Youth in the Sex Trade: How Understanding Push & Pull Factors Can Better Inform Public Policy

Youth in the Sex Trade: How Understanding Push & Pull Factors Can Better Inform Public Policy

October 19, 2011


Recently, there have been several articles in the media challenging the frequently cited “statistics” that claims anywhere between 100,000 to 300,000 children annually are trafficked into sexual slavery in the United States, most notably in Village Voice (06/29/2011). I have also analyzed this claim in my zine, War on Terror & War on Trafficking, criticizing the methodological problems in the original study as well as misinterpretation of the study by the media and anti-trafficking organizations. (Village Voice requested a phone interview with me before that article came out, but I thought they were going to twist my comments so I insisted on a written interview over email, after which they trailed off.)

But while it is not true that hundreds of thousands of children are forced into sexual slavery, Village Voice is clearly wrong to suggest, based on the number of juveniles arrested for prostitution-related crimes, that underage prostitution is extremely rare. Any social service providers serving street-based youth know that underage prostitution is fairly common among the youth they work with, even though it does not look like what the media often depict it to be.

The confusion arises from the application of the legal definition of “human trafficking” to frame our understanding of underage prostitution. Because

the law defines any youth who engages in sex trade (which is a value-neutral descriptive term I use instead of “sex work” or “sexual exploitation”) as victims of human trafficking, many people equate that to mean that all youth who engage in sex trade are enslaved by traffickers.

This impression is further reinforced by certain anti-trafficking organizations such as Shared Hope International that promote the notion that any child, even white middle-class children from good homes in the suburb, can be trafficked into sexual slavery. Such campaigns fuel fear and panic among white middle- class parents that their daughters might be “taken” from their suburban schools and malls by urban (code for Black) pimps. This fear-mongering tactics is highly effective for grabbing funding, media attention, and political influence than campaigns that focus on the plight of runaway and thrownaway youth of color and youth from impoverished or broken homes—a more typical profile of a teenager involved in sex trade.

It is true that any child can be trafficked, but like everything else, poverty, racism, and other societal violence are huge risk factors: A pimp who goes to a suburban school to pick up a girl is much more likely to be noticed or caught, and the girl that went missing will be reported to the authority immediately. On the other hand, youth who is neglected or abandoned by their family and has no safe place to return to is a much easier and safer target for anyone looking for a minor to exploit.


But the misguided panic among middle-class suburban parents lead to policies that are ineffectual or even counter-productive, such as curfews and more policing at schools and malls. Curfews or youth shutouts in public spaces that are intended to protect youth from harm at night would only work if the youth had a safe place to go home to at night; if they don’t, curfews would force them to find some random adult to stay with for the night, which may not necessarily increase their safety.

Village Voice and other critics of “100,000 to 300,000′′ figure are correct to point out that the number of youth who are held in captivity and subjected to commercial sexual servitude–which the word “slavery” implies–is low. But when you include youth who occasionally or regularly engage in survival sex, which is trading sex for food, shelter, and other survival needs, and those who stay with a “boyfriend” or pimp not because they are unable to escape from them but because they get something out of the relationship that they are not getting elsewhere, the number would be exponential.

I believe that there are some anti-trafficking activists and organizations that distort reality about youth in the sex trade in order to advance agenda that

have nothing to do with ending sexual exploitation of youth. I count Shared Hope International as well as the producers of the documentary, Sex+Money:

A National Search for Human Worth in this group. I base this allegation on these activists’ and groups’ activities, such as Shared Hope shamelessly using its mailing list to distribute anti-abortion propaganda, and Sex+Money producers using its screenings to hand out “purity bands” that encourage viewers to pledge abstinence until they are married.

But I wonder if organizations that actually care about the youth are also making a conscious decision to let the public imagine there to be 100,000 to 300,000 minors who are “sold” as sex slaves, not challenging their misperceptions, precisely because they know that the public would care less about the youth

if they understood the reality that most of them are not “forced,” at least

not in slavery-like conditions, but are simply doing what it takes to survive. I wonder if they are intentionally hiding the fact that the youth in the sex trade are overwhelmingly youth of color, queer and trans youth, and other runaway, thrownaway, and homeless youth, and not your typical white middle-class children taken from suburban schools and malls, because they fear that the public won’t care about these children and youth. If white middle-class parents stop caring, there won’t be any funding to provide services to the youth who desperately need it. That seems like a reasonable hypothesis that explains why many social service agencies that work with this population remain complicit in upholding wildly inaccurate misperceptions about the problem at hand.

But, as I’ve pointed out above, such strategy also leads to ineffectual or counter- productive policies. I am especially alarmed that some of the social service agencies are forming and strengthening unnerving partnerships with the law enforcement, such as riding along in the police vehicle when cops conduct prostitution sweeps. The purpose of the ride-along is ostensibly to provide support and resources to any youth that might be uncovered in the sweep, but many street youth understandably view the police as their enemy, and it harms the social service agency’s credibility and trustworthiness in the eyes of the



Further, the public misperception over who the youth are result in overemphasis on pull factors of underage prostitution, and almost complete lack of attention to its push factors. “Pull factors” are the presence of sex industry, johns (clients), pimps, and traffickers that lure youth into engaging in sex trade; “push factors” are factors such as family violence, poverty, prison industry, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and unjust immigration laws, that make youth vulnerable in the first place.

Almost all anti-trafficking organizations focus on policing and prosecution of johns, pimps, and traffickers–the pull factors of the equation. Behind such approach is a naive assumption that the youth have a safe home to go back to or remain at if it weren’t for the sex industry, johns, pimps, or traffickers. But this is not the case for the vast majority of youth who trade sex. Even if the institution of prostitution and sex industry disappeared altogether, the youth will have to find another way to survive in the hostile society, possibly by selling drugs or robbing stores.

Anti-trafficking activists and organizations that knowingly promote false images of “modern day sex slavery” infuriate me. So do Village Voice and others that claim that underage prostitution is not a significant problem. And most of all,

I am exasperated by “the public,” the middle-American parents, television watchers, and people who click “like” in facebook as a form of activism, who don’t and won’t care about what youth have to do to survive, as long as their own children aren’t at risk.

Over the past couple of years, I have criticized anti-trafficking movement from

a sex worker’s rights perspective, but I am finding it increasingly limiting

to associate myself with the sex workers’ movement. Because sex workers’ movement seeks to decriminalize and destigmatize sex trade as a “transaction between consenting adults” just like any other market transactions, the movement automatically excludes minors from its consideration. I am not interested in “rescuing” youth from the sex industry, but I feel that it is our responsibility as adults to provide support and resources to the youth struggling to survive (whether or not they engage in survival sex or sex trade), while confronting social and economic violence that are “pushing” them onto the street in the first place.

FEBRUARY 28, 2013

Rights for Sex Workers: Housing, Income, Safety and Wellbeing, Education

Sarah M. is an MA student in literary studies at Athabasca U and a filthy pervert.

It’s that time of year again – Sex Workers’ Rights Day is almost here! There are two days each year designed to address sex workers’ second-class status in most of society: on December 17th we mark the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, and on March 3rd we mark Sex Workers’ Rights Day.

Photo by Steve Rhodes used under Creative Commons licence.

I’m glad there are two days because what sometimes gets glossed over in the typically-polarized and regularly pointless debates that go on about sex work is that sex workers have needs other than just not being the objects of violence. And when I say debating is pointless, I don’t mean everything about the positions and ideas brought up in debate is pointless, but rather that the debate structure is pointless and most often we get nothing out of “winning.” (To the extent that one even can win against prohibitionist and pro-criminalization allegations of neoliberal sentiment and pimping. I think mostly we just get sucked into giving attention to a lot of assholes, who gleefully waste our time and energy.)

Anyway, I’ve given some thought over the last few years about what rights I would like to see better protected and what protection would count as meaningful. And ima just keep harping on this till the cows come home, because, even with the substantial progress we’ve seen towards decriminalization of prostitution, I don’t think we’ve really seen any action from the state on prostitutes’ rights. (Not all sex workers are prostitutes, so, while much of this applies equally to other forms of sex work, take any of those kinds of abstractions with a grain of salt. I only know what I know.)


I know, right? What the fuck does housing have to do with fucking (for money)? Well, to begin with, it gives you a place to do your fucking. Thanks to the Ontario Court’s two-tier decriminalization scheme, the sex workers with the least privacy for advertising and conducting business are still the most vulnerable to state violence via arrest, community violence via “concerned” neighbours, and interpersonal violence via bad dates looking for easy targets. Even for indoor sex workers (who may or may not be making more money and who may or may not have more choice about their work), having stable housing while doing sex work means having a home base, needing to take fewer risks to keep oneself safe and off the streets, more privacy, better facilities for personal hygiene, having a place to rest, and being able to keep all of the social and economic equity that comes with being housed.

Even when you don’t own the house, you own all the shit in it, which means you don’t have to buy a new every time there’s to be done. May not seem like much if you’ve never gone without, but I promise, it is damn convenient to be housed. You also have things like leases, legal protections (however minimal) as a tenant, doors that lock, stoves, and the fundamental stability of knowing where you are sleeping. Housing rocks.

Sex workers experience significant discrimination in housing, in part thanks to the bawdy house law that makes it illegal to knowingly allow sex workers to conduct business from a rental apartment. While the Residential Tenancies Act in Ontario does protect against discrimination based on legal source of income (in an attempt to prevent landlords from refusing to rent to people earning welfare incomes), keeping a common bawdy house isn’t legal and landlords ignore that regulation anyway. For anyone “out” as a sex worker, having to move is a real risk—heaven forbid the landlord googles your name.

The stigmatization of sex workers causes all sorts of problems. Not only are sex workers left out of regulations designed to protect housing rights and as unlikely as any other stigmatized group to actually receive protection under those regulations anyway, the neighbours might complain. Or throw things. Or organize city-wide campaigns to oust you. You know, like bake sales, but with hysterical NIMBYists hurling abuse at any woman who happens to pause on a corner for a little too long.

And that’s just the shit sex workers deal with when they can afford a place. Add scarcity of affordable, liveable housing; emergencies caused by domestic abusers, stalker clients, arrests and other destabilizations; racism, ableism and transphobia from landlords; and the fact that a great many sex workers do sex work because they’re just fucking poor, and you have a real problem that goes by the name Access to Housing.


That thing about being fucking poor brings us to income. I loooooove abolitionists who insist that “ending demand” will solve sex workers’ problems. Clearly, they have never tried hooking in January, when everyone’s broke and there is no demand. Nothing says The End of Patriarchy like having a 70 % off pussy sale to try to make rent.

I actually don’t have a real problem with the ideaof abolishing prostitution. Work sucks, and most of it is coercive and exploitative most of the time, so I’m all for abolishing work and the system of class relations it occurs in, prostitution included. When people tell me many, or even most, prostitutes would quit if they had a better option, I can believe it. I wouldn’t bet my house on it, because that’s still not valid research, but I don’t think it’s implausible. So I’m not going to complain if better options start popping up right, left and centre and all the hos quit until only the ones who really, really do choose it are left. And the ones who are left will make a killing. Win-win, folks.

The trouble with abolitionism is that removing prostitution as an option does not actually make other options appear. And that’s kind of a problem on all sides. Getting paid $200 to espouse decriminalization to your starry-eyed undergrads once a year doesn’t make other options appear either. Abolitionists and pro-sex feminists have all picked up the idea that sex workers need to be paid for the work and expertise of speaking for themselves, but neither group is actually offering stable, meaningful work. Some of them don’t want to, and others of them would desperately love to if only they had the funding, so this isn’t a condemnation (I’ve condemned the abolitionists for better reasons, elsewhere). It’s just a statement about what’s going on.

Safety and Wellbeing

If you’ve been waiting for me to talk about pimps and sex slavery, I have good news: you can fuck off.

In no particular order, here is what I understand as contributing to my safety and well-being:

  • access to primary health care
  • access to mental health care
  • money to buy prescriptions
  • not getting arrested
  • sex
  • having a place to live
  • queer space and community
  • companionship with humans and animals
  • knowledge about my health
  • gynecological care
  • preventative screening for illnesses
  • the outrageously expensive vegan nutritional shake I drink that tastes like concentrated ass
  • freedom from interpersonal violence
  • protection from prejudice and discrimination
  • people who are kind to me
  • eye and dental care
  • reproductive justice

I’m sure I could go on. Turns out people with bodies basically all need this shit all the time. FUN GAME: while you’re trying to access these things, tell your doctors, nurses, communities, etc. that you’re a whore. See how much access you have then.


I use this term very broadly because I know that, while I like being in school and want to continue to be a student and academic worker for at least the next few years, not everyone wants a formalized education delivered by that special combination of public-private partnerships, privilege and corporate bribes we like to pretend is still a public education system There are some problems with formal education, especially for sex workers.

Do you know how often whores come up, in all kinds of classes? From philosophy, to literature, to history, to sociology, to criminology, to youth studies, everybody’s talking about the whores. How many everybodys imagine that there are real live sex workers, sitting in their classes the whole time, and listening to their opinions about who’s diseased and who’s a bad mother and who’s the ruination of the hero character or destined to die alone? School can be a really unsafe place to be a whore.

It can also be a real life-saver for sex workers who want out, who have huge gaps in their work histories and who need formal recognition of their skills or to learn new skills.

But that’s really the tip of the iceberg of knowledge production. People who decide (imho, a much more useful term than “choose,” since informed, reasonable decisions can still be made under all kinds of conditions that don’t involve “free choice”).. Tangent. People who decide to become sex workers could benefit immediately and immensely from education on how to do sex work. All those whores who have been working for years or decades didn’t just lay back and check out, they learned vital strategies for making their jobs safer, easier, more profitable and subject to less punishment and oppression. This is something that sex worker organizations already offer, but with limited funding, limited geographical scope, limited staff and a lot of heat—and we wouldn’t want anyone to mistake it for procuring, which is also illegal.

From hobby classes to the basics of labour organizing, there is all kinds of education that already happens across the country that could be extended to and provided by sex workers.

The Catch

Photo by Halans used under Creative Commons licence.

So, once upon a time I was chilling in a drop-in and a bunch of genuinely nice and well-intentioned church ladies showed up to give us all a dinner, some massages, spa treatments and a bag of goodies like razors, tampons, grocery gift cards, bottles of water and bibles. That was a very kind thing to do, and after giving the bible back and giving the razors to someone who shaves, I enjoyed my bag of goodies. But just like there is a difference between a one-time payment for my expertise and a meaningful job, there is a difference between providing charity and protecting rights.

The catch in all this is that the resources for protecting sex workers’ meaningful access to housing, income, personal safety and wellbeing, and education need to go directly to sex workers. Social workers and church ladies are nice people, but sex workers cannot afford to keep providing them with jobs.

In a big way, this means seeing more funding for sex workers’ organizations, but it also means seeing resources dispersedthrough sex workers’ organizations to other sex workers.

Not a temporary shelter with 18 on-site staff trained in the latest trauma counselling techniques—a rent cheque in a sex worker’s hands. (Programs like this are actually becoming The Thing in Canada, possibly to the detriment of critiques of rental housing as a private market, but as far as I know there are none operated by sex workers for sex workers.)

Not a part-time peer support job for six months on the condition that Sheila stop selling her ass—just a job, paid the same as the regular staff, with the same title as the regular staff. (And Sheila can sell whatever the fuck she wants in her spare time.)

Not just a clinic for blood tests and pap screens and social workers who call Children’s Aid—preventative health care, prescription coverage, retirement assistance, eye care, dental.

So that’s it. That’s a few areas where sex workers’ rights could be substantially improved (not even close to all – see for example the 2006 report from Pivot Legal about sex workers’ labour rights, Beyond Decriminalization). None of this can be done without decriminalization, but none of it actually precludes ending coercive sex work by simply eliminating the need for it. And that is why, for the life of me, I cannot figure out why anyone would advocate ending “demand.” End scarcity and need, and things will take care of themselves.

Rights for Sex Workers

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