A controversial issue: youth in the sex trade

“People should be required to behave in a certain way. They should be required to pay for their misbehaviour.”[1]

These were the words of PC, Arnold Malone, an MP in the House of Commons. The date for the quote is May 29, 1981. Malone, in the above quote, was talking about criminalizing youth in the sex trade. He also conflated youth crime with adult crimes. And before saying all of this? He suggested that “mere fines or prisons terms” constituted people just “get[ing] off” (interesting choice of words given the context). Malone also suggested that “mere fines or prison terms” removed the “sense of obligation that follows a criminal act.”

A controversial issue: youth in the sex trade. I often wonder at times what people would presume about my story: still in high school and working in the sex trade. If I did not disclose the fact that it was just nearly two days after my 18th birthday that I decided to call a local agency, how would my story be constructed? Would people assume that I did not know what was best for me? Would I be considered a youth based on age/experience (rhetorical question obvs)? Would I be seen as a victim who was being exploited? Yes, exploitation happens but that is only one part of the story. The other part of the story is a story of resiliency and resistance to violence, individual and institutional.

In 2009, the Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP) released a report documenting how young women and girls perceive their experiences in the sex trade and street economies.[2] The report is diverse and vibrant, documenting ways of being resilient and ways of resisting violence in their lives.[3]

The YEWP report defines sex trade as “any form of being sexual (or the idea of being sexual) in exchange” for a myriad of items in various situations (like for safety, drugs, survival, needs, money, gifts, housing, foods, clothes, immigration and documentation).[4] In contrast to this report, there are very few resources on how young women and girls provide safety or protection with and amongst each other. This isn’t surprising since the way criminal laws are structured usually criminalize the ways in which young women and girls keep each other safe. Just last year, the government enacted the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.[5] These new laws are often touted as “protection for the women and girls” or the “vulnerable” in the sex trade. Yet, it assumes that all prostitution is exploitation and it creates victims where there may be none. It could be more correctly described as a law that creates victims, instead of protecting victims.

The YWEP report highlights that young women and girls experience violence both at an institutional and an individual level. The new law assumes that violence only happens at an individual level. In fact, it categorically ignores the ways in which institutional violence happens in young people’s lives who may be involved in the sex trade or street economies. The new law does not distinguish between a trafficking victim and a prostitute. It assumes they are one in the same. Yes, exploitation happens but it also only focuses on strengthening some of the very same systems that cause violence in young women and girls’ (who are in the sex trade or street economies) lives. As the Justice Critic pointed out, “The Conservatives are still criminalizing prostitutes and investing a measly $20 million.”[6] Often lost in this discussion is how these laws will actually create harm in the lives of the very same people it was meant to protect: young women and girls.

The YWEP outlined that young women and girls in the sex trade are being denied services because of their involvement in the sex trade.[7] They also report that police will sexually harass girls.[8] In other parts of the report, the YWEP documents “violent experiences at non-profits and service providers” and “how systems are set up to make things worse.” The report also highlights the fact that police refuse to help young women and girls. Sometimes the police will force girls “to trade sex to avoid arrest but arrest them anyways.” In other instances, young women and girls are forced into psychiatric units because of their involvement in the sex trade or their gender identity. The report also highlighted that individual violence does happen at the hands of johns, pimps and/or boyfriends. But sometimes systems that were set up to save them often made things worse. The girls in the report also cited other girls as source of violence and that this violence caused them to feel further isolated.

In light of this violence, we must not forget the importance of this report: to build community. The YWEP doesn’t deny violence or exploitation happens. In fact, they acknowledge these diverse experiences up front and at the beginning. They focus not just on prostitution, but they also focus on other forms of sexual labour. The range of sex trade and street economy engagement includes lingerie modeling, street based, stripping, escorting, in exchange for gifts, dancing, survival sex, trafficked, or in exchange for drugs. They also acknowledge that the term sex worker is exclusionary. In other words, it excludes girls who may have been trafficked and exploited. I agree.

In acknowledging this violence in the context of community building, they also want to speak back to the harmful narratives that relegate their voices and experiences. In describing the importance of this report, the YWEP report reads, “we are not just objects that violence happens to but that we are active participants in fighting back and bouncing back.” This is a move away from the victim-model in young women and girls’ lives. It is a move toward a harm reduction model, acknowledging the various ways girls experiences violence, including from police and institutions with good intentions or with rescue-only models.

The new law is a rescue only model. In fact, the new funding that the government attached to the new law only allows funding to be provided to those programs or organizations that offer “exiting” programs.[9] While it seems like a good idea at first glance, we have to examine more closely how only focusing on exiting programs harms young women and girls and prevents them from seeking help in the first place.

In “Speaking for Ourselves,” for instance, the two individuals talk about how programs who only assist victims or only assist those who want to exit prevent youth in the sex trade from accessing safe and non-judgmental services; they have to fitinto a certain kind of label in order to access services. The “Speakng for Ourselves” dialogue/interview also critiques how these same programs reproduce colonialism via protectionist or saviour policies and programs. The YWEP reported very similar findings (as noted above) including girls being denied helped from police, hospitals and social service agencies—all because of their involvement in the sex trade and/or because of their gender identity.

The report also highlights that in the face of institutional and individual violence, the girls rely on each other. Specifically, when the system fails them, they turn to each other or to their own selves, as a form of harm reduction.[10]

Yet, the new law criminalizes youth who may rely on each other for a safety or support network. Young people rely on each other in the sex trade for support in different ways. The new law does not distinguish between those who may rely on another person for support or safety. In fact, it assumes that anyone who receives a “material benefit” from someone who is selling sexual services under the age of 18 is exploiting them. All of the time. The new law presumes that anyone who is “habitually” in the presence of a person “who offers or provides sexual services for consideration is, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, proof that the person received a financial or other material benefit from those services.” In only very limited circumstances, persons who are “habitually” around someone who offers sexual services for money will not be considered exploiting that person selling sex. They are presumed to be guilty unless they can prove otherwise which means that they must show that they were not exploiting the person. How is that evidence supposed to be presented? By the person offering the sexual services? And if all prostitution is exploitation, then wouldn’t all instances of being in the presence of someone who offers sexual services be, by default, exploitation? But what about young people who may rely on each other for support? Does this new law really “protect” them?

There are many issues with this new law but what often gets lost is how these ways of resisting violence and building community in young people’s lives is weakened by increased criminalization of their lives. In the YWEP report, they cite that many girls will share information about the law. If we apply these same experiences to Canadian girls under the new law, it would potentially translate to procuring or trafficking charges. And we do see an increase in these kind of heavy charges being laid against young people who may be working with other young people. When we criminalize lives of young people, we weaken the control they have over their lives. They will less likely seek out services if they know they might be denied services because they are not playing the victim or if they fear they might be criminalized. Yes, some girls do report violence but this often comes with the risk of more violence. The YWEP eloquently states, “creating solidarity and collective wisdom with other girls is the greatest act of resistance.” But it is under laws like the new prostitution laws in Canada that this solidarity is diminished. It is through these laws that exploitation occurs: by pushing those who do need help to get out harder to reach because they fear increased violence in the “helping systems” and increased criminalization in those same systems. Their friendships and communities are criminalized all in the name of “rescuing” and “protection.” We must remember that young people in the sex trade and street economies are capable of having agency and are capable of making choices as experts in their own lives.

If we return to the above quote, asking people to behave in a certain way, not much has changed with these new laws. These new laws assume that only a certain kind of woman and girl is worthy of being protected as thousands continue to go missing and murdered, including non-Indigenous/non-white women and girls. We must learn to be honest with ourselves and we must be willing to critically engage in how new laws always affect the lives of the most vulnerable. We must also be willing to take a step back and critically examine our own communities: Are they helping or hurting young women and girls? Do we shame young women and girls for the choices they make or because they choose to live different lives than we could ever imagine? We must also be willing to interrogate the mainstream narratives that shape how society constructs young women and girls’ lives, experiences and bodies. What do these narratives assume about young women and girls? And most importantly, even if you think you are helping, you must be willing to accept that sometimes your help isn’t needed and that sometimes it creates more harm than actual help. We don’t need more white saviour/colonial bullshit in our communities than we already have.

Some of the recommendations from the YWEP report include some of the following:

  • Having no police or security guards on site of organization as girls are less likely to confide in staff if they know you are working with the law (they reported security guards soliciting sex, sexually harassing girls or being homo/transphobic toward girls)
  • Any program open to girls needs to be open to trans girls
  • Think critical about the law before advocating for policy (they suggested asking questions like “Will the law really help girls trading sex for money right now or will it lead to an increase in police presence? Will removing a law decrease girls’ risk for violence or abuse?”) – this point cannot be stressed enough
  • They acknowledge and recognize that getting out is harder than it is to get into the trade but they suggest that others begin asking: does the law help?

YWEP sources:

[1] http://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC3201_09/700?r=0&s=1

[2] The term street economy refers to ways of making money without having to show identification or pay taxes.

[3] https://ywepchicago.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/girls-do-what-they-have-to-do-to-survive-a-study-of-resilience-and-resistance.pdf

[4] Because of the lack of accessible reports/research on youth in the sex trade, this is the only report that is being referenced in this post. There are also references to the chapter “We Speak for Ourselves: Anti-Colonial and Self-Determined Responses to Young People in the Sex Trade” which is a dialogue/interview between an interviewer and a young person with sex trade experience (See http://www.ubcpress.ca/books/pdf/chapters/2013/SellingSex.pdf).

[5] http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Language=E&Mode=1&DocId=6767128

[6] http://openparliament.ca/debates/2014/6/12/francoise-boivin-5/

[7] Also see, “Speaking for Ourselves” chapter in “Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy and Research on Sex Work in Canada”

[8] https://ywepchicago.wordpress.com/our-work/our-campaign/

[9] http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=910819

[10] http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Language=E&Mode=1&DocId=6767128&File=4 (See S. 286.2(1)-(3)).

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