The involvement of pimps for the recruitment of underage sex workers is a "distorted reality", according to new research.

Media portrayals of underage sex trafficking place pimps at the centre of the issue, luring young girls into prostitution and coercing them into staying in the sex industry. Yet a study of child and young adult prostitutes in New York and New Jersey has revealed that 47% of underage sex workers reported not knowing a single pimp.

Although 87.2% of these young sex workers reported wanting to leave their line of work, none of them stated that a controlling pimp was their reason for staying. Instead, a number of different factors are trapping girls in the sex industry.

The most popular cause for staying in prostitution was economic status, problems with finding including alternative employment, restricted educational opportunities and housing. Of those who responded, 61.4% described themselves as being homeless.

"We argue that the narrative of pimp trickery and coercion distorts reality in three ways," the researchers stated. "First, it overestimates the role of pimps in street sex markets; second, it overemphasizes the impact of the initial recruitment stage on subsequent practices; and third, it masks or simplifies the difficult and complex choices and contingencies faced by minors who sell sex."

In a total of three separate studies, researchers Anthony Marcus, Amber Horning, Ric Curtis, Jo Sanson, and Efram Thompson analysed data collected from active pimps, underage prostitutes and young adult sex workers from the two east coast states.

In one part of their study, researchers analysed the largest dataset ever collected in the US from minors working in the sex trade. The results revealed that only 10% of the minors had a pimp at the time of the research, only 1.6% lived with a pimp and 47% reported not knowing a pimp.

The information showed that pimps were only responsible for initiating 8.1% of the minors into sex work. Instead, minors were coerced into joining the industry by their peers 47% of the time and their customers 23% of the time.

"We recognize that situations of oppression and captivity do exist among this population," they wrote in The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

"However, they were rare enough in a statistically representative sample in New York City and an intensive ethnographic census in Atlantic City to question the degree to which the dominant narratives of underage sex trafficking and resultant policies can protect the majority of vulnerable youth engaged in commercial sex markets."