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.
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.