Children and the Commercial Sex Industry

Child sexual abuse and exploitation has always had a commercial element. Or, to put it another way, the sex trade has always involved children.

This is a horrifying thought that seems to belong to another age, or another nation. But the truth is it’s happening right here and now in the UK. Several recent child sexual abuse scandals in cities across the UK have involved a definite commercial element; meanwhile, mainstream online pornography reveals the extent of adult sexual interest in children, with so-called ‘teen porn’ (otherwise known as pseudo-child pornography) an enduringly popular genre.

“Even before I was out of middle school, I had been featured on foot fetish websites, photoshopped into child porn, and received all kinds of letters and messages online from grown men.”

Former Child Actor, Mara Wilson1BBC, (24.02.2021) Mara Wilson: ‘Sexualised’ child star expresses solidarity with Britney Spears 

In short, children are involved in the sex trade right here and now, and there are a number of reasons why we shouldn’t expect this to ever change:

  1. Youth is enduringly desirable in the sex trade

In the sex trade, younger women are particularly in demand. In her memoir Paid For, sex trade survivor Rachel Moran describes how, at 15, she never saw herself as a ‘child prostitute’: “I had no problem identifying with the ‘prostitute’ part of the term… but I never felt like a child at that time.”

She recalls: “I told all of the men I met my age at that time. I did this for a reason: because it had the almost universal effect of causing them to become very aroused and to climax easily, which was good news for me because it meant that the experience was over with quickly.”2R. Moran (2015) Paid for: My Journey Through Prostitution, (W. W. Norton,2015) p.161 

  1. There’s a high rate of adolescent entrance into the sex tradeL.Murphy (10.01.2018)3Anti-trafficking’s Sensational Misinformation: The “72-hour Myth” and America’s Homeless Youth

Whatever the factors precipitating their entry into prostitution, research shows that a significant proportion of people start as minors.4Written evidence to the UK Home Affairs Committee by End Demand Approximately 50% of women in prostitution in the UK started being paid for sex acts before they were 18 years old.5Home Office (2004) Paying the Price: A Consultation Paper on Prostitution What’s more, in the past 20 years there has been a rise in the online sex trafficking of increasingly younger children, especially 13- and 14-year-olds.6The Sexualisation of Girls and Girlhood, ed. E.Zurbriggen and T.Roberts, Oxford University Press (2013) 

  1. Children are inherently vulnerable and therefore easier to manipulate, coerce and control

Trafficking, violence and coercion are rife in the sex trade, where the majority of individuals are highly vulnerable and under some form of third-party control. Youth is an obvious vulnerability and makes those who are already disadvantaged (through the likes of poverty, homelessness, poor education, being in the care system and historical abuse or neglect) particularly susceptible to being targeted by pimps and traffickers.

Young people can be groomed for years prior to their commercial exploitation. Being trapped in a cycle of exploitation through subtle control and manipulation can affect their capacity to safeguard themselves or to make informed decisions once they reach the age of consent.

  1. Prostitution involves treating women and children as sexual commodities 

Research suggest that men who buy sex show little empathy towards the woman they use. This is very much a one-sided exchange centred entirely on the punter’s sexual gratification, and research shows that few show any concern over whether the person they’re using is trafficked, exploited or underage.

“Learning to present a hypersexualized, prostitution-like version of themselves to the world, girls may unwittingly participate in their own sexual exploitation.”7The Sexualisation of Girls and Girlhood, ed. E.Zurbriggen and T.Roberts, Oxford University Press (2013)

Recognising children as victims of sexual exploitation

Until the late 1990s / early 2000s, criminal justice responses to those selling sex made little or no distinction between adults and children. Children over 10 years old (the age of criminal responsibility) were frequently cautioned and prosecuted for soliciting offences, despite the fact that under 16-year-olds are deemed unable to consent to sex in law.8M. Lee, R.O’Brian (1995) The game’s up: redefining child prostitution, The Children’s Society 

We were not averse to using the terms ‘child prostitute’ or even ‘child sex worker’. In fact, the report from the Rochdale child sexual abuse scandal noted that practitioners’ conceptions of children as ‘prostitutes’ facilitated their stigmatisation and concealed the fact of their abuse and exploitation.9Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Board (2012) Review of Multi-agency Reponses to the Sexual Exploitation of Children. Rochdale: Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Board The assumption that young people were ‘choosing’ to be involved with gangs of older men led to authorities ignoring and failing to act on the wide-scale sexual exploitation and abuse of thousands of teenagers across the UK over decades.10Maureen O’hara (2019) Making pimps and sex buyers visible: Recognising the commercial nexus in ‘child sexual exploitation’

This and similar scandals caused children’s charities to campaign for the use of new terminology: they argued that the term “child prostitution” should be prohibited, since prostitution was conceived as something that involves consent, which children are legally unable to give, whatever their assertions.

Children and young people who are being exploited will often say they are consenting. Professor Jenny Pearce, Professor of Young People and Public Policy at the University of Bedfordshire, rightly identifies that “consent” is complex and must be considered in context, since there are many social and environmental factors that impact a person’s capacity to make free and empowered choices.11J.Pearce (2013) A Social Model of ‘Abused Consent’. In: Melrose M., Pearce J. (eds) Critical Perspectives on Child Sexual Exploitation and Related Trafficking. Palgrave Macmillan, London. Vulnerable children in particular are easily conditioned into believing they’re acting with autonomy when, in fact, they are the victims of sophisticated manipulation.

But while it’s right that we acknowledge that children cannot consent to sex, researcher and senior law lecturer Maureen O’Hara at Coventry University points out that shifting the terminology brings a number of dangers of its own:12Maureen O’Hara (2019) Making pimps and sex buyers visible: Recognising the commercial nexus in ‘child sexual exploitation’

  1. It makes children invisible in the sex trade

The broad terms that have replaced ‘children abused by prostitution’ – for example, ‘child sexual exploitation’, means there’s a danger of children being invisible in the sex trade.

In her study of children in global sex markets, Sociologist Dr. Julia O’Connell Davidson suggests that the attempt to draw a firm boundary between the prostitution of adults and of children, “does not reflect the realities of sex commerce”, where children and adults often ‘serve’ the same clients, are controlled by the same third parties, and enter the sex trade through the same structural risk factors.13J. O’Connell Davidson (2005) Children in the global sex trade, 2005 ISBN: 978-0-745-62928-5 

  1. It creates an awkward ‘double standard’ when a child reaches the age of consent

We recognise that children’s consent is not free and valid. However, when children reach the age of 16, what then? Children’s charities recognise the danger of social care simply ‘falling off a cliff’ when what is regarded as child sexual exploitation one day suddenly becomes a ‘choice’ the next.14The Children’s Society (2016) Seriously Awkward Report In reality, the commercial sexual exploitation of children and adults are intrinsically interconnected because “childhood lasts for a lifetime”, as advocate of children’s rights, Baroness Benjamin observes.15Safer Internet Centre (16.05.2019) F.Benjamin Childhood lasts a lifetime 

  1. It fails to recognise that many in the sex trade have a legacy of child sexual abuse.

The majority of women in the sex trade have experienced some form of historic abuse, which is a significant risk factor for revictimisation, including through commercial sexual exploitation. Sexual abuse leads children to perceive themselves as a sexual commodity, which makes subsequent work in the sex trade a natural fit. Abuse can cauterise the reflexive feelings of revulsion that come from being sexually used against our will. 

“One way in which children who are abused survive is by learning how to tolerate, rather than to escape from, dangerous situations… they make themselves more vulnerable to re-victimisation… because they respond to danger not by getting out of it but by staying in it and confirming the survival strategies that made them feel safe throughout their childhood.”

S.E. McCollum, Psychotherapist16S.McCollum (2015) Multigenerational Dissociation: A Framework for Building Narrative  J Trauma Dissociation. 2015;16(5):563-76. doi: 10.1080/15299732.2015.1030717.

Moreover, what’s true of children regarding choice and consent is true of adults as well: the ‘choice’ to enter the sex trade is impacted by the structural inequalities of gender, social class, race and age. There are and will always be links between the commercial sexual exploitation of children and adults.

Wherever the sex trade thrives, there will be a demand for minors.