on very little data to come to such strong conclusions that police shouldn’t enforce prostitution laws, especially ones that seek to prevent sex trafficking. 
“In fact, where prostitution thrives, so does sex trafficking. The only proven way to decrease sex trafficking is to confront the demand for paid sex. Proposals to fully decriminalize prostitution, or to stop enforcing prostitution laws, do nothing to drive down the demand or prevent trafficking – they only do the opposite. And where prostitution exists, so does the inherent trauma of what can only be considered as the ‘oldest oppression.’ 
“We urge policymakers to reject this USC study for use in any potential policy decisions that would further increase prostitution and sex trafficking,” Shively said.  

Among the many problems, here are a few highlighted ones:  

  • The authors admit that they have very little actual data on the police operations they claim to study, nor data on the outcomes of those operations.  
  • The authors admit that most of their analysis and recommendations are based on a small number of qualitative interviews, using an unrepresentative convenience sample of individuals, most of whom had no direct experience with the police operations that are the topic of the study. Very few of their 42 interviews were with individuals having any direct involvement in the enforcement operations studied, and less than half of them were with trafficking survivors or people having any law enforcement experience. They interviewed 9 law enforcement officers (7 local police, 2 federal agents); 5 prosecutors (3 federal, 2 local); 5 victim advocates employed by law enforcement agencies; and 7 sex trafficking survivors (none of whom were trafficked in the time period of the enforcement operations being studied). 
  • The authors admitted that the publicly available data about law enforcement operations is extremely limited and their efforts to collect quantitative data from FOIA and CPRA requests were largely unsuccessful. They write, Consequently, much of our analysis and many of our recommendations stem from qualitative data from interviews. We recognize anecdotal evidence is inherently subject to bias—including selection bias—misremembering, and misinterpretation.” (p. 68) 
  • The USC student researcher interviewed a convenience sample of just 7 sex trafficking survivors who, they admit, are unrepresentative of survivors generally. Their stated research-based insights about the impact police operations have on survivors is based on a predominately white convenience sample of survivors who had no experience with the police operations in question.  The authors stated that “…we were unable to interview a survivor who was sex trafficked in the last ten years… some survivors we interviewed were trafficked prior to the TVPA in 2000, and others were trafficked and encountered law enforcement within the first few years of the TVPA.” (p. 67) 
  • The USC student researcher interviewed a similarly small convenience sample of law enforcement personnel (just 9 local police officers and federal agents), and cannot say whether most of them had ever participated in the kinds of sex trafficking operations that are the subject of the study. An unstated number of interview subjects explicitly stated that they had no experience in those trafficking enforcement operations. The authors stated: “For this reason, it is uncertain precisely how much of the information we gathered is reflective of specific national or state operations.” (pp. 67-68)

To learn more, read “The Truth About Prostitution” and “Combating Sex Buying.”

The Numbers


NCOSE leads the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation with over 300 member organizations.


The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has had over 100 policy victories since 2010. Each victory promotes human dignity above exploitation.


NCOSE’s activism campaigns and victories have made headlines around the globe. Averaging 93 mentions per week by media outlets and shows such as Today, CNN, The New York Times, BBC News, USA Today, Fox News and more.



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