By Elly Arrow (with an introduction by Anna Fisher)
The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) is an umbrella group of hundreds of organisations around the world that purport to represent ‘sex workers,’ while in fact supporting and lobbying for the full decriminalisation of the entire sex trade, including pimps and brothel keepers (who they call ‘third parties’). This article looks at NSWP’s position on the prostitution of children and young adults, and shows how it serves to condone the paid rape of children.
This article is a follow-on to The child sexual abuse hidden behind the ‘sex work’ façade.
The word ‘paedophile’ means someone who’s sexually attracted to children – regardless whether they act on that attraction – and is derived from the Greek words for ‘child’ and ‘love.’ I therefore do not use that term and instead use ‘paedocriminal’ (equivalent to pedocriminal in US English) to refer to adults who interact sexually with children, in order to emphasise that this is child sexual abuse (CSA) and a criminal act – never an act of love or affection.
Introduction: How the NSWP came to dominate global policy
While the NSWP claims to represent ‘sex workers,’ in fact it only represents organisations that support the full decriminalisation of the sex trade, including pimps, brothel keepers and punters. But many women involved in prostitution vehemently oppose this approach.
To understand how the NSWP achieved such power as a lobbying group, we need to go back to the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s. The European and North American population groups most at risk of HIV infection were gay men, and women involved in the sex trade. These two groups are not homogeneous (although some gay men are also involved in prostitution).
Homosexuality is a natural expression of healthy human sexuality and is not inherently harmful, whereas prostitution cannot be understood as a natural expression of human sexuality and is inherently harmful, both to those directly involved and to wider society. The sex trade is a hugely exploitative system that enforces and maintains sex, race, class and caste-based systems of inequality and oppression, and makes obscene profits for third parties with little risk. For the vast majority of the women and girls caught up in it, prostitution is a catastrophe and their involvement is invariably the result of coercion, betrayal, misfortune, naiveté, and multiple intersecting structural inequalities.
During the 1980s, the sex trade organised a fight back against the feminist opposition to prostitution and pornography that was then gaining ground, largely thanks to the analysis of feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon.
A key part of this fight back was to take control of the language with the ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ terminology. These are very clever euphemisms that obscure the real nature of prostitution and position it as a form of normal work. Another strategy was setting up organisations that purport to represent ‘sex workers,’ many of which masquerade as trade unions, while actually representing those with vested interests in the flourishing of the sex trade, and not the mostly vulnerable women and girls who were being exploited within it.
Many of these organisations gained significant funding from the vast financial resources being invested in the global fight against the spread of HIV and AIDS at that time. This gave them access to the international conferences and organisations coordinating the global fight against HIV. As a result of their lobbying, the ‘prostitution is work’ argument started to gain traction in the late 1990s. It wasn’t long before organisations like the ILO, UNAIDS and the WHO began to accept this (erroneous) view of prostitution and to take a ‘harm reduction’ approach to it, mostly centred on encouraging the use of condoms.
An approach to the fight against the spread of HIV centred on harm reduction is appropriate in the context of gay men’s consensual sex – but is problematic in the context of prostitution. Without programmes to help women exit the sex trade, to crack down on pimps, and to challenge and reduce men’s demand for prostitution, harm reduction effectively sanctions men’s buying of (mostly) women and children for sexual use.
While harm reduction obviously has a place, centring the entire approach to prostitution policy on it inevitably leads to an expansion of the sex trade, with all the well-documented harms this brings to the individuals involved and to wider society. The implications for children are also profound.
Unfortunately it is now difficult for women’s organisations in the Global South to gain funding from the big international funding organisations unless they support this approach.
This article looks at NSWP’s position paper on the prostitution of children and young adults – which focuses on – you’ve guessed it – ‘harm reduction’ – and the impact of this advice in practice.
NSWP ‘Young sex workers policy brief’
The NSWP ‘Young sex workers policy brief’ provides recommendations regarding young people’s involvement in prostitution – all justified by their disproportionate risk of HIV infection.
NSWP defines young people as those aged 10-24. It distinguishes those over 18 from those under 18, by calling the former “young sex workers” and the latter “persons under 18 who sell sex.” But what is a person who sells sex? A ‘sex seller.’ Quite how a ‘sex seller’ is different from a ‘sex worker’ is not specified – nor is the alarming significance of a 10 year old ‘selling sex.’
Describing the paid rape of children as ‘selling sex’ makes it sound on par with ‘selling lemonade,’ when in truth these realities are a world apart and so require differentiating language.
The brief cites a 2011 analysis of studies on STI and HIV prevention which – like studies by researchers with abolitionist convictions – confirms that 20-40% of women involved in prostitution first entered it as minors. The brief states that this group of children and young adults are especially endangered by the risk of HIV infection, stigma, discrimination and criminalization – but it doesn’t mention the paedocriminals who pay to rape them and who are the source of the HIV infection.
This definition and framing of the issue runs counter to the UN human rights instruments on the rights of the child and the prevention of trafficking in persons – as NSWP themselves acknowledge on page 3. They justify this by the fact that some sexually exploited children do not perceive themselves as being victims of a crime.
This is a theme the brief returns to repeatedly, arguing that the language of ‘exploitation’ and ‘trafficking’ is alienating and potentially ‘stigmatising’ to children who don’t view their situation in those terms. In fact the brief mentions ‘stigma’ 14 times, while failing to mention the men who pay to rape these children at all.
“Not all young people who sell sex, including those under 18, necessarily identify what they do as work or exploitation.” (Page 4)
No mention is made of the fact that the rhetoric of ‘selling sex’ potentially alienates children who do view themselves as victims of violence. Refusing to call a situation ‘child abuse’ without confirmation from the victim plays right into the hands of paedocriminals.
The brief repeatedly makes a distinction between children who enter prostitution through physical coercion (which it does recognise as trafficking) and children who enter because of poverty, emotional manipulation and grooming, and other less obvious reasons.
It distracts from the reality that the prostitution of children is paid-for sexual abuse and rape, by informing the reader that children in poverty turn to other risky activities, such as begging, street vending, unregulated factory work, and drug dealing for survival, and suggests a significant number of children enter the industry to finance a particular lifestyle:
“While many young people sell sex for physical and economic survival, some young people also sell sex to access an improved lifestyle beyond basic subsistence, including consumer or luxury items and aspire to express autonomy and individualism through consumer goods.” (Page 5.)
This is perfidious and causes active harm to sexually exploited children. In Germany, sexually exploited children are sometimes referred to as ‘baby hookers’ or ‘Lolita whores’ and suggestions that a child would ‘whore’ herself out for fancy clothing, handbags or traveling are common. This is an extreme form of victim blaming that I have also observed elsewhere, including in relation to schoolgirls in Japan.
It is a fancy way of saying ‘children ask for it,’ and shows utter ignorance: of the social pressures on teenaged girls to acquire consumer goods in an effort to gain social acceptance; of the common human behaviour of compensating for lack of self esteem and social connections with material goods; and that this behaviour can be a form of self-harm – not self-expression.
Page 5 suggests that if girls were taught negotiation skills, their circumstances would be tolerable. This parallels the rhetoric around adult prostitution that rapes, and infections with harmful, sometimes deadly, diseases can be prevented if only women would learn to insist on condoms and boundaries. Either way, it makes the perpetrator invisible and puts the blame on his victim.
In other words, the NSWP brief suggests that children can and should prevent some of the worst outcomes by becoming more skilled at convincing adult men that, for example, what they really want is a blowjob rather than to anally rape them.
It’s much harder to nod your head in agreement once the situation is made explicit, isn’t it?
Do we really want children who are in this situation of men paying to rape them, to be made to feel like they’re the problem?
Throughout the NSWP policy brief the paedocriminals who pay to rape children are invisible – as if they are clouds of smoke that materialize out of nowhere, hover over the child and then disappear with a whoosh. Suddenly, as if by magic, the child is afflicted with addiction, infection, pregnancy, and/or injury.
Such magical thinking continues with the tale of the child who seeks out sexual contact with adults because she is looking for ‘intimate fulfilment.’ Page 7 claims that some minors enter prostitution because they are motivated by ‘love’ or ‘pleasure.’
This is justified by a research paper discussing HIV infection prevention in ‘cross-generational relationships’ in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. Of course there is no mention of the Malawi feminists who are fighting to end systematic child abuse, introduce the Nordic Model, and raise the age of marriage to 21.
This research paper uses the ‘continuum of volition’ model which claims to show that adults interacting sexually with children should not be classified as sexual abuse or exploitation when the child is motivated by financial concerns.
Children who fall on the right-hand side of the continuum deserve protection, those on the left get condoms.
Although the Malawi paper names those responsible for the lack of condom use and the infections passed on to girls, it refuses to hold them accountable. For example, here is a snippet from page 85:
“There is no villain. It is important not to label men as predators because social norms permit the behaviour. Similarly, it is important not to make men the enemy and assume that girls and boys are only victims, as some might play a willing or even conducive role in perpetuating the practices.”
Thus a research team that is made up of mostly white western researchers discuss the sexual exploitation of African girls in one of the poorest countries in the world in terms that deny the harms and exactly parallel the arguments that paedocriminals use to excuse raping children. The victims are labelled unusually ‘mature’ and are described as initiating and enjoying the sexual contact, and this justifies describing the sexual abuse as ‘cross-generational intimate relationships.’
Returning to the NSWP policy brief:
“Even young people in exploitative situations report complex feelings toward the person exploiting them, who may also be a source of love and support.” (Page 7.)
What’s missing is any discussion of trauma bonding, which is a recognised reality in many abusive relationships, including prostitution. It is common for children in a variety of violent and exploitative situations to defend their situation and even to defend the adult harming them. I gained a unique insight into this phenomenon when a teenaged friend of mine fell victim to a child rapist and pornographer. She described a violent paedocriminal act that an adult had subjected her to, and then argued that it was a ‘misunderstanding’ and that the abuser really loved her.
Arguing that child rape – paid or unpaid – does not require confirmation from the victim is not paternalism, it’s very basic child safeguarding.
I would hope that organisations working on the ground with children would not accept NSWP’s advice uncritically – but sadly some do. And it’s not just services for children and young people that are affected, because any organisation working with adults involved in prostitution will find that children are never far away.
In fact the NSWP brief admits that adults and children are frequently found side by side in the same environment and yet it argues that decriminalising the entire sex trade, including those who profit from it, benefits children, because those same profiteers provide them with a ‘community support network.’ Now that’s a horrific euphemism for pimps I haven’t heard before!
The brief isn’t entirely clear if it is advocating for decriminalisation to extend to the adult taking money off the raped child, but it remains a possible interpretation. Much like with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) recommendations to the New Zealand government, the NSWP prefers a hands-off approach to men who pay to rape minors, describing anything else as ‘repressive methods,’ and recommends giving out condoms, teaching negotiation skills and employing other ‘harm reduction’ methods instead.
Law and the media create the environment in which children grow up, and pimps and paying paedocriminals seek out targets. Permissive attitudes towards men buying sexual access to, and profiting from, the prostitution of adults impacts children despite attempts at differentiating the two in law. On this matter it is irrelevant whether a country legalizes prostitution and attempts regulating it, or whether it takes the laissez-faire approach of decriminalisation – the impact on public attitudes is nearly identical.
It is difficult to argue that for an 18-year old, prostitution is an ordinary job that doesn’t involve undue harm, but for a 16- or 17-year old it constitutes a horrific crime. Normalizing adult prostitution always risks aiding those who seek to profit from the prostitution of children, and making it easier for individuals to pay to use and abuse children. Any country that accepts adult prostitution, must take an honest look at how these attitudes affect minors.
Let’s be clear that it is not individual women in the sex trade who are condoning the sexual exploitation of children – most of them abhor the prostitution of minors. Rather it is organisations like the NSWP and other interest groups (including brothel owners, pimps, pro-prostitution academics, punter networks, and HIV prevention organisations) that promote this advice as a fair and neutral position to take, while convincing international organisations and governments to accept it.
This article is an edited version of a brilliant post on Elly Arrow’s blog.