Saturday, January 28, 2012

Childhood, Consent, and Commercial Sex

Childhood, Consent, and Commercial Sex was written for the debut issue of the Land Line, a quarterly journal edited by Fiona Cook, Grant Reynolds, and myself, produced by a stunning collective of amateur publishers in Chicago. For more on the paper, check out THE LAND LINE  or tell me where you live and I'll tell you where to find a copy. 
“The public may be readily convinced there is a ‘problem,’ but almost any strategy for its control is vulnerable to attack on the grounds either that it punishes innocence or encourages sin. In these uncertain circumstances, not only the adoption of ‘reforms’ but the readiness of groups and individuals to propose them—to get in the ownership game at all—are especially likely to be influenced by political and ideological considerations that go beyond the reforms’ intrinsic merits.”
Constance A. Nathanson, Dangerous Passage: The Social Control of Sexuality in Women’s Adolescence (Temple University Press, 1991)

Child sex slaves. Trafficked children. Prostituted girls. Innumerable young girls—100,000 to 300,000 in the United States—controlled by ruthless pimps, desperate for salvation.[1] These are the stories we’ve been hearing about adolescent prostitutes from moral crusaders and anti-prostitution feminists, who have once again set aside their differences to save the children. With ex-power-couple Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore as spokesmodels, I mean celebrity activists, and every federal agency from the FBI to Homeland Security financing the cause and getting in on the action, the rescue and reform industry is doing just fine in these difficult times.
            The latest target of the rescue industry’s wrath is, a site owned by Village Voice Media that picked up the market for affordable escort classifieds after Craigslist’s erotic services section was effectively shut down. (Note to working “girls:” unless your idea of a good trick involves a night in the clink, I suggest you place your ads elsewhere for a while.) As Reverend Katherine Henderson of the Auburn Theological Society said on New York Public Radio’s On the Media, for anti-prostitution activists “one child sold for sex on a classified ad site is too many.” So never mind that the vast majority of advertisers on Backpage are adults, and that Village Voice Media has committed to screening adult services ads.
            One child. It’s a phrase we can expect to hear a lot more often, because the more we find out about youth prostitutes, the less credible “100,000 to 300,000 children” sounds. The Voice was the first major news organization to sound the alarm on the alarmists, and representatives say it could fold without revenue from Backpage. “The Truth Behind Sex Trafficking,” a Voice investigative series, has exposed several flaws in the much-cited data around adolescent prostitution. Apparently “100,000 to 300,000 children” is actually an estimate of the number of youth the University of Pennsylvania deemed at risk for entrance into sex work.
            Who’s at risk? Any reported runaway, even if they turned up the next day. Any transgender youth living in the United States. Any juveniles living in border towns along Mexico or Canada. With “risks” like these, it’s a wonder there are any children safe at all.
            Similarly, a study sponsored by the Women’s Funding Network that demonstrated a sharp increase in the number of youth prostitutes in the U.S. was shown to have been conducted by the Schapiro Group, a PR firm which used highly unscientific methods and distorted data to elicit a media response.[2] The hysteria that the rescue and reform industry leaves in its wake precludes questions of how many adolescent prostitutes there really are, as well as who they are, and what they want and need. Even prostitutes’ rights activists are loathe to question the premise of the exploited child prostitute, prefacing everything we say with disclaimers that we’re talking about consenting adults, not trafficked women, certainly not children.[3] This silence requires that we ignore the intricacies of the issues at stake.
The recent release of a 2008 study by anthropologists at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice finally makes an informed look at the lives of adolescent prostitutes possible. Ric Curtis and his team assessed the “size, characteristics, and needs” of adolescent prostitutes (18 and under) in New York City. They initially assumed they’d find more youth prostitutes in the city than previous data indicated, tailoring their methods to encourage access to pimped girls.[4] But what they found out didn’t reflect their assumptions at all.
There are approximately 3,946 youth prostitutes in the city, considerably less than previously thought. The mean age of the adolescents surveyed was 17.2. In all, 94% were 16 or older (over the age of consent in thirty-one states). The average age of initiation into prostitution is about 15 for male and female workers, 16 for trans workers, and most entered the field through friends (47%) or after being approached by a client (23.1%), not through pimps (8.1%). The experience of this 18-year-old woman interviewed for the study is fairly representative:

I was hangin’ around a lot and ended up walkin’ down 10th Street one day and ran into some friends who were doing it. And they told me it’s not that bad, and so, that’s how it happened. (Curtis 52)[5]

The sample youth were 48% female, 45% male, and 8% trans. Less than 10% worked through a market facilitator (pimp, manager, or agency). Considering that the team decided to shift their focus toward exclusively contacting pimped girls midway through the study, the number of pimped youth may actually be considerably less than the reported 10%. Is a self-employed sixteen-year-old female an exploited child? What about a self-employed eighteen-year-old male? Can these adolescents consent to unpaid sex? What about paid sex? 
The definition of “child” is not inflexible, nor is the definition of “consent.” Adolescence was identified as a phase distinct from childhood by psychologist G. Stanley Hall in the 1890s, but the understanding of that distinction has always been dependent on current cultural perspectives on gender, sexuality, and work. The mutability of this distinction is often erased entirely by reformers who consider all sex workers under the age of eighteen to be children. Children cannot, by U.S. law, give or deny consent. Consent is immaterial. Batting words around without consensus on or even discussion of their definitions is irresponsible and dangerous, especially when these words are being used to identify and categorize young people. Control of adolescent sexuality, especially when that sexuality is laced with dollar bills, has been rife with methodological and ideological contention since the late nineteenth century, when it first became a considerable “public problem.”[6] The Curtis study, and what adolescent prostitutes say about their own lives, should be analyzed with these historical contentions in mind.
The Western conception of childhood as a period of innocence and asexuality didn’t exist prior to the nineteenth century. Jeffrey Weeks writes that until this time, “children were dressed as miniature adults, complete with all the external manifestations of masculinity and femininity; exposed to the social aspects of adult sexuality earlier than modern children, they probably had much less difficulty coping with their own biological changes.” (Weeks 45) As the period between the onset of puberty and marriage grew longer and young people became more independent, this phase of life became viewed as highly problematic. At the turn of the century, adolescent women were leaving home for work, not only as domestics in private homes near their families but in factories, in cities, unescorted. Fear of a growing immigrant population and fear of American women living and working outside of the home gave rise to the white slavery panic and the Social Purity movement. White slave hysteria, in the form of investigative committees, anti-vice organizations, popular films, and trashy novels captured the American imagination with claims of hundreds of thousands of young white women held in sex slavery by swarthy immigrants and black men.
The Social Purity movement, the first to make strange bedfellows of feminists and Christian moralizers, pooled disparate perspectives on temperance, eugenics, gender, immigration, and working class morality to make reforms for the protection of young girls. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union led the way with the idea that young (white) women were asexual, but that unprotected innocence could be easily corrupted, forging the campaign to raise the age of consent in 1889. Throughout the Progressive era, this protectionist ideology shifted in and out of focus with one that considered young women operating outside of established sexual norms to be delinquents rather than victims.
Delinquents could, however, be reformed, and a vast industry shot up to fill the need. The prevailing view of adolescent sexuality today is that adolescents are not sexually innocent, but they should be. The ABC approach to sex ed —in order of “effectiveness:” Abstinence, Be faithful, use a Condom—deemed by the Bush administration to be the only acceptable form of sex ed in foreign countries receiving HIV/AIDS prevention funding has come to dominate classrooms in the U.S. as well. The backlash against sex ed in the form of abstinence-based education has been so overwhelming that only nineteen states require programs that cover contraception. Constance Nathanson writes that “the norms (of sexual propriety) define adolescent women as children; they define the period between women’s puberty and marriage as one of asexuality at best and invisible sexuality at worst.” (Nathanson 4) From white slaves to welfare queens, problematizing adolescent sexuality is a hearty national pastime.
The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child defines all persons under the age of eighteen as children, “unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”.[7] Although the United States participated in the drafting of the convention, it is one of only two nations that have not ratified it, because to do so might guarantee access to safe sex education to young people: signatory countries “shall take appropriate measures to develop preventive health care, guidance for parents and family planning education and services.” Childhood today could be defined by a number of different markers in the U.S.: by child labor laws, by the age one can be tried as an adult, and by the age of consent. All three of these markers vary considerably state to state.
Child labor laws were established in the U.S. in 1938 by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Currently, fourteen is generally considered the age a child can start working, though some jobs (working in private homes, performing in films) are legal at an earlier age. A young person deemed ineligible for a particular job in Ohio might be old enough to take it in Indiana. Most states limit the hours a person under sixteen can work. Minors can’t take jobs deemed “hazardous” by the Secretary of Labor, but there are exceptions to all the rules if the child is working for their parents. As a rule of thumb, minors are to be kept out of “oppressive child labor,” which by my standards would exclude youth from flipping burgers at minimum wage. If wage labor is inherently oppressive, everyone’s out of a job. But alright, let’s try to simplify things and say that by labor law, a 14-year-old is no longer a child, but not quite an adult. And at 16, she’s somewhat less a child, somewhat more an adult.
    The first juvenile court in the U.S. was established in Chicago in 1899, its primary purpose “to assess the conditions in a youth’s life that had led to delinquency.” (Odem 111) Reformers worked to bring a maternal approach to the criminal justice system, stepping in where working class families fell short of the (reformers’) mark. Today every state has a juvenile court system, but increasingly juveniles are filtered into the adult system. Most states consider a defendant to be a juvenile—under the age of criminal responsibility—if they are under the age of seventeen or eighteen. In some states, juvenile status is entirely dependent on the charges. In North Carolina, you’re only a juvenile until you turn sixteen.
            Following the campaigns by feminist reformers at the turn of the century, most states determined that the age at which one is capable of deciding consent is sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen. In Illinois, a teenager is capable of deciding to have sex when she’s seventeen, but if her family moves to California she’s incapable until she turns eighteen. The precocious teens of Vermont and Mississippi are ready to roll at sixteen. Of course, all this comes with a number of caveats regarding the age of the person the teen is having sex with: is he an elder minor? is she an adult in a position of authority? If two 15-year-olds who share a birthday have sex, they are both, from a legal perspective, rapists and rape victims. No matter what state you live in, consent is immaterial before the age of sixteen.

The legal definition of childhood changes if the adolescent is trying to get a job, defend herself in court, or have sex, and each of these depends on what state she lives in. So for an illustration, let’s focus in on New York: all New Yorkers under seventeen are subject to child labor laws. The minimum age for “street trades” (um, shining shoes or selling newspapers) is fourteen. A child must be sixteen to work on a factory floor, but she can do clerical work in a factory starting at age fourteen, so long as there’s a partition at least seven feet high between the office and the factory floor. New York tries defendants age sixteen and over as adults, maintaining the lowest age of criminal responsibility in the country (along with North Carolina). The age of consent in New York is seventeen. So a sixteen-year-old in New York can get a job, with restrictions, will be tried as an adult if he finds himself in court, and is a statutory rapist if he has “consensual” sex with a fifteen-year-old, but is incapable of giving consent himself.
            I’m harping on this confusion because it’s alright to be confused about the definition of childhood. The legal system, in any state, maintains no singular definition of childhood, and our incredibly varied conceptions of morality and choice are incapable of pinpointing the age at which a child becomes an adult. The Aristotelian view of children as incomplete adults frames modern conceptions of childhood, but does not demark the point at which “completion” of the human organism is achieved; Piaget’s phases of cognitive development and the life stages recognized by the Sereer in West Africa may indicate culturally relevant moments in the process of attaining adult status, but neither stakes a claim to age sixteen, or fourteen, or eighteen as the turning point for maturation. The tangle of legislation engulfing adolescence reflects the distinct place adolescence holds as a problematic part of life subject to control by numerous systems of authority.
            While the locus of control over adolescent sexuality shifts between professionals and the family, it is rarely in the hands of youth themselves. This is particularly troubling in regard to consent, which is given by the state rather than by the individuals involved. The notion of consent can be difficult for teenagers, and for the rest of us: If I give him a blowjob when I don’t feel like it because I don’t want to disappoint him, is it consensual? If I have sex with my husband because he’s had a rough week, but so have I and would prefer not to, is it consensual? If I have sex with my friend when we’re both blackout drunk, is it consensual? Giving adolescents the tools to understand consent on their own terms prepares them for the realities of adult sexuality, where consent is often less than perfectly clear. They are denied these tools when their consent is deemed immaterial.
            When the exchange of money for sex is involved, the muddle of youth sexuality deepens. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child defines any sexual matter involving “children” as exploitative when pecuniary exchange occurs. To anti-prostitution feminists, all prostitution is inherently exploitative; no adult woman is capable of consenting to the exchange of sex for money. Poverty and gender limit the choices of poor women, and yes, children, too. Catherine MacKinnon is the high priestess of this philosophy, which describes the inherent limitations of choice in a capitalist patriarchal society; it’s a healthy perspective until the point that it denies women the ability to make choices at all. From an anti-prostitution feminist perspective, a prostitute is a woman who is too damaged, weak, and degraded (by experience or by the culture we live in) to choose her own profession. In his essay “It’s Different for Boys,”[8] Julian Marlowe writes:

Whenever concern is expressed in the media for male prostitutes, it’s inevitably in the context of a child prostitution ring. The word “child” is intended to portray innocence, when in fact male prostitutes are usually adolescents above the age of consent. In contrast, women of any age are treated as childlike victims, even if they entered prostitution well into adulthood. It would appear that age confers maturity and autonomy upon male, but not female, prostitutes, who are rarely represented as anything but exploited. (Nagle 141)[9]

Recognizing a double standard in the approach to adolescent sexuality is one thing, and deciding what to do about it is another. Sexual double standards were a driving concern behind the turn of the century movement to raise the age of consent. That young men could run around inseminating young women and avoid the burdens of parenthood while corrupted girls suffered the indignity of the loss of their purity drove reformers to ensure equal responsibility of males through statutory rape law. Raising the age of consent would protect girls by giving them recourse after their unwitting seduction by unscrupulous men.
In its actual implementation, however, age of consent law was never in the hands of young women. In exploring statutory rape case files in Los Angeles from 1910 to 1920, Mary Odem notes that 77% of the cases brought to court involved young couples in consensual relationships; the charges were brought by the parents of young women, not young women themselves. And contrary to the idea of seduction by strange men in public places, of the 23% of cases that involved non-consensual sex, 43% involved male relatives, and 27% involved neighbors or family friends. (Odem 39). Today, one-fifth to one-half of American women experience sexual abuse or assault in their lifetimes, and the scenario remains the same: sexual abuse is most often found close to home. Rape culture is as strong as ever, and the sexual double standard hasn’t gone anywhere. Female adolescent sexuality is still under attack, but “boys will be boys.”
The double standard applied to adolescent sexuality remains a concern for reformers working within the CSEC framework. The authors of the John Jay study recognize the disparity between our picture of CSEC as a female problem and their research showing that half of youth sex workers are male, and propose that relevant agencies (shelters, law enforcement, etc.) shift the focus of their activities toward greater inclusion of male adolescent prostitutes. Increasing access to social services for all young people who want them must be a priority, but adjusting the double standard to problematize the choices of young men with the same gusto that we do for young women is counterproductive.  From the perspective of the social services industry, young men engaging in sex work are children incapable of giving consent, and any pecuniary exchange for sex involving children is inherently exploitative. If we consider childhood and adolescence to be distinct phases of life, and acknowledge that adolescents are capable of making choices that children are not, the idea of exploitation becomes blurrier.
In some ways, an adolescent prostitute can benefit from being considered a child. When child prostitution is considered a public problem, it brings funding to shelters and health services for at-risk youth. And by eliminating the burden of choice, it also provides a partial release from the stigma of prostitution. From a young person’s perspective, being treated as an exploited child has certain perks that are unavailable if she is being treated as a delinquent. She might be filtered into the family court system rather than the criminal court system, or have her criminal charges dropped in exchange for testimony against her agent. But the attention paid to adolescent prostitutes does them more harm than good. Defined as exploited children, they are stripped of agency in their own lives, denied the ability to make safer choices in their work, and are increasingly subjected to unwanted, often dangerous, contact with law enforcement.
Prostitutes’ rights activists have long argued that sex workers have the right to choose who we work for, whether for ourselves, through agencies, as a collective, or through another individual. Like workers in all other forms of labor, the right to choose our working conditions and organize collectively is essential to the well-being of prostitutes. Priscilla Alexander writes that prostitutes “want the right to form professional associations or to organize unions when they work for others—actions that current law defines as illegal pimping, pandering, procuring, or ‘encouraging someone to work as a prostitute,’ and which the abolitionists define as coercion.” (Nagle 93) The criminalization of prostitution gives power to exploitative managers and pimps; the need to circumvent law enforcement and the desire for protection from dangerous clients (having no recourse to law enforcement ourselves) is often precisely what drives prostitutes to work for manipulative managers who promise protection in exchange for an indecent percentage of the earnings. Sites like Backpage, and Craigslist in the past, offer youth prostitutes an affordable and easy way to be more discriminating about which clients they see while working for themselves. An adolescent male interviewed for the John Jay study pointed out the benefits of advertising online:

I go on Adam4Adam or Man4Now. I have a profile. I have my pictures, you know, showing my penis. If I don’t feel threatened, then I give ‘em my Instant Message screen name. And then we continue the conversation. I tell them I sell my time ‘cause sex is part of the package. In the street it’s too hot with the police. They try to arrest everybody. Frankly, I don’t want to be in jail for doing that. (Curtis 58)

Escorts who advertise online are able to charge higher rates and better screen their clients; organizations fighting “child prostitution” have made these websites high priorities for law enforcement, sending youth back to the streets where they have less control over their work.
For adult and adolescent prostitutes alike, the greatest sources of danger and exploitation are police officers, not pimps or clients. Sex workers of color, as well as female and transgender workers, are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. Between 1997 and 2006, prostitution defendants in New York City aged sixteen to eighteen were 70% black, 16% Latino, and 12% white; 77% female, 15% male, and 8% trans. (Young men have higher arrest rates for other charges, like drug possession and loitering; young men of color are disproportionately arrested under these charges.) These arrest statistics are highly inconsistent with the demographics of the sample youth in the John Jay study, who were 29% black, 23% Latino, 23% white; 48% female, 45% male, and 8% trans.
Visibility is key to this discrimination. As one trans youth reported, her experiences with law enforcement weren’t limited to her working hours:[10]

But I wasn’t even prostitutin’ that night. I was walkin’ from a park, and I went to the store to buy cigarettes. And I walked from the store to the train -- and the next thing you know, the transsexual police [my emphasis] pulls up on the side a me and charged me with loiterin’ [for purposes of prostitution]. (Curtis 90)

Experiences with law enforcement don’t just mean a night or two in jail: these experiences are often violent, coercive, and abusive. Reformers want to “help” adolescent prostitutes by further criminalizing their activity, encouraging law enforcement to conduct sting operations (which are inherently exploitative as they rely on entrapment) and clear the strolls that provide a network of contact, information, and support between sex workers. From a nineteen-year-old black woman:

Police raped me a couple a times in Queens. The last time that happened was a couple a months ago. But you don’t tell anybody, you just deal wit it.

An eighteen-year-old trans woman:

One cop said, “You’re lucky I’m off duty but you’re gonna suck my dick or I’m a take you in.
 An eighteen-year-old Puerto Rican woman:

The DT who arrested me gave me his number after I went through booking. Then after my court appearance, he pulled me into a corner and was like tonguing me down. (Curtis 90)

These experiences are not isolated. Sex workers are frequently raped and assaulted when they encounter law enforcement. The John Jay researchers conclude that police officers would benefit from a greater understanding of CSEC issues and should be trained to connect youth with social service agencies. No amount of inter-agency sensitivity training could eliminate the kind of horror youth routinely experience at the hands of police; the criminalization of prostitution gives officers free range to abuse sex workers.[11]
            Curtis and his team asked interviewees “if they would like to leave the life… if given the opportunity,” and the majority of the sample said they would. The flagrant bias of this question in an otherwise levelheaded study is disappointing. Pollsters ask doctors, plumbers, and data entry workers about their level of job satisfaction, and if researchers had asked the same of these youth we might be looking at very different data. Few jobs are ideal, and we all work with what we’ve got. The youth consistently expressed frustration at the lack of other living wage work available to them. This feeling is true for many teenagers, as well as many adults when unemployment levels are as high as they are now. For these youth, spotty job histories and low levels of education make “legitimate” employment particularly difficult. “Child” or not, an arrest record for prostitution hardly helps an adolescent sex worker get a straight job. Many of the problems that adolescent sex workers experience come from the criminalization of prostitution rather than the work itself:[12]

My dreams? I wanna be able to have a stable home, being legit. You know, no worries with the police comin’ and bust in my house. No worries about me getting caught doing what I’m doin’. I wanna be educated, ‘cause I’m smart. But now, I just have to do what I gotta do. I don’t have time now. (Curtis 102)

            The authors of the John Jay study conclude that adolescent sex workers delude themselves into believing they have agency in their own lives: “There was a shared and dangerous narrative here: one that denied their victimization.” (Curtis 117) Most of these adolescents have little to no contact with their families; they rely on their work and peer networks to support themselves under difficult circumstances. They choose to do the work they do for the freedom it affords them in making their own decisions about their lives. Like all adolescents, they struggle with their plans for the future, self-acceptance, and the formation of healthy peer networks. They acknowledge the precariousness of their working lives and do their best to learn from their experiences.  As one sixteen-year-old woman put it:

Life is life, and you gotta do what you gotta do. It’s like everybody can’t be a doctor, a teacher or have rich parents take care of us. And it’s gonna teach us, like -- when we get older, we’re gonna be stronger, ‘cause we know life experience and stuff like that. And we’re goin’ to know what to do in certain situations because of what we’ve been through when we were younger. You gotta do what you gotta do to survive. (Curtis 102)

            But from a CSEC framework, adolescent sex workers are exploited children, incapable of making their own decisions, denied access to consent. This framework mimics the system of control within the family, precisely the dynamic so many of these youth are trying to leave behind. As the Curtis study demonstrates, youth prostitutes are capable of voicing their needs and desires: stable, long-term housing, living wage jobs, physical and emotional safety, flexible education, and most of all, the freedom to live their lives as they see fit. This freedom cannot be handed to them by a social service agency. Rescue and reform professionals have spent more than a century trying to decide if sexually unorthodox adolescents are child victims or juvenile delinquents, ignoring the possibility that they’re just teenagers. Like wage laborers in every other industry, some adolescent prostitutes face exploitative working conditions, but the true victimizers of these youth are reformers who deny them agency. A victim is a sacrificial offering—when the rescue industry offers up the consent of adolescent prostitutes, it is in the service of maintaining their own status as the keepers of public problems.

[1]Throughout this article, I refer to “adolescent prostitutes” or “youth sex workers” rather than “prostituted children” or the category “commercial sexual exploitation of children” (CSEC) for reasons I hope will be clear. The primary differences in these sets of identifiers are the use of active rather than passive language, and discrimination between adolescents and children.

The Land Line is clearly not an academic publication; the use of detailed footnotes is an unusual choice. As the rhetoric of child prostitution reaches fever pitch, largely thanks to misinterpreted or flawed research and media hype, I feel that it’s important to be transparent about my sources. Research is reliable not when its conclusions align with the ideology of its authors or readers, but when its methods are sound and its findings can be replicated by other research. Given the wealth of secondary source material on turn of the century social reform movements and the policing of public problems, I’ve chosen to provide references to the books I rely on for historical matters.

[2]Archive for the Voice series on trafficking:

[3]I’ve written previously about the connection between trafficking in women, a current public problem created in response to the rising population of migrant women workers, and white slavery, a turn of the century public problem created in response to a growing immigrant population and an increasingly mobile female workforce in the United States. While anti-prostitution activists rail against the trafficking of women into sexual slavery, in reality most of the women lumped into this category are migrants engaging in prostitution by choice. Many of these workers incur debt to cover the necessities of undocumented migration, but few are being “trafficked” against their will. The primary source of exploitation under these circumstances is not a vast international network of pimps and smugglers but the criminalization of migrants and sex workers. Adolescent prostitution has arisen as a public problem as an extension of the current trafficking discourse, as well as for reasons of its own. My 2006 essay on trafficking and white slavery from The Skeleton News can be read at

See also:
Agustín, Laura María. 2007. Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. London: Zed Books.

Donovan, Brian. 2006. White Slave Crusades: Race, Gender, and Anti-vice Activism, 1887-1917. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Langum, David J. 1994. Crossing Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4]John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. 2008. “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in New York.”

Volume One: Ric Curtis, Karen Terry, Meredith Dank, Kirk Dombrowski, and Bilal Khan. “The CSEC Population in New York City: Size, Characteristics, and Needs.”  

Respondent Driven Sampling, an ethnographic method for studying marginalized populations by relying on internal social networks for recruitment, was used for the study. The sample data was statistically analyzed with preexisting data (juvenile prostitution-related arrest statistics) to draw conclusions about the total population of adolescent prostitutes in the city. The diversity of the sample adequately reflected other known statistics, and measured low homophily. Interviews were tailored to the understood needs of pimped youth. Initially, coupons for the study were disguised as cosmetics and other items out of concern that exploited children would need to hide them from their exploiters; these items were turned down by youth in favor of traditional RDS coupons. Interviewees over the age of eighteen were included as network contacts but were not incorporated into data findings. The sample group was asked 93 questions, categorized as follows: “demographic characteristics (14 questions, including race/ethnicity, age, living situation), 2) market involvement (28 questions, including age and means of initiation, location of work, and type of involvement), 3) network size and characteristics (15 questions, including information about pimps and customers), 4) health and social service history and needs (14 questions), 5) experience with law enforcement and courts (12 questions, including number of arrests, charges, and arrest/court outcomes), and future expectations (10 questions).”

Volume Two: Amy Muslim, Melissa Labriola, and Michael Rempel. “Formative Evaluation: The New York City Demonstration.”

Volume Two compiled and assessed preexisting data from criminal justice and social service agencies.

PDFs of both volumes are available at

While I’ve referenced a variety of texts for historical information on youth prostitution and the age of consent for this essay, all references to contemporary adolescent prostitutes are drawn from the John Jay studies.

[5] Quotations from youth in the John Jay study were transcribed colloquially by its authors. This approach adds distance between well-educated readers and the interviewed youth, doing both a disservice, but for accuracy and consistency I defer to their decision and reprint the youths’ remarks as they were transcribed.

[6]Nathanson, Constance A. 1991. Dangerous Passage: The social control of sexuality in women’s adolescence. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Odem, Mary E. 1995. Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Weeks, Jeffrey. 1981. Sex, Politics & Society: The regulation of sexuality since 1800. New York: Longman.

[7]A thorough examination of the issues surround adolescent prostitution was conducted by UNICEF in collaboration with other social service and child welfare organizations to establish a framework for addressing CSEC. As a literature review, it collects the relevant issues rather than suggesting solutions to a problem. The full text is available at

[8]Nagle, Jill (ed.). 1997. Whores and Other Feminists. New York: Routledge.

[9]For that matter, it’s rare to hear anything about male “child prostitutes” at all, unless it’s in the context of John Wayne Gacy, because we don’t identify adolescent males as innocent children with the ease with which we conjure up images of teenage “pimped girls.”

[10]Anti-prostitution feminists have expressed concern that the existence of prostitution makes men think that all women are “for sale.” My mom, an anti-prostitution feminist herself, once brought this up with me, remarking about the difficulties she experienced when she first moved to Chicago and lived on a stroll. As I’ve written before, prostitutes are not “for sale”: we exchange our time, often including sex, for money—not ourselves. That prostitutes charge money for the work we do emphasizes the freedom of all women, sex workers included, to not have sex, to not give their time to men when they don’t want to. This idea is often lost on police officers, for whom prostitutes are a source of income and (coercive) sexual services. Street prostitution is itself, especially in the case of transgender youth prostitutes, considered a public problem because of its visibility, as a “quality of life” issue. For more, see my zine Mirror Tricks; text available at and
Carter, Angela. 1978. The Sadeian Woman (And the ideology of pornography). New York: Pantheon Books

Dangerous Bedfellows; Colter, Ephen Glenn et al. Policing Public Sex: Queer politics and the future of AIDS activism.

[11]Some states are increasing their efforts to target and arrest clients and pimps through programs like End Demand in Illinois. Clients who meet with adolescent sex workers are not pedophiles; in a culture that places youthful beauty in such high esteem, it’s unsurprising that some men prefer young-looking prostitutes. From a legal perspective, anyone who gains financially from prostitution is a pimp. This could be the roommate of a sex worker, or his boyfriend who he takes out to dinner, or his friend who passes along a reliable client. Again, criminalization in any form increases the risk to sex workers by pushing our activities further underground.

[12]Critics of adolescent prostitution raise the concern that youth sex workers are at high risk to contract STDs. Ample public health services for HIV and STD testing and treatment are available to young sex workers, and unlike non-prostituting youth, they make use of these services. Young people have higher STD transmission rates than any other age group, but adolescents doing sex work are diligent about safer sex practices. 75.7% of the sample youth sex workers report always using condoms for sex; 22.6% say they do sometimes. This includes the use of condoms for oral sex, a lower risk activity. Alternately, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that only 63% of teenagers used condoms during their last intercourse. This difference is reflected by youth sex workers having a significantly lower rate of STD transmission than their non-sex worker peers.

The concern shown for the sexual health of adolescent sex workers (and adult prostitutes, and gay men) is often disingenuous: the real concern is for the imagined risk posed to the mainstream population by diseased prostitutes. I believe that the recent backlash against sex workers, in the guise of discourse around trafficking and CSEC, can be traced to discomfort with the way at-risk populations took education and prevention into their own hands at the height of the AIDS crisis in the U.S., rather than waiting for permission from doctors and politicians.


  1. I can not believe there are no comments on such a provocative article. This is the second piece of yours I have read and have been impressed with both. I am sure this article will be hard for some readers to take because they will not be able to get past the icky topic. Truth be told it is difficult for me as well.

    I really appreciate your dedication to look beyond the commonly held stereotypes and to challenge the dubious statistics that pervade modern culture. Poorly derived figures are so often repeated by well meaning individuals or the media that they become "fact" and nearly indisputable.

    This article reminds me of Christina Hoff Sommers books: Who Stole Feminism and The War on Boys.

    Anyhow, very nice job. So rarely am I impressed by what I read on the internet that this was a nice surprise for my Saturday morning.

    1. Wonderful, thank you! After all the bigoted vitriol being spewed over at Jezebel, I can't tell you how good it is to see that someone's taken the time to really read this piece and think it through. It's unfortunate how often readers choose to interpret "please look closely at statistics, their sources, and their layers of meaning" as "let's have a fact war where no one considers any perspective but the one they walked in with."

    2. What bigoted vitriol? You are retarded Robin. You are spouting nonsense. Nobody cares about whores. Every day bunch die, so what? We all make our choices. In North America, there is welfare, there are food banks, there is free adult school, there are all kinds of organizations to help with straightening out your life, ... and here you are writing garbage that is pro-whoring. Get help.

    3. I don't necessarily agree with ALL of the content in this article, but, body autonomy is wrong? What I don't understand is how "pro-whoring" is somehow related to this article? Being empowered about your sexuality (no matter your age, actually) is a step towards being empowered in all aspects of your life. Perhaps you should take your shaming elsewhere ... you seem to be in the wrong neighborhood.

    4. Kiki, get over yourself. What an ignorant comment to make on such a well written, interesting piece. People like YOU are what is wrong with society. There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with prostitution. Many European countries allow prostitution and it has much less stigma. The one thing that I think this piece is missing is a section about how American puritanism comes into play, but it was excellent none the less.

  2. Reall good piece. I'm going to share this on my FB blog if that's okay with you?

  3. Very interesting and provocative article. I can't say I agree with all of it, especially in relation to whether debt bondage accrued as a result of irregular migration can amount to trafficking, but the general argument is sound. Academic integrity is essential when conducting studies on such important topics, and the skill with which you question the 'numbers' as they speak to underage sex workers is noteworthy.

  4. Thanks much, anon!
    Curiously enough, when it first started showing up everywhere, "trafficking" most often referred to debt bondage migrations. And then to tricking migrant women into unwilling prostitution. And now, as more and more people question the premise of thousands of women migrating and doing prostitution against their will, is being used to refer to youth in prostitution, anyone working for a pimp, etc. Definitely a loaded word that's shifted meaning with time.

  5. Thank yu for this. Why is it because i choose to work with a pimp feminist sex worker advocates act like im being exploited. Some are i n my wife in laws aren't. i hate ppl talking for me and am interested in writing abt why i choose the life i did n the many benefits ive found in my expierance.

  6. Fascinating reading, Robin.

    But I am way far afield from my job of making QR codes, so, back to work.

    Thanks, Though.

  7. I came here after reading your (most recent?) Jezebel piece, and I find this article really interesting and well-written. I am interested in feminist philosophy although I am far from being competent at it, and this is relevant to a lot of the issues I am interested in doing research in at some point. Thank you! And sorry for all the shit you have to take from people. I really admire people who have the guts to keep trying to have an intelligent, informed, and rational discussion. I am not sure I would be able to do that, were I in your shoes.

  8. I'm glad to read such an articulate article that is more thoughtful than the often unsubstantiated rhetoric of Margo St. James or Cathrine McKinnon. I also appreciate the courage it took to share your position. I still need more time to research the available evidence before I commit toward a particular view, however. At the moment I find the Swedish attitude and laws toward prostitution the most persuasive. Although the social purity movement was largely rooted in sexism like you said, the reformers had a point in raising the age of consent. In 1870s America a girl as young as ten could consent to sex depending on state law which of course didn't mention boys. By no means do I intend to imply that you implicitly endorse such a policy through your perspective.

    An Article from George Mason University on the Age of Consent:

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  10. "Experiences with law enforcement don’t just mean a night or two in jail: these experiences are often violent, coercive, and abusive. Reformers want to “help” adolescent prostitutes by further criminalizing their activity, encouraging law enforcement to conduct sting operations (which are inherently exploitative as they rely on entrapment) and clear the strolls that provide a network of contact, information, and support between sex workers. From a nineteen-year-old black woman:

    Police raped me a couple a times in Queens. The last time that happened was a couple a months ago. But you don’t tell anybody, you just deal wit it.

    An eighteen-year-old trans woman:

    One cop said, “You’re lucky I’m off duty but you’re gonna suck my dick or I’m a take you in.

    An eighteen-year-old Puerto Rican woman:

    The DT who arrested me gave me his number after I went through booking. Then after my court appearance, he pulled me into a corner and was like tonguing me down. (Curtis 90)

    These experiences are not isolated. Sex workers are frequently raped and assaulted when they encounter law enforcement. The John Jay researchers conclude that police officers would benefit from a greater understanding of CSEC issues and should be trained to connect youth with social service agencies. No amount of inter-agency sensitivity training could eliminate the kind of horror youth routinely experience at the hands of police; the criminalization of prostitution gives officers free range to abuse sex workers"

    Oh, this is very different form the version the authorities give to us. We are told that police help prostitutes, that if the girls don't rely on officers is because they are threatened by pimps and that criminalization benefits prostitutes because they don't what such "slavery". And now you are telling us that all is a lie?


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