Understanding and Unpacking the Canadian Legalized Prostitution Debate: The Curious Case of the ‘Child Sex Worker’

This week I wanted to share some of my current research pains as I try to navigate two very complicated and simultaneously intertwined yet oppositional positions within feminist thought and activism. These are initial, incomplete thoughts and ideas, which I am currently looking at as a possible thesis topic. My sincerest apologies in advance for the headache, in case anyone reading this finds this material as soul-crushingly opaque and treacherous as I do.

A major ethical concern for me personally is the issue of the sex industry as regards children, specifically teens. This has to do with my early experiences in CYC in Vancouver, British Columbia, working in the residential care of Indigenous girls who were often directly implicated in the child sex worker trade of the Downtown East Side. I say ‘child sex work’, and not another term such as ‘exploitation’, ‘victimization’, or even ‘prostitution’, because I’ve come to believe that there is utility in naming sex work as an industry, which helps avoid certain philosophical or political ambiguities on how one views sex work. Of course these distinctions are heavily weighted subjectivities in the discourse on this phenomenon, and to some my choice of terms here might be seen as careless and/or corrupt.

I am in between opinions on these discussions, and can only say that my intention is in naming sex work as a real and quantifiable industry, being one part of a complex capitalist, consumerist, globalist system of legitimate and illegitimate trade (Farmer and Horowitz, 2013). My use of the word ‘child’ in place of ‘teen/youth/minor’ is meant to preserve something of the gravity of unbalanced power relationships inherent in adult/youth interactions , though for the purposes of what I’m investigating here I am in fact speaking more to the experiences of teens whose chronological age floats somewhere around the age of sexual consent and the legal working age, but under the age of official adulthood (all of which vary from province to province, but fit roughly into the 12-18 zone). Additionally, I hold that this added modifier of ‘child’ serves as a necessary and hopefully shocking reminder of the affront to established social norms of decency and moral acceptability towards child labour, the existing taboo on prostitution itself notwithstanding. Bergquist (2015) has argued that there is in fact a need to recognize sex work as labour, in order to properly sort out which entities we are even dealing with:

“If sex worker advocates argue that the salient issues are labor rights, safe working conditions, and health, then including minors could raise separate legal and ethical questions and thereby detract from their message. However, even if exploitation in the sex industry arguably can be confined to fair labor matters, the inclusion of forced child labor must be addressed as it is in other industries.” (Bergquist, 2015, p.318)

The cultural debate on prostitution in Canada, which informs the larger legal debate, centers mainly on human rights. For the purpose of this discussion, I’m looking at whether third wave, post-structuralist feminism can lay claim to the same kind of moral and ethical imperatives that were taken up by earlier “second wave” radical feminist movements. This ‘RadFem’ position advocates for the complete abolishment of prostitution, and defines it as consisting only of perpetuated violence against women, and as a category of rape and/or slavery. It furthermore denies the importance of both personal choice and the need to consider intersectionalities of race, gender, etc. which underpin the more modern, contemporary feminist movement’s concern with the rights of ‘sex workers’ (Farley, 2005; Alvarez and Allessi, 2012).

Bromfield and Capus-Desyllas (2012), in an essay investigating key policy advocates for either side as regards the issue’s broader relationships to human trafficking, define this first “camp” as the “Left/Right coalition”. Though they are mainly identifying players in the American political arena, it isn’t much of a stretch to describe the Canadian version of this coalition in the same terms. Radical feminists, exemplified in the Canadian/Vancouver case by the views of Vancouver Rape Relief front-line worker and activist Lee Lakeman, are typically uninterested in using the ‘patriarchal’ systems to settle such arguments. However, the strong push towards abolitionism inherent in their definitions of prostitution puts them directly in league with hotly contested Conservative legislation on prostitution, and at odds, as with the Conservatives, with the Canadian judiciary (see especially Melissa Farley’s contentious testimony during the Bedford vs Canada case).

The mud-slinging from both sides is highly worrisome, given what’s at stake, and each contender claims the moral imperative in different ways. The decriminalization camp has at times accused the abolitionist camp of trans-exclusionism, a criticism mirrored in a similar debate in the environmental movement. The animosity from the abolitionist side was heightened in the aftermath of a visit to Vancouver by celebrated progressive journalist and social critic Chris Hedges (whose tireless work fighting the rise of Islamophobia in Canada and the US I’ve long respected ). In an unfortunate and strongly worded opinion piece, Hedges argued against the decriminalization of prostitution in Canada, employing a scathing critique of the left which I believe unfairly attacks modern day feminists as lacking a social conscience, and including a rebuke of Amnesty International’s goals to decriminalize sex work on a global scale. This in turn prompted chain reactions from both sides, and a serious revving up of rhetoric and guile.

My own reaction to this ideological battle is mixed. I’m by no means unmoved by the very real and damaging effects prostitution has had on women and children in this country, especially in the disproportionate way that this violence has been visited upon Indigenous women and girls (Farley, 2005, and de Finney, 2015). I have in fact been directly impacted and even personally threatened by such violence in my career. But I also identify with the ideological emphasis on choice, intersectionality, and agency in third wave feminism, and am critical of the potential for abolitionist voices to sanction what may be ultimately harmful legislation that could negatively impact the lives of sex workers even further (Krüsi et al, 2014). This inability to comfortably choose sides at one point resulted in my attempting to sort out which voices directly impacted by these decisions and debates were backing which camps, in hopes of possibly deferring my position to that of an ally of groups I would want to advocate for. It was a useless endeavour; there are fantastic organizations, clubs, and individuals arguing for both sides. I must therefore admit that the prospect of aligning with ether camp directly is a both daunting and unobvious choice, with tones of reasonability and validity at times echoing from either side.

However, what bothers me most about this debate is the complete absence of child sex workers’ specific experiences in these many conversations. For example, neither the International Journal of Child, Youth, and Family Studies nor the Relational Journal of Child and Youth Care Practice contain articles over the last five years dealing with the subject of child prostitution/sex work directly. There are many pieces on the domestic and/or sexual abuse that are often indicators of this activity later in life, and others discussing criminality, social stigma, ‘risky’ behaviours, etc., but none (that I have yet found) which tackle the issue of living, breathing, underage sex workers in Canada, or their opinions and experiences of their involvement in that industry, as a direct object of study. This absence was felt even in some of the strongest research arguing for abolition, where an appeal to the vulnerability of children as a distinct group might have been expected: Farley et al (2005)’s oft-cited study identifies a portion of their sample as girls between the age of 12-18, but do not elaborate on or single out this subgroup for any further study. Similarly, the ‘Save the Children’ initiative advertises only their work on the intermediary problems involved in child sex work, such as the overlap with HIV/Aids reduction, human trafficking, and the question of ‘livelihood’. This seems to be the pattern almost everywhere I look, indicating a possible aversion in academic research towards examining child sex work as a topic in and of itself.

This realization had me asking some tough questions about why that might be: Do children cease to become an ideal object of inquiry, as actual children, once they’ve become prostitutes? Is this a special kind of “delinquency”, distinct in some way from the other types which merit deeper discussion (addiction, violence, etc.)? Is it necessarily “delinquency” at all? Furthermore, do we still see children who sell sex as children, or do we assign them different notions of innocence, vulnerability, and concern? Where might such a delineation originate? Is there some effect inherent in looking at child sex work head on which mandates a need to subsume this topic under other categories, such as ‘exploitation’, ‘rape’, ‘human trafficking’, etc.? And finally, can our practice tackle this reality with the same degree of care, sensitivity, and openness that we apply to other aspects of a troubled youth?

Some of these questions have been addressed in the literature tackling other issues. The need for a distinction between ‘human trafficking’ and prostitution is addressed by Alvarez and Allessi (2012), who argue through a third wave feminist and postmodern lens against the tendency to paint all prostitutes, even child ones, as ‘victims’ in all cases. They maintain that this takes attention away from globalist-capitalist structural conditions which often confine marginalized women and children’s lives, and push them towards prostitution as a survival choice. Bergquist (2015) argues a related point, that by conflating sex work to the domain of human trafficking exclusively, we run the risk not only of denying sex workers the labour rights that might regulate their industry in safer ways, but also of pushing child sex work into hidden spaces were children are further brutalized, as well as in eliminating any potential role for adult sex workers to advocate for them as “allies”. Finally, Stephanie Halter (2010) approaches the dominant, fluctuating dichotomy present in societal attitudes towards child sex workers, that of ‘victims’ vs ‘delinquents’, by looking at the attitudes and practices of those most often charged with solving this societal ill, law enforcement agencies.

My interest in this topic is slowly drifting towards a very ethically challenging theme. It involves engaging more honestly with what Affrica Taylor (2010) describes as “our fraught relationship with children’s sexuality” when looking at the roles and experiences of children involved in sex work. This is not to be confused with asking whether we should embrace children’s autonomy or ‘right’ to wander through one of the most potentially dangerous and ugly aspects of society; I doubt I could ever intellectualize myself into wanting anything less than a complete removal of children’s bodies from the world of paid-for sex. Rather, I’m interested in exploring what happens when we bring our hyper-idealized notions of the child as vulnerable object (Gleason, 2001) into an equation where so much real danger exists for children, and whether we risk allowing widespread social panic and a kind of faulty moral certainty to create a cloud of confusion and fear over the conversation, which both obscures and silences children’s voices as well as children’s pain. I’m also interested in the intersections between this phenomenon in Canada and the racial and socio-economic disparities that exist among Indigenous vs Settler youth (de Finey, 2015; de Leeuw, 2009), of the question of Trans youths’ perspectives on either side, and of other aspects of power and colonialist oppression that will almost definitely need to be unpacked in such an analysis.

Again, I have to admit to extreme trepidation in even asking these questions. The sheer outrage and unfettered criticism from certain individual activists and theorists on these topics is difficult to ignore: obviously, nobody wants to risk a career or public reputation by ending up on the wrong side of the fence on the sexual exploitation of children. But then it’s this very blustering and over-confident aspect of the conversation, combined with a deafening silence from those most affected by the emotional, social, and psychological violence this industry is known to perpetuate, which has me nearly convinced that some major problem here remains unsolved, or even undetected. That being said, I would invite, encourage, and even beg my readers for any insights, suggested readings, or criticisms of these preliminary deliberations on the subject of “child sex work”, and to not hold back in doing so, as I feel none of this aforementioned confidence going forward.

References:

Alvarez, M.B. and Alessi, E.J. (2012). Human trafficking is more than sex trafficking and prostitution: Implications for social work. Journal of Women and Social Work, 27(2), 142-152

Bergquist, K.J.S. (2015). Criminal, victim, or ally? Examining the role of sex workers in addressing minor sex trafficking. Journal of Women and Social Work, 30(30), 314-327

Bromfield, N.F. and Capous-Desyllas, M. (2012). Underlying motives, moral agendas and unlikely partnerships: The formulation of the U.S Trafficking in Victims Protection Act through the data and voices of key policy players. Advances in Social Work, 13(2), 243-261

de Finney, S. (2015). Playing Indian and other settler stories: disrupting Western narratives of Indigenous girlhood. Continuum, 29(2), 169-181.

De Leeuw, S. (2009). ‘If anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young’: colonial constructions of Aboriginal children and the geographies of Indian residential schooling in British Columbia, Canada. Children’s Geographies, 7(2), 123-140.

Farley, M. et al. (2005). Prostitution in Vancouver: Violence and the colonization of First Nations women. Transcultural Psychiatry, 42(2), 242-271

Farmer, A. and Horowitz, A.W. (2013). Prostitutes, pimps, and brothels: Intermediaries, information, and market structure in prostitution markets. Southern Economic Journal, 79(3), 513-528

Gleason, M. (2001). Disciplining the student body: schooling and the construction of Canadian children’s bodies, 1930–1960. History of Education Quarterly, 41(2), 189-215.

Halter, S. (2010). Factors that influence police conceptualization of girls involved in prostitution in six U.S. cities: Child sexual exploitation victims or delinquents? Child Maltreatment, 15(2), 152-160

Krüsi, A. et al. (2015). Criminalisation of clients: reproducing vulnerabilities for violence and poor health among street-based sex workers in Canada – a qualitative study. BMJ Open, 14(4)
downloaded from http://bmjopen.bmj.com

Taylor, A. (2010). Troubling childhood innocence: Reframing the debate over the media sexualisation of children. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 35(1), 48-57

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