Pushed To The Fringes: Underage Sex Workers

by Mikey Way on August 20, 2015 · 11 comments

in Politics, Prostitution

This isn't Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.

This isn’t Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.

A part of our community seems to always get left behind. While we argue that we need to prioritize the safety and well-being of sex workers, our discussions often fall short of protecting the workers who are most at risk: underage workers.

We fear being read as encouraging the sexual exploitation of children. But the reality is that young sex workers are usually in the industry for a reason. Sex work isn’t easy when you’re young—you’ll have cops on your trail more often than not, be isolated from both sex working and non-sex working communities, and often work with clients who are bigger, stronger and more intimidating than you could possibly be. Stepping into this game isn’t a decision easily made. Generally, if someone is working underage, it’s because they’re aware their alternatives are worse.

(Content warning: references to child abuse after the jump.)

With a system that entirely fails to protect and serve young people, either forcing them back into abusive homes or shuffling them into new, potentially even more violent environments such as group homes, foster homes, and juvenile halls, it’s no wonder these young people take their fate into their own hands. The few jobs that will hire young workers pay a pittance, and signing a lease isn’t even an option for minors.

For the majority of young workers, it isn’t cash they’re looking for. It’s food, shelter and sometimes drugs. It’s survival. Often, underage sex workers don’t even acknowledge that they are trading sex—because what trading sex looks like for them is often drastically different from the media image of money being slipped down g-strings or left on dressers in neat envelopes. They are being paid in the form of the most basic necessities.

We’ve long since accepted that the way to avoid financial coercion and constrained circumstances around sexual consent isn’t to strip away people’s options, but to find them alternatives. So why don’t we apply the same logic to underage work?

The Amnesty International draft policy that they recently voted to adopt included a paragraph on children in sex work:

Amnesty International considers children involved in commercial sex acts to be victims of sexual exploitation, entitled to support, reparations, and remedies, in line with international human rights law. States must take all appropriate measures to prevent violence and exploitation of children. The best interests of the child should, in all cases, be a primary consideration and the state should preserve the right of the child to be heard and to have his or her views given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity.

This isn't Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, either.

This isn’t Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, either.

While at first glance this policy reads as supportive, in line with the protections we’d all want for our children, there is no denying that “appropriate measures” against underage sex work equate in essence to advocating an end demand approach. This means that young workers will still have to face trailing by police and rescue operations— and they will continue to have even more limited clientele.

So why was this draft proposal uncritically supported by sex workers and sex worker groups?

Ultimately, we fear policies that are much worse. Fighting against one aspect of a pro-sex worker policy could lead to a complete seachange in our allies’ attitudes, and with policies like this under direct fire from abolitionists intending to criminalize the sex industry altogether, the priority is given to protecting the better option rather than creating the best possible solution. The voices that are fighting against criminalization are often unaffected by legislation which harms underage workers. Minors become collateral damage in efforts to avoid end demand models or criminalization for all.

Criminalization of underage workers is an accepted norm. Young workers do not believe that they have the option to advocate for legal acceptance, and older workers aren’t willing or able to risk themselves to fight for younger ones. It’s a dynamic that is mirrored everywhere, down to young street-based workers being forced to work in different areas so that older street workers don’t have to deal with the police attention often drawn by sex working minors. Underage workers are pushed to the fringes of our community again and again, with no regard for whether these tactics will actually offer them any protection.

Criminalization and assumed victim status isn’t protection. I have worked bookings as a 13-year-old with clients in my age group, who treated me with more respect than the men I saw in brothels at age 20. I have been in bookings as a 15-year-old which I left bruised and bleeding. To assume these are equally violent, equally dangerous, and equally criminal activities leaves little option for support when young workers face genuinely dangerous situations. As the assumption that all sex work is rape does to older workers, the idea that all underage sex work is equally violating leaves underage workers in a world where they are treated as simultaneously unrapeable, and continuously raped. It strips them of their ability to provide meaningful consent, overrides their autonomy, and creates a system which works actively against them in every way possible.

What underage sex work looks like varies from worker to worker, but for most, it’s the best option they have. To rescue children from sex work, we need to stop creating policies and laws which allow us to pull them back into danger, and start focusing on creating systems that genuinely support them. We need to give them real alternatives. Then, and only then, can we talk about rescue.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Wendy Lyon August 20, 2015 at 2:46 pm

Thanks for this Mikey. For a document so (otherwise) resolutely grounded in evidence-based policy, the absolutist and ideological approach to underage sex work is quite striking.

I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that Amnesty’s remit is limited by the parameters of international human rights law, and while there’s some room for debate within those parameters, there’s absolutely none on this. To even suggest within IHRL circles that maybe we should talk about it a bit more is to be shot down immediately. So even if Amnesty wanted to include underage workers within the policy, as things stand, they simply have no mandate to do it.

Hopefully that will change in future. More articles like this will help.

Reply

Gaye Dalton August 21, 2015 at 1:28 pm

I was reading this thinking “how the hell did you manage to work out the truth?” till I got to the end and realised – choking up here – I envied the other girls who could sell sex…I couldn’t…I was 6 feet tall age 13 and fully developed. I looked 22, the pedophile circuit would rather watch paint dry. The adult sex workers in London would have sniffed me out like Tanqueray and handed me to the cops. I couldn’t risk it.

So while the other girls had beautifully furnished rooms in squats, all the clothes they wanted (to this day I resent never having an Afghan cost and a swirl skirt in the early 70s), plenty of food and fun I starved in unheated derelict houses unless I traded survival sex, which does pay as well, confers no autonomy and seems to involve a LOT more anal.

Compared to the alternatives on offer the fact that it was sex JUST DID NOT MATTER, no *then* no *a the time* just *FULL STOP*. The world for those who fell down the rabbit hole and live beyond the glass wall is full of far worse things than sex. In the care system we were intelligent young women with less rights than animals…fine, until someone made a career out of abusing that, as they always did, in cruel destructive asexual ways nobody would do anything about.

No I AM NOT ok with very young people having to trade sex for survival…I am less ok with it than ANYONE ELSE I can think of, but I know from experience that the fact it is utterly appalling doesn’t mean we have a better alternative to offer…and we SHOULD have a better alternative to offer.

In fact the career abolitionists should pull the handbrake on EVERYTHING and work on overdrive until every underage person on the planet is guaranteed a *genuinely* better, safer option than selling or trading sex (not just empty, abusive lip service as at present)…if they cared, but, of course they don’t…about anything outside themselves and their own careers and ambitions, and at heart, neither do the professional allies…they just picked the side of less harm to ride to success is all.

Amnesty cannot afford to fight for that, it’s impossible and would compromise the whole resolution, and, in truth it is a separate issue related only by the fact that people tend to sell sex because their options are worse.

SO WHY ARE WE LEAVING THE CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE WE SHOULD TREASURE WITH SUCH TERRIBLE OPTIONS? HOW DARE WE!!!

Here are two articles of my own on the subject from different pespectives:
https://mymythbuster.wordpress.com/myth-there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-child-sex-slave/
https://mymythbuster.wordpress.com/myth-turn-off-the-red-light-are-trying-to-save-children/

(Ironically I tried to tell the chief antagonist in the second article about the facts of the first one 2 years earlier. He did not want to know…no celebrities, fortune or fame involved you see.)

Reply

Gaye Dalton August 21, 2015 at 5:57 pm

I was reading this thinking “how the hell did you manage to work out the truth?” till I got to the end and realised – choking up here – I envied the other girls who could sell sex…I couldn’t…I was 6 feet tall age 13 and fully developed. I looked 22, the pedophile circuit would rather watch paint dry. The adult sex workers in London would have sniffed me out like Tanqueray and handed me to the cops. I couldn’t risk it.

So while the other girls had beautifully furnished rooms in squats, all the clothes they wanted (to this day I resent never having an Afghan cost and a swirl skirt in the early 70s), plenty of food and fun I starved in unheated derelict houses unless I traded survival sex, which does pay as well, confers no autonomy and seems to involve a LOT more anal.

Compared to the alternatives on offer the fact that it was sex JUST DID NOT MATTER, no *then* no *a the time* just *FULL STOP*. The world for those who fell down the rabbit hole and live beyond the glass wall is full of far worse things than sex. In the care system we were intelligent young women with less rights than animals…fine, until someone made a career out of abusing that, as they always did, in cruel destructive asexual ways nobody would do anything about.

No I AM NOT ok with very young people having to trade sex for survival…I am less ok with it than ANYONE ELSE I can think of, but I know from experience that the fact it is utterly appalling doesn’t mean we have a better alternative to offer…and we SHOULD have a better alternative to offer.

In fact the career abolitionists should pull the handbrake on EVERYTHING and work on overdrive until every underage person on the planet is guaranteed a *genuinely* better, safer option than selling or trading sex (not just empty, abusive lip service as at present)…if they cared, but, of course they don’t…about anything outside themselves and their own careers and ambitions, and at heart, neither do the professional allies…they just picked the side of less harm to ride to success is all.

Amnesty cannot afford to fight for that, it’s impossible and would compromise the whole resolution, and, in truth it is a separate issue related only by the fact that people tend to sell sex because their options are worse.

SO WHY ARE WE LEAVING THE CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE WE SHOULD TREASURE WITH SUCH TERRIBLE OPTIONS? HOW DARE WE!!!

Reply

Julia August 22, 2015 at 7:29 am

‘Underage sexwork’ by definition IS rape.

Reply

Celine Bisette August 22, 2015 at 3:59 pm

Where I live (Canada), the age of consent to sexual activity is 16. However, the age to consent to sell sex is 18. This is where it can get confusing. A 16-year-old is legally allowed to have sex with someone, but only if that someone is not paying him/her. If the 16-year-old is being paid for the sex, then it becomes illegal, even though it would have been legal if there was no money involved. Hm.

Reply

Mikey Way August 23, 2015 at 9:59 pm

The laws where I live mean that I am able to consent to sex at the age of 12, so long as my partner is within two years of my age, and to a partner of any age at 16. The vast majority of my clientele were within those age ranges within my time as an underage worker, but as transactional sex, it remained illegal and was defined as trafficking and/or rape. On top of that, not all transactional sex sessions actually involve penetrative sex- but they involve sexual services and would still be criminalised. Such a simplistic view of consent contributes to the harm against me- I broke this down in the original article. To frame me as having been continuously raped means that times when I was *actually* assaulted are taken less seriously; by treating me as an endless rape victim, it results in me being treated as unrapeable.

Reply

Celine Bisette August 22, 2015 at 4:00 pm

I applaud Tits and Sass and the author for writing publicly on this issue. It’s such an important topic. Thank you.

Reply

Ms. Pris October 8, 2015 at 2:49 am

I actually got a little choked up reading this article. Like Celine, I applaud T&S and Mikey for writing and publishing this.

Reply

Gaye Dalton April 17, 2016 at 4:15 am

…and 6 months on there is a renewed wave of interest in this article that is not caring or constructive.

I will testify anywhere that these are the exact reasons why a minor ever trades sex:
***
With a system that entirely fails to protect and serve young people, either forcing them back into abusive homes or shuffling them into new, potentially even more violent environments such as group homes, foster homes, and juvenile halls, it’s no wonder these young people take their fate into their own hands. The few jobs that will hire young workers pay a pittance, and signing a lease isn’t even an option for minors.

For the majority of young workers, it isn’t cash they’re looking for. It’s food, shelter and sometimes drugs. It’s survival.
***

I would be thrilled to see the harsh criminalisation of those who create such a nightmare for the young people who deserve love, nurturing and freedom to develop into healthy adults. But that is not, realistically, ever going to happen, particularly as so many people want to make an issue of the fact that there is “no mention of pimps and grooming”.

They do not explain why a young person with their very survival at stake would require “pimps and grooming” as well…only someone who has never been really cold, hungry and hopeless could believe that.

Nor do they explain how Mikey is supposed to produce an account of “pimps and grooming” if they were not actually there.

If young people are made desperate enough to do this to escape: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/may/01/erskine-bridge-suicides-care-home they are surely desperate enough to sell or trade sex to escape without further encouragement.

It is the people who create such desperation that belong in jail.

Reply

Gaye Dalton April 17, 2016 at 4:25 am

PS. Funny thing, they said I was “a survivor” too, this says it all, why reinvent the wheel:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/feb/27/children-care-foster-home-suicide

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: