13 Challenges Legislators Underestimate when Fighting Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Minors – The Feminist Wire

13 Challenges Legislators Underestimate when Fighting Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Minors

By Aya de Leon

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Concern about sex trafficking of underage girls is on the rise throughout the US.  Various states are considering or have passed legislation to address the problem.  In 2011, the Georgia governor signed HB200 into law, “the human trafficking bill that toughens the penalty for sex traffickers and seeks to improve outcomes for victims.” California recently passed SB 855, which “states that a child who is a victim of sexual exploitation can be sent to a county’s dependency system, commonly known as child welfare,” although authorities can still bring criminal charges. Youth advocates continue to push for that to change.  “There is no such thing as a child prostitute,” claims Kate Walker, an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. “They are [legally] too young to consent to the acts they are forced to do.”

I appreciate that legislators are attempting to create resources to serve this population and divert young people from the prison system.  However, the problem of young people working in the sex trade against their will isn’t a concern that can be solved by a simple act of legislation.  There are deep, systemic causes that underlie the sexual exploitation of young people that need to be addressed in order to implement a real and lasting solution.

1.     Young people are commercially sexualized all the time in media, advertising, and every other aspect of our culture. Exploitation of young people in the sex trade is just the most extreme example.  If we are a society that embraces the overall practice of commercial sexualization of young people for the profit of corporations, how can we expect to effectively intervene when it’s done for the profit of individuals?

2.     Diverting young people from the criminal system to the child welfare system is certainly a good first step, but it is of limited use because the child welfare system is so ineffective and rife with problems of its own.  Young people are abused and exploited inside of the child welfare system, and predators lurk just outside the doors to catch the young people who have good reasons for running away.

3.     We live in a culture where rape, sexual abuse, and sexual coercion are common and normalized.  Sexual abuse of children is an epidemic in our culture.  Let me be clear: I am not saying that commercial sexual exploitation of young people is not a problem or should not be addressed.  I am, however, saying that it is a proportionally smaller part of the larger problem of the widespread sexual abuse of young people that takes place in a non-commercial context.  Commercial exploitation of children needs to be addressed in the context of the larger reality of children in general, and girls in particular, being constantly targeted for sexual violence.  As a culture, we are numb to or overwhelmed by the vastness of the problem of sexual abuse.  However, the salacious “child prostitution” headlines can still get our attention.  Also, many children fall prey to exploiters as a result of having been removed from their family due to abuse.  All sexual violence against children needs to be addressed, systematically. GenerationFive has done a stellar job of visioning a society where sexual abuse does not happen and exploring what would need to change to make that world a reality.

4.     This next underlying cause may be the most difficult thing for us to face as a nation.  The patriarchal, nuclear family is not working.  In the male dominated history of the family, young people are the property of the parents, particularly the father, who can do what he wants with them.  Statistically, most sexual abuse happens inside of family circles.  Some young people are even commercially sexually exploited by relatives.  We want to turn our lens out onto the street, but we need to turn it into the home as well — both the foster home and the nuclear home.

5.     And how do families come into being?  There are many types of families.  They happen in many ways.  But one key divide is that some families are planned and some are not.  Planned families are not superior to unplanned families.  However, current attacks on access to birth control and abortion, such as the two recent Supreme Court decisions, McClellan and Hobby Lobby, can have serious consequences. Under these conditions, women who truly do not want children are forced to become mothers.  Some rise to the occasion.  Others, however, do not have emotional, financial, or community resources they need, and are unable to provide the love and protection their children need. The pro-choice slogan “every child a wanted child” is key here.  Just this week, police arrested the young woman who abandoned her baby in the NYC subway. We have a society with many teens who are unable to live at home for any number of reasons.  The foster care system is unable to adequately care for them and address their needs.  But the commercial sex trade has carved out a place for those kids.

6.     This is a problem that mostly targets young females and particularly young women of color.  We must eradicate the underlying male domination and white supremacy ideologies that turns girls and brown girls especially into sub-human sexual resources for adult men to access.

7.     Black and brown young people’ who are undocumented immigrants are especially vulnerable. This is also true for youth who have loved ones who are undocumented. Legislators stress legal solutions, but undocumented immigrants have no access to recourse if they face incarceration/deportation and there is no expectation of amnesty.  Without true immigration reform, undocumented status can easily be used as a tool of coercion in many situations, including the sex trade.

8.      Homophobia needs to be systematically dismantled.  Many teens who are queer and trans are rejected by their families.  Some young people would rather participate in the sex industry than to deny who they are.

9.     Which brings us to another very challenging issue.  Young people in the sex trade don’t all identify themselves as victims.  This is tricky because, as Lysney Clark in the East Bay Express  has documented, some young people—particularly those who have been cultivated by an exploiter from a young age—have bonded with the exploiter who has taken them in and met their needs when no one else would or could.  In these situations, as in any abusive family dynamic, the abuse and caring are woven together and very difficult to sort out.  However, there are also young people, particularly older youth, who may enter into the sex trade voluntarily, who may be part of a network of teens and young adults who are not operating under the threat of violence. One sex worker who tweets under the name @RightsNotRescue  says, “I’ve been a sex worker since I was 17, and can’t be happier with my choice.” I am not saying that our efforts to end the commercial sexual exploitation of young people should center on the needs of the rare young person who is in the trade by choice.  I am however, saying that our solutions needs to include room for that reality.

10.     The criminalization of sex work is also part of the problem.  When sex work overall is criminalized, it is more difficult to identify and help those who are being trafficked.  The conflation of sex work and sex trafficking needs to change.  Whatever the proportions, some people choose sex work without any more coercion than someone that might choose to work at WalMart. Maybe not their first choice of job, but it pays the bills, and they can go on with their life.  This is a step forward to change the status of trafficked people from criminal to victim.  But its effect is limited because it creates a dual system. Those who are not currently in the trade through coercion face criminal penalties.  Those who report that they are coerced may have access to social services.  Among adult sex workers, some report that people in the sex work community know what to say in order to avoid jail.  This leads to false testimonies of trafficking and an inaccurate picture of the actual working conditions.  Also, many sex workers report that the “social services” offered are punitive, restrictive, and dehumanizing. Further, when sex work is criminalized, it takes place under the least safe conditions for the workers.  If consensual sex workers are hiding from the law, and sexual exploiters are also hiding from the law, it makes it more difficult to find and identify anyone being trafficked and young people being exploited.  If sex work is decriminalized—targeting neither the worker nor the client in a consensual situation—then authorities can focus efforts on exploiters and traffickers.

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11.  The stigmatization of sex work is also part of the problem.  Lynsey Clark’s article noted how teens who are criminalized for being trafficked are shamed by their experiences. The culture overall shames women for being sexual outside of heterosexuality and marriage. Sex work generally carries a great deal of stigma, and some of the language used for trafficked girls is dehumanizing and inaccurate.

“After running away at 16, she met a man who very quickly bought and sold her [in the Atlanta area]”

“Sexually exploited youth are bought and sold every night on Oakland’s streets.”

“They then coerce or force the children to sell their bodies to passing motorists…”

The narrative of people being bought and sold implies a permanent loss of the right to control one’s own body. I don’t minimize the traumatic impact of being sexually exploited. Some people don’t ever receive the resources to recover from such brutalizing experiences. However, this language is designed to alarm concerned adults so that they will respond out of emotional upset and moral outrage.  It is good to get adults to care about the lives of sexually exploited youth.  However, people acting from a place of outrage and upset don’t generally create sound policies grounded in effectiveness.  In addition, it isn’t useful to use language that would be damaging to the youth themselves.  A previous generation of women learned to shift the language of sexual violence from “rape victim” to “survivor.”  This language acknowledges what’s been done to us, but honors that we have survived and don’t need to be forever defined by someone else’s abuse of our bodies. Young people exploited by trafficking deserve this same respect.

Women working in consensual sex work can shed further light on these terms:  ‏@VSleazy says, “I am a prostitute. I do not sell my body, I rent access to it, I am #notyourrescueproject, & I need #rightsnotrescue.”  @AnarchaSxworker says, “I’ve ‘sold my body’ to countless men yet I still have it right here on the couch with me. Odd that.”  @MolliDesi, a South Asian sex worker in England says, “all I want to do is fuck for money and pay for my university so what is the problem ? #humantrafficking.”  She challenges the authority of anti-trafficking advocates: “I am small brown and foreign selling sex….& I would like #rightsnotrescue pls don’t let elite women fuck me over.”  There are many well-meaning anti-trafficking activists who may not realize the stigmatizing effect of using victimizing language.  Others, however, know exactly what they are doing. Many sex worker rights advocates have been investigating instances where anti-trafficking efforts have used fabricated stories and false information to raise money and self-promote.  When “rescuers” further disempower exploited young people for their own gain, they become yet another layer of adult exploitation that these young people face.

12.  Finally, the oppression of young people and denial of their intelligence and power are at work here.  Part of the problem is that we have a romanticized notion of childhood that includes naïve innocence, and benevolent adults who know what’s best.  Many young people who end up in the system have managed households, been the primary breadwinner, parented younger siblings, served as informal caseworkers for their parents, or otherwise had to function as adults.  It is insulting and unrealistic to expect a young person with those experiences to fit themselves into a chores and curfew scenario where the adults make all the decisions with no input from the young people.

13.  We also have a cultural myth in this country of teens living a sexually abstinent, drug-free life.  While some teens do choose to abstain from drugs and sex, the majority of young people across the board choose to experience drugs, alcohol, and sex during their teen years.  However, because many of our laws are based on a fantasy of childhood innocence, the housing and intervention programs for young people often require that they be drug-free and may even punish them for sexual activity.  If most adults were required to live somewhere that they would be thrown out into the street if they felt like having a drink or having sex, we would consider it an untenable situation.  Why do we expect young people to live under those extremely restrictive, punitive conditions?  Particularly for young people who have experienced serious trauma, using drugs or having sex can be an important avenue of pleasure, escape, or connection.  To be sure, drugs and sex are also fraught with risks, harms, and problems.  Trauma survivors are especially vulnerable to these harms.  It is critical to have supportive environments where young people learn how to reduce harm with their drug use and sexual activity.

Of course any facility needs rules to ensure everyone’s safety, but those rules don’t need to demand total abstinence from sex and drugs.  However, much of the government funding to support programs for young people require abstinence in order to get the financial resources.  Young people who have come to depend on their drug use and sexual expression to manage their trauma or enjoy their lives will often choose street life over a restrictive housing option.  Until we develop an abundance of housing for youth that can, as the harm reduction saying goes, meet people “where they are at,” honor their values, and respond to their needs, we will continue to send them back out into the arms of exploiters.

So I applaud the efforts of all the people currently doing the exhausting, heartbreaking, uphill battle of working with exploited youth, and the lawmakers who want to help.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we will definitely need to change many large structures of the society before we can reasonably expect to effectively eradicate the problem of commercial sexualization of young people.  Yet, I’m glad to see us at least acknowledging the problem and exploring its complexities.  As a harm reductionist, I’m hoping to paint a full picture of the root causes so we can meet ourselves, as a society, exactly where we are at.


2014 headshotAya de Leon has worked in the alcohol and drug field, and was a national trainer for the Harm Reduction Training Institute, specializing in youth, drugs, and sexual health. She currently teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley and is working on a heist novel in which a team of sex workers turn to robbery in order to keep their health clinic open. She blogs and tweets at @ayadeleon and

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