Julia O’Connell Davidson. Handbook of Social Problems: A Comparative International Perspective. Editor: George Ritzer. Sage Publications, 2004.
Over the past decade, national and international policymakers, journalists, and academics have identified children’s presence in the global sex trade as a growing social problem. However, media coverage and public and political debate on the subject has remained depressingly simplistic. Indeed, the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the contemporary world is often represented as a very straightforward battle between good and evil, and innocence and corruption. On one hand, we are presented with images of sad, pathetic, helpless victims, small children bought and sold as objects, tricked, raped, beaten, and trapped into a modern form of slavery; on the other, the talk is of the vile monsters who abuse and exploit them, the flesh peddlers, traffickers, pimps, and paedophiles, modern-day folk devils who are the very personification of evil. My aim in this chapter is not to suggest that children’s presence in the global sex trade is unproblematic, but rather to argue that the problem of child prostitution is embedded in a much more complex and painful reality than that invoked by popular discourse on the subject.
Author’s Note: This chapter is based upon one of the theme papers for the Second World Congress against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (O’Connell Davidson 2001c). The author is particularly indebted to Ola Florin, Helene Sackstein, Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor, Sun Wen Bin, and Maia Rusakova, for invaluable information and references. The support of Save the Children Sweden, which funded the researching and writing of the original theme paper, and the Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain, which funded research in the Caribbean that also contributed to the paper (Award No. R000237625), are gratefully acknowledged.
Paedophilia and Beyond
In 1996, government officials from more than 100 countries and representatives of a range of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) came together at the First World Congress against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Stockholm to combat what was identified as a fundamental abuse of children’s rights. A second such Congress was held in Yokohama, in December 2001. The Declaration and Agenda for Action from the First Congress made it clear that CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children) is rooted in a complex mix of economic, political, social, and legal factors and needs to be addressed through a wide range of measures at local, national, and international levels. Though this emphasis on the complexity of CSEC has exerted some influence on debates concerning the sexually exploited child over the past six years, it has remained largely absent from public and policy debate regarding those who commercially sexually exploit children. Instead, there has been a continued tendency (1) to assume that the “demand side” of CSEC consists of “paedophiles” and the criminals who supply them with children to abuse and/or (2) to concentrate on legal and criminal justice aspects of demand.
One immediate and obvious problem with this preoccupation with “paedophiles” is that it is inconsistent with the definition of “children” employed in international debate on CSEC. This debate is informed by the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, wherein a child is defined as a person under the age of 18. Yet paedophilia is a clinical diagnostic category with a very specific and limited meaning. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s 1995 manual, it refers to a person aged over 16, who “has had repeated, intense, sexually exciting fantasies for a period of at least six months, has had sexual urges or has carried out behaviours involving sexual acts with one or more children (usually under the age of 13)” (cited in Svensson 2000:27). Furthermore, “The fantasies, the sexual urges or behaviours act as considerable impairments in the individual’s ability to function socially, professionally or within other important spheres” (cited in Svensson 2000:27). Some of those who conform to this definition pose a very serious risk to children and can be individually responsible for the sexual abuse of large numbers of children. Yet we should also note that to be clinically diagnosed as suffering from paedophilia, an individual need not necessarily have committed any act of child sexual abuse, and we cannot therefore claim that all paedophiles sexually exploit children. It would be still more emphatically wrong to claim that all those who do sexually exploit children are paedophiles, and this would remain the case even if the term were more loosely employed to refer to adults with a sexual interest in young children (as it is used in popular parlance).
Those who are involved as third-party beneficiaries of CSEC, for example, are rarely motivated by personal sexual desire or obsessive fantasies. They sexually exploit children for profit, not because their acts of exploitation bring them psychic relief or sexual gratification. Next, there are those who sexually exploit children if and when they find themselves in situations where children are more readily or cheaply available for sexual use than adults, but whose satisfaction does not hinge on the physical or emotional immaturity of the individuals they exploit. There are also adult men who choose young children as sexual partners primarily on the basis of misconceptions about sexual health or because they uncritically accept myths about virgins being able to restore potency, bring luck to new business ventures, and so on. None of these people are driven by sexual fantasies about children per se.
Furthermore, if children are defined as persons under 18 years of age, it is necessary to recognise that few societies completely proscribe adult-child sexual contact. In most countries, it is legal for an adult to marry, cohabit with, or date a person below the age of 18. Meanwhile, most societies attach a good deal of aesthetic and erotic value to youthful bodies. Adults who seek out younger and more attractive sexual partners, including persons under the age of 18, are not necessarily transgressing the socially agreed perimeters of acceptable sexual desires and therefore cannot be automatically described as sexually “deviant” or psychologically “abnormal.” To reduce the problem of children’s involvement in the global sex trade to a problem of “paedophilia” is thus to grossly oversimplify matters. Though it is important to address the existence of, and harm caused by, those who consistently and consciously seek out young children to abuse, questions about why children are sexually exploited and by whom do not end here. It is also necessary to ask why it is that people who are not “paedophiles” sexually exploit children.
Rationalising the Sexual Exploitation of Children
Orlando Patterson (1982) has observed that “human beings have always found naked force or coercion a rather messy, if not downright ugly business, however necessary” (p. 18). Most societies have therefore sought ways in which to clothe the “beastliness” of power, to propound a set of ideas that make coercive power “immediately palatable to those who exercise it” (p. 18). Just as the power of dominant groups in society is typically cloaked or justified by discourses that humanise or deny it, so individuals are usually reluctant to view themselves as abusive, dominating, cruel, or evil. Whether we are talking about acts of genocide, rape, wife beating, or child sexual abuse, the vast majority of people will use force or coercive power against another human being only if and when they can tell themselves it is natural, right, and justifiable to do so, or when they can conceal from themselves the fact that they are exercising such powers. Thus, research has consistently found that very few of those who sexually exploit children consider themselves to be abusive or exploitative, but rather seek to deny, justify, or humanise their sexual use of children.
For example, British and U.S. studies of convicted child sex offenders suggest that such people typically exhibit distorted attitudes and beliefs that allow them to construct children as being in some way responsible for their own abuse, and/or imagine that children are not harmed by sexual contact with adults, and/or that children are able to consent to, or obtain benefits from, sexual encounters with adults (Ward, Hudson, and Keenan 2000). This may involve minimizing the meaning and consequences of abuse (as when the abuser tells himself that “fondling” or oral sex does not really “count” as sex and causes no harm to the child concerned) and/or denying the coercive nature of the abuse (as when the abuser tells himself that the child instigated, invited, or deserved the abuse). The degree of distortion and denial involved can be quite extraordinary. There are even offenders who claim that their sexual contact with a baby was not wrong because the baby invited or consented to the abuse by, for example, smiling and gurgling when the abuser changed its nappy.
Clearly, no existing society’s framework of beliefs can support such a stupendous level of self-deception. Those who sexually abuse very young children therefore have to massively distort socially agreed ideas about consent and the powers one human being can legitimately exercise over another, as well as about the proper objects of adult sexual interest and the proper relations between adults and children. Such people often have an extremely fragile hold on their sense of self and experience great psychological stress as they attempt maintain a view of their own actions as justified or harmless. However, those who abuse very small children are in a minority, and there are other forms of child sexual exploitation that are much easier to accommodate within the framework of socially prescribed or tolerated attitudes toward sexuality, age, consent, and the legitimate exercise of power. As the remainder of this chapter sets out to show, the use of children working in prostitution is a case in point. Before turning to questions about who has sex with child prostitutes and how they rationalise their behaviour, however, it is necessary to briefly consider where, how, and why children are present in prostitution.
Children and Prostitution: An Overview
Sex commerce is a stigmatized activity that generally takes place within a shadow or illegal economy. It is therefore extremely difficult to obtain accurate statistics on any aspect of the global sex trade. Methodological problems are all the more pronounced in relation to children’s presence in the sex industry, since even where certain types of prostitution are legally regulated or tolerated, prostitution involving minors is invariably criminalized. Although claims about the numbers of children in prostitution in various regions of the world are often made by groups campaigning against CSEC, such figures are at best “guesstimates” (Ennew 1986). There is, however, a more general body of empirical evidence on the sex trade around the world that allows us to advance certain claims about child prostitution with reasonable certainty. Using the United Nations definition of the child as a person under the age of 18, research shows that children are present in the sex trade of virtually every country of the world but also reveals much variation in terms of their routes into prostitution, as well as in terms of the social organisation of their commercial sexual exploitation.
There are, for example, cases in which children are abducted or tricked by agents (even sometimes sold to agents by parents or guardians), who then transport them to other countries or cities where they are sold into slavery-like conditions within brothel prostitution or forced to prostitute by a pimp. This type of trafficking has received most research attention in South and Southeast Asia (Brown 2000; Human Rights Watch 2000; Pyne 1995) but is also known to occur in Latin America (Sutton 1994), and there is growing concern about women and children being trafficked from poor and developing countries into the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, and European Union countries (International Organisation for Migration [IOM] 1996a; U.S. Agency for International Development [US AID] 2001; P. Williams 1999). However, not all children who work in prostitution have been trafficked or are subject to the control of a third party (brothel keeper or pimp). Some work independently, soliciting customers from streets, beaches, parks, bars, or other venues, either in their own hometowns or in other cities or tourist resorts they have migrated to of their own volition (Montgomery 1998; O’Connell Davidson and Sanchez Taylor 1996a, 1996b; Silvestre, Rijo, and Bogaert 1994; S. Williams 1999). Indeed, in both affluent and developing countries, many children who sell sex are “runaways,” escaping abusive family situations, institutional care, or rural poverty and entering into cash-for-sex exchanges to survive on the streets (Bagley 1999; Brock 1998; Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific [ESCAP] 2000; Melrose, Barrett, and Brodie 1999; O’Neill and Barberet 2000). Finally, we should note that many thousands of the world’s children grow up in communities that are entirely economically dependent upon the sex industry, and enter the sex trade when they reach the age at which they are expected to do (which is usually below the age of 18). So, for example, although some children who work as prostitutes in brothel districts in India and Bangladesh are victims of internal or cross-border trafficking, others are the daughters of female sex workers who already live in brothel communities (Uddin, Sultana, and Mahmud 2001; see also Saeed 2002).
There have been a number of high-profile cases involving the prostitution of young children by “paedophile rings” (see, for example, an account of the case of Andrew Mark Harvey in Lee-Wright 1990), but available research on both trafficking and prostitution suggests that such cases are rare. Many studies show that adolescents are present in the sex trade, and few have found any evidence of preadolescent children being trafficked into or exploited within the mainstream sex industry. So, for instance, recent International Labour Organization (ILO) research found that more than half of a sample of girls trafficked from Nepal to India were under the age of 16 and one-quarter were under the age of 14 when they were trafficked, but notes that “trafficking of girls seldom takes place before the onset of puberty” (Kumar 2001:2). Likewise, a 1992 survey of sex workers in Thailand revealed that one-third had entered prostitution when below the age of 18 and almost one-fifth were between the ages of 13 and 15 when they first started to prostitute, but found nothing to indicate that it is common for prepubertal children to be exploited in the sex trade (Lim 1998). Though cases of CSEC involving preadolescent children are extremely disturbing and clearly warrant our attention and concern, they also appear to be outside the “norms” of the commercial sex industry in the contemporary world. Thus, although there may be a small and largely concealed “market niche” within prostitution involving very young children, research suggests that the vast majority of children in prostitution are aged between 12 and 18 and are integrated into the mainstream prostitution market, serving demand from prostitute users in general rather than clients with a specific, focused interest in prepubertal children.
Existing research also clearly shows that those adolescents already disadvantaged by a range of economic, social, and political factors are the most likely to end up trading sex. So, for example, it is known that children who are affected by cataclysmic events (armed conflict, civil war, ethnic and racial violence, famine, and environmental degradation and disasters) are at particular risk of sexual exploitation by a range of groups: soldiers, including members of peacekeeping forces, staff and caregivers in institutions, humanitarian aid workers, and other refugee and displaced children. Some l0 million out of the world’s 21.5 million refugees and other persons of concern are under the age of 18 (United Nations Commission on Human Rights [UNCHR] 2000), and they are made vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation by the circumstances in which they are forced to live. Adolescents in particular often have to fend for themselves and may also have to assume adult responsibilities such as caring for siblings, and studies in Bosnia, Liberia, and Colombia suggest that refugee and displaced children between 12 and 18 sometimes trade sex for official papers, privileges for themselves or their relatives, clothes and food, or protection, as well as for cash (Kadjar-Hamouda 1996).
There are also links between poverty, HIV/AIDS, and CSEC. At the end of 1999, UNAIDS estimated that 13.2 million of the world’s children aged under 15 had lost their mothers or both parents as a result of AIDS and that 90% of these children lived in sub-Saharan Africa. It is further estimated that “44 million children in the 34 countries hardest hit by HIV/AIDS will have lost one or both parents from all causes, but primarily from AIDS, by 2010” (USAID 2000). The vast majority of children orphaned by AIDS struggle to subsist, often also to support siblings, and are thus highly vulnerable to involvement in commercial or survival sex. At the same time, the HIV/AIDS pandemic fuels a growth in the demand for CSEC (as well as incidence of child rape) in the regions worst affected. Global political and economic inequalities effectively deny people with AIDS in poor countries access to even the most basic health care. It is believed that as a consequence, some HIV-infected men turn in desperation to old myths about the outward transmission of disease, hoping that sex with a young child will cleanse them (see Gender-Aids Forum 2001).
Other tragedies that are less immediate and dramatic, but equally calamitous, also have an impact on children’s lives and render them vulnerable to CSEC. Over the past three decades, “The poorest 20 percent of the world’s people have seen their share of global income decline from 2.3 percent to 1.4 percent…. Meanwhile, the share of the richest 20 percent has risen from 70 percent to 85 percent” (Castells 1996:80-1). This polarisation is occurring both between and within nations and has been exacerbated by the pursuit of neoliberal policies for fiscal discipline and economic restructuring. In the developing world, the policy packages tied to structural adjustment loans have meant cuts to public spending and subsidies, increasing unemployment, and decreasing real wages. The poor, especially women and youth, have been left struggling to survive. These developments have had an enormous impact on patterns of sexual exploitation.
In undermining welfare benefits and minimum-wage levels and cutting the subsidies that made housing, transport, child care, education, and health care more affordable, neoliberal economic reforms in both affluent and developing nations have intensified many of the pressures that lead children to work and live on the streets (Mickelson 2000:272). Whether in Canada, Zambia, Brazil, Romania, or Cambodia, children who live and work on the streets are vulnerable to sexual abuse, violence, and exploitation from several different groups. Though many street children “form strong, supportive and loving bonds with their peers and members of marginal cultures with whom they interact,” relationships formed on the streets can often be “transitory and exploitative,” and children are thus at risk from fellow street dwellers (Posner 2000:253). Girl children who live and/or work on the streets are vulnerable to recruitment into full-time street or brothel prostitution, but street children may also engage in “survival sex,” trading sex for food, clothes, medicine, protection, and/or a place to stay. Finally, street children often report being sexually assaulted by police officers and/or staff in homes, hostels, and prisons in which they are remanded.
At the same time as intensifying poverty and unemployment amongst already vulnerable women and youth, global economic restructuring has also encouraged an expansion of the commercial sex industry. For example, since the 1970s, world financial institutions have encouraged indebted nations in Latin America and Southeast Asia to respond to economic crisis by developing tourism and/or “nontraditional” export industries such as gold, diamonds, and timber. One side effect of such development policies is the creation of highly concentrated, effective demand for prostitution: affluent tourists seeking “entertainment” and predominantly male, migrant workers in isolated mining and logging regions with cash to spend on “recreation.” It is unsurprising to find that adolescents as well as adult women, knowing that prostitution is more highly rewarded than any other form of work available to them, will sometimes elect to migrate from impoverished rural areas to prostitute in tourist resorts or mining or logging encampments in the hope of making enough money to support themselves and their families (Fiengold 1998, 2000; Kempadoo 1999; O’Connell Davidson 2001a; Xie 2000).
Having stressed the link between poverty and prostitution, it is important to note that whether we are talking about affluent or developing countries, the relationship between the two is rarely direct or unmediated. As O’Neill and Barberet (2000) observe,
Economic pressures play major roles in most cases, especially in street prostitution … but these economic pressures often result from familial abuse and neglect. Economic need is a result of being run-aways, single mothers, or unskilled workers. Other influences include coercion from pimps … and the need to support a drug habit. (P. 127)
Adolescents who have friends or acquaintances working in prostitution, and/or who have previous histories of sexual victimization also appear to be more likely to turn to prostitution as a strategy for survival than are similarly economically disadvantaged children with no such prior histories. So, for example, a study of 50 sex workers in Calgary, Canada, found that 86 percent had entered prostitution before the age of 18 (more than three-quarters began trading sex before 16) and 82 percent had been raped or sexually abused prior to entering prostitution (Bagley 1999). Recent research in Yunnan Province, China, likewise suggests links between girls’ vulnerability to trafficking into the sex trade and the experience of sexual abuse or domestic violence within the home (ESCAP 2000). These points hold good for boys as well as girls who become involved in trading sex (Gibson 1995).
Buying Sex from Child Prostitutes
Research on the demand for prostitution in general suggests that it comes overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) from men, but surveys reveal much variation between countries as regards how many men admit to prostitute use. For example, around 9 percent of men in Britain (Wellings et al. 1993), 13 percent of men in Finland (Haavio-Mannila and Rotkirch 2000), 14 percent of men in Hong Kong (Family Planning Association, Hong Kong 2000), 39 percent of men in Spain (Leridon, Zesson, and Hubert 1998), and 16 percent of men in the United States (Monto 2000) admit to having paid for sex at some time in their lives. Studies further suggest that certain subsets of the male population of any given country are more likely than others to engage in prostitute use. There is a great deal of historical and contemporary evidence to suggest that groups of men whose work separates them from home for prolonged periods are particularly prone to prostitute use. This is especially the case when their employment is sex segregated and when the work culture is informed by an ethos of machismo. Unsurprisingly, then, prostitute use has historically been and remains common amongst men in the armed forces (Enloe 1993; Euler and Welzer-Lang 2000; Kane 1993; Moon 1997; Sturdevant and Stoltzfus 1992; Tanaka 2002). Seafarers, truckers, and male migrant workers who spend long periods working in poor conditions in isolated regions (for instance, those who work in logging and mining) are three more significant groups in terms of providing demand for prostitution (Antonius-Smits 1999; Siden 2002; Sutton 1994; Verhaert et al. 1993).
Businessmen may not work away from home for prolonged periods, but they often travel a good deal, and in most major cities around the world, sex workers report that foreign and domestic businessmen are amongst their clients (Allison 1994; Lever and Dolnick 2000; Nencel 2001; Ren 1993). Research also indicates that people are far more likely to enter into various forms of sexual-economic exchange whilst on holiday than they are when at home (Kleibe and Wilke 1995). Demand for prostitution does not come only from men who travel or work away from home, however, and in most settings, local men (including police officers; see Anderson and O’Connell Davidson 2002) are amongst those who buy sex. Although the vast majority of those who pay for sex are men, there is also some evidence of demand from women for a variety of sexual-economic exchanges (Haavio-Mannila and Rotkirch 2000; Meisch 1995; Nagel 1997; Sanchez Taylor 2001).
Reliable data on the number or background characteristics of those who buy sex from persons under the age of 18 are much harder to come by. However, a range of studies have shown that all over the world, adolescents can be found working alongside sex workers aged over 18 in mainstream forms of prostitution. For example, girls aged between 12 and 18 years have been found working in brothel districts, tourist areas, mining encampments, ports and truck stops, on the streets, and in a variety of off-street forms of prostitution (Brown 2000; Kelly and Regan 2000; Mayorga and Velasquez 1999; Melrose et al. 1999; O’Connell Davidson 2001a; O’Connell Davidson and Sanchez Taylor 2001; Rusakova 2001; Uddin et al. 2001), and boys under 18 are likewise present in mainstream male prostitution (Aggleton 1999; West 1992). Although research suggests that some clients have a specific interest in sex with young children or virgins, and some deliberately and consciously seek out sex workers who are above the age of 25, most sex buyers simply take their pick of the prostitutes working in any given setting (Anderson and O’Connell Davidson 2002; O’Connell Davidson and Sanchez Taylor 1996a). Price, availability, and sometimes also physical appearance are often more important to the client than whether the prostitute is aged above or below 18.
Viewed globally, it is almost certainly true to say that only a minority of men are regular or habitual prostitute users. Nevertheless, those with experience of prostitute use represent a significant percentage of the world’s male population, and in numerical terms, they certainly amount to some millions of men. Because they use or have used prostitutes in a world in which many sex workers are below the age of 18, we can conclude that the numbers of men who have ever paid for sex with minors are also substantial. This should immediately alert us to problems with models of CSEC that construct the men who pay for sex with children as necessarily deviant, abnormal, evil, or monstrous. Instead, we need to ask why this sizeable number of men want to make use of the commercial sex industry and what is it that makes it possible for them to ignore or overlook questions about the age of the prostitutes they exploit?
The Natural-Born Client
In my own interview research with clients (O’Connell Davidson 1997, 1998, 2001b), I have found that they generally draw upon the idea of male sexual “needs” to explain their own prostitute use. Some men view themselves as lacking the physical or social charms necessary to meet these “needs” in noncommercial contexts (they say things like, “When I was younger I could always pick a girl up at a disco or something, but now I’m older and getting a bit thin on top, like, put on a few pounds, they won’t look at me”). Because prostitution affords them instant access to a selection of females, they can, as one man put it, get their “sex drive out for the night.” Other clients describe their prostitute use as a quick and simple expedient in situations when no other “outlet” is unavailable. There are also clients who have wives or girlfriends from whom they are not physically separated. They tend to explain their prostitute use as a function of rather more specific sexual “needs” that would otherwise go unsatisfied (“I need something that’s just purely sexual, just to meet my needs with no complications”) or else as a response to their wife/partner’s lack of sexual interest in them. Finally, there are clients who say that they use prostitutes as a means of satisfying a “natural” impulse to have sex with as many different females as often as they possibly can.
These attitudes toward male sexuality can hardly be described as extraordinary. Indeed, it is almost universally assumed that men are by nature sexually active and subject to strong sexual urges or appetites, whilst women are assumed to be naturally sexually passive and receptive, and great value has traditionally been placed upon female sexual purity and continence. These traditional beliefs about gender difference form the basis for the “double standards” that most societies apply to prostitution. When men use prostitutes, they are widely considered to be simply giving in to a “natural” impulse, whereas females who work as prostitutes are generally condemned and vilified as “unnatural” women. Prostitution thus becomes a “necessary evil”—necessary for men who are possessed of strong and biologically given sexual impulses, and evil for women, who should be modest, chaste, dependent, and passive. And so while prostitution may be viewed as distasteful or immoral, it is also considered to perform an important social function, “soaking up” excess male sexual urges that would otherwise lead to rape, marital breakdown, and all kinds of social disorder, and so protecting the virginity and innocence of “good” girls and women. Whether Scandinavian, Italian, Japanese, Indian, or Thai, clients typically accept such ideas (Anderson and O’Connell Davidson 2002).
Most societies socialise their members to believe that there are natural and fundamental differences between male and female sexuality and that men have strong and biologically based sexual “needs” that cannot be left unmet without harm accruing to the individual concerned. And yet human sexual desire is also very much a social matter. People are rarely completely indiscriminate about the social identities of their sexual partners; indeed, they typically care a great deal about the gender and age (often also the race, ethnicity, and class) of those who meet their sexual “needs” and the precise manner in which they meet them. To speak of sex is, as Thomas Laqueur (1995) has noted, to talk about “a great deal else than organs, bodies and pleasures” (p. 155), for sex is not a mere bodily function or physical need. Our erotic life is grounded in the ideas we use to categorize, interpret, and give meaning to human experience and sociality, and specific sexual desires do not, therefore, directly express some fundamental, timeless, or general human need for sex.
The story of the “Natural-Born Client” does not describe a biological reality, then. But naturalizing prostitute use through reference to ideas about male sexuality does allow clients to construct their sexual contact with the prostitute as a “good” or “commodity” that satisfies a perfectly understandable and reasonable demand on the part of the “consumer.” This draws attention to an important way in which very ordinary, everyday attitudes and beliefs about the social world can help very “normal” and unremarkable individuals to rationalise the act of buying sex from children working in prostitution.
Commodity Exchange and Moral Indifference
Prostitution involves a market transaction and is usually (but not always) organised and constructed as a commodity exchange like any other. To imagine the prostitute-client transaction as a commodity exchange, clients have to treat sexuality as though it were something that can be detached from the person. The prostitute’s sexuality then becomes some thing that she can freely choose to sell, and the client’s sexuality is also imagined as somehow estranged and divisible from his real self. He enters into the exchange merely to “control” his “sex life” or satisfy his “sex drive.” One client I interviewed even compared his sexuality to a vehicle that the owner has to maintain, describing his visits to prostitutes as being “a bit like taking your car to the garage to get it serviced … you’re paying for the services of an expert, someone who really knows what they’re doing” (O’Connell Davidson 1997). Thus “sexual needs,” which are in reality socially constructed productions of the human imagination, are fetishized, invested with a life of their own, and viewed as an external force driving the client to behave in particular ways.
By telling himself that prostitution is a commodity exchange (he and the prostitute meet freely in the marketplace and voluntarily contract to dispose of their property), the client can avoid thinking of prostitution as involving a human relationship. This means he can overlook certain facts about the prostitute as a person, facts that would often make sexual contact with her illegitimate in terms of the rules and conventions that in noncommercial contexts, he himself would probably endorse. The prostitute may be another man’s wife or girlfriend or pregnant by another man. She may have been coerced into prostitution by a husband, boyfriend, or pimp. She may be debt-bonded or subject to other slavery-like practices by a brothel keeper. She may be extremely young. But because his relationship to her is constructed as a commodity exchange, the client does not feel morally compelled to interrogate what lies behind her sexual “consent.” She is a seller, he is a buyer, and he can simply think in terms of an exchange of “values,” x amount of money for x sexual benefit (and clients do really talk about “value for money”).
This makes it possible for men (sometimes also women) who would not dream of asking their own child’s teenage friends for sex, let alone think it right to coerce them into having sex, to buy sex from adolescents who work in the sex trade. Because prostitution is contractually organised as a commodity exchange like any other, buyers can tell themselves that their own actions are quite legitimate. They are simply behaving as a sovereign consumer in a free market behaves, and if they do not accept the child’s offer, someone else will. This is made explicit in a guidebook written by a sex tourist for sex tourists. The author, Bruce Cassirer, explains how to go about finding brothels in Bangkok where debt-bonded women and children work:
These are village girls from Burma or China who are barefoot and who knows how old. … If the service is good, tip; if extra special, tip more. These girls live here and are owned by the hotel. Your tip is their spending money, so let your conscience be your guide…. One way to rationalize it is to say, if it’s not me then it’s the guy behind me, and who’s more likely to be the gentler of the two? (Cassirer 1992:180-81; original emphasis)
When men like this buy sex from children, it is perhaps best understood as an act of moral indifference, and it is by no means clear that this is out of kilter with the moral codes that are widely accepted in liberal democratic states. In a book that starts from a consideration of the Holocaust, the British political theorist Norman Geras (1998) asks how we can make sense of “the depressing but widespread fact that so many people do not come to the aid of others under attack, whether fellow citizens or merely other human beings, and also do not come to the aid of them in dire need or great distress” (p. 26). Geras’s idea is that people imagine themselves as parties to a contract of mutual indifference, whereby they do not feel obligated to come to the aid of others who are under grave assault and do not expect others to feel obligated to help them in a similar emergency. Geras goes on to argue that this kind of moral indifference is underwritten by liberal political thought:
The principal economic formation historically associated with liberalism, defended by liberals—whether confidently or apologetically—today as much as ever, is one in which it has been the norm for the wealth and comfort of some to be obtained through the hardship and poverty of others, and to stand right alongside these. It is a whole mode of collective existence. Not only an economy. A world, a culture, a set of everyday practices. (P. 59)
Prostitution seems to me to be one such everyday practice; a practice that expresses moral indifference and justifies it by invoking the liberal concept of contractual consent. There are very obvious parallels between Cassirer’s advice on how to rationalise buying sex from children forced into prostitution and the thought processes followed by those who, for example, continue to buy cheap garments or trainers from retailers whose use of forced or child labour has been widely publicized. His remarks may be offensive and obscene, but they only distinguish him from most “ordinary decent folk” in the sense that he is willing to extend the logic of the contract of mutual indifference to the arena of commercial sex.
The Prostitute as “Other”
Although clients tend to justify and defend their own prostitute use by describing prostitution as a commodity exchange like any other, few really accept that the prostitute’s sexuality can be estranged as a “thing” or “commodity” separate from her person. In fact, the reverse is generally true. Habitual clients actually tend to buy into very traditional ideas about gender and sexuality, and about prostitution. They believe, just as strongly as do religious fundamentalists and moral conservatives, that there is a firm and meaningful line of demarcation between “good” and “bad” women, “Madonnas” and “whores.” A female who sells sex is considered by most habitual clients to be different from other women, unlike their own wives, sisters, mothers, daughters, or other “respectable” women. The prostitute is somehow outside the imaginary community of good, respectable, heterosexuals—this is why it is acceptable and morally justifiable to use her in ways that “good” women and girls cannot be used.
In this, once again, the client merely accepts and reproduces what is widely socially endorsed. Societies that are distinguished by all manner of economic, political, religious, and cultural differences share a common tendency to legally and socially construct female prostitutes as a separate class of persons, as criminals, deviants, outsiders, a group apart from other good and decent women. As such, they have been, and are, subjected to various forms of surveillance, social control, and discipline and denied many of the basic rights, protections, and freedoms accorded to other citizens. Indeed, female prostitutes represent a group whose human and civil rights have been continuously, routinely, and systematically violated by the states under which they live (Alexander 1997; Bindman 1997; Kempadoo and Doezema 1998).
Because they “agree” to sell their sexuality as a commodity, prostitutes are held to have placed themselves outside the remit of the socially agreed rules that govern sexual life. They are expelled and excluded from the community, and thus the rape, even the murder, of prostitute women does not evoke the same degree of popular outrage as the rape or murder of women who are covered by the rules, and sexual contact with a child is adjudged differently according to whether it takes place within a commercial or a noncommercial context. In fact, the stigma against prostitutes is so great that it overrides a child’s status as a child. A child who prostitutes is no longer a child. An Italian sex tourist once described to me how he picked up a 13-year-old girl in the Dominican Republic and took her back to his apartment for sex. He justified his actions by saying that she was already working as a prostitute, and “she was expecting something, and it wasn’t a lollipop” (O’Connell Davidson and Sanchez Taylor 1996b: 16). Again, clients who reason in this way are reproducing attitudes that are widely socially endorsed. The idea that children should not be criminalized for their involvement in prostitution is still not universally accepted, either in principle or practice.
Research shows that in many countries of the world, migrants are now overrepresented in the sex trade. In some European Union countries, it is estimated that more than half of those working in prostitution are migrants, and in most of Western Europe, significant numbers of women from a number of African, Latin American, and Southeast Asian countries, as well as from former Soviet Bloc countries, are present in the commercial sex industry (IOM 1996a, 1996b; Tampep 1999; P. Williams 1999). Migrant women and girls also represent a strong presence in the sex industries of many Asian countries. In 1995, there were an estimated 23,000 Thai female sex workers in Japan (Phongpaichit 1999). Vietnamese women and girls are present in the sex trade in Taiwan, China, Macau, Thailand, and Cambodia (Asian Migrant Centre [AMC] 2000; Foggo 2002; Xie 2000). Latin American and Caribbean sex workers migrate within the region and work in the commercial sex sector in Europe and North America (COIN 1992; IOM 1996a, 1996b; Kempadoo 1999). The list could go on. As is the case in other economic sectors, migrant sex workers frequently find themselves working for low pay under exploitative conditions, as the market for commercial sex is often hierarchically stratified along lines of race/ethnicity and nationality. These hierarchies mirror the distribution of power and privilege in the society as a whole. Sex workers who belong to groups that are in general socially devalued and socially, politically, and economically marginalized are also likely to be devalued by clients and socially constructed as the “natural” or “ideal” occupants of the lowliest positions in the sex industry (Anderson and O’Connell Davidson 2002).
Racism, xenophobia, and ideas about caste also contribute to the demand for commercial sex, including CSEC, in the sense that they encourage clients to view “otherised” groups as “natural” prostitutes. So, for example, white Western sex tourists will say that the local women, men, and children they pay for sex in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America are naturally more sexually willing than their white counterparts (Kruhse-Mount Burton 1995; Sanchez Taylor 2001; Seabrook 1996; O’Connell Davidson and Sanchez Taylor 1996a). Though Australian, North American, Western European, and Japanese sex tourists have received the lion’s share of research attention, it should also be noted that sex tourism takes place between and within developing countries. In developing countries, the minority who are prospering as a result of economic restructuring find themselves in a position to consume commercial sex, as well as other luxury goods. Thus, we find that Chinese men provide the bulk of demand for Vietnamese women and girls working in tourism resorts on the Vietnam-China border; Jamaican men travel to Cuba to sexually exploit local women and girls; and domestic Indian tourists provide demand for children and women in brothel districts in Goa. Attitudes toward travel and racial/ethnic difference are significant for understanding tourists’ propensity to engage in CSEC. The sentiment behind the Japanese adage “Shameless behaviour during a trip is to be scraped off one’s mind” (Allison 1994:140) is shared by a great many tourists, whether they hail from Bombay, Beijing, or Birmingham.
Again, clients’ beliefs are not aberrant or extraordinary. Most societies are hierarchically stratified along ethnic, racial, or caste lines and/or are deeply xenophobic and promote or tolerate the belief that minority groups are sexually different. When people buy sex from children in prostitution who do not share their own social identities, they can thus easily tell themselves that these children either do not need, or are unworthy of, the care and protection that would be accorded to children “of their own kind.”
In short, clients do not have to cognitively distort dominant attitudes toward sexual life very far at all to feel comfortable about using a child prostitute. Popular beliefs about gender, sexuality, race/caste, and prostitution allow the client to tell himself that the child instigated sex (solicited his custom), consented to sex (accepted money or another benefit in exchange), deserved to be sexually used (is just a “dirty” prostitute), and/or was not really harmed by the sexual contact (is not “one of my own kind” and/or has already been sexually used by many others, so what difference can one more violation make?). These observations hold across a range of otherwise very different societies, for the attitudes that encourage people to engage in CSEC (such as the sexual value attached to youthful bodies, the idea of male sexual “need,” the stigmatisation of female prostitutes, and the sexualization of groups deemed to be racial/ethnic/caste “inferiors”) have very wide currency. To this, we can add that dominant sexual cultures in virtually all contemporary societies are informed by the assumption that gender difference and inequality are natural, rather than socially and politically constructed, and that it is desirable for men to be “masculine” and women to be “feminine.”
All over the world, the boundaries of gender are vigorously maintained and violently policed, and this near-universal insistence on gender difference helps to account for ordinary men’s involvement in a range of sexually exploitative practices. It also helps to explain why sexual violence and exploitation are often highly visible in settings where men feel that their “masculinity” is at risk (e.g., when they work in exploitative conditions over which they have little control) and/or in settings where the social premium placed on “masculinity” is suddenly raised (e.g., periods of armed conflict). The obsessive attachment to gender difference is relevant to understanding the sexual abuse and exploitation of both male and female children. If men are taught to believe that masculinity is expressed through the act of insertive sex with a passive and receptive partner, then boys, as well as girls, can be used as vehicles for attaining masculinity.
Child prostitution takes place within a complex and multifaceted “sex sector,” which is linked in a variety of ways to both the formal and informal economy in any given country (see Lim 1998). Some of those who derive economic benefits from the sex sector are wealthy and powerful. They can include government and police officials and those who own and control businesses in the leisure and entertainment sector, which often enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the sex industry. Given that minors are often present in the mainstream sex trade, such people can be said to benefit indirectly from CSEC. Large and respectable tourism, mining, logging, and shipping companies might also be said to be indirectly involved in the sex sector in the sense that a flourishing demand for prostitution, including CSEC, is one of the by-products of their main profit-making activities and/or employment policies (such as providing dormitory accommodation for a migrant male workforce instead of housing for the men and their families). However, those who own and control companies are rarely held personally responsible for the social or environmental costs associated with the sectors within which they operate. Indeed, they are often loudly applauded for taking even the smallest of steps to ameliorate the negative side effects of their firms’ profit-making activities.
Other third parties benefit from CSEC in more immediate ways. Economic rewards can be obtained from CSEC through a variety of activities, including trafficking children for purposes of sexual exploitation, organising and/or controlling children in prostitution, procuring children, and producing and distributing child pornography for commercial gain. Individuals can also obtain economic rewards from CSEC without actually becoming directly involved in arranging any child’s sexual exploitation (corrupt officials can benefit from bribes, bar owners can “turn a blind eye” to CSEC on their premises and benefit from the custom it draws to their establishment, retailers can profit by selling pornographic materials involving persons under the age of 18, and so on). Few of these people dedicate themselves simply and solely to promoting CSEC, and most come to exploit children through their involvement with the sex trade more generally.
It is also important to note that several people, rather than one single individual, are usually implicated in any given child’s sexual exploitation. So, for example, a trafficked-child’s journey from her home to the brothel, street, or private flat where she ends up being commercially sexually exploited is usually charted by a number of different social actors: those who recruit her (perhaps people who themselves were originally trafficked into prostitution), those who encourage her (perhaps her own friends or relatives), middle agents, corrupt officials, pimps, or brothel owners. This “division of labour” reduces any sense of responsibility on the part of each individual involved. Those at the start of the chain do not necessarily know or see the end consequences of their actions, whilst those at the end of the chain can blame the people who acted further back down the line for the child’s situation. The motives of these different actors are not always identical, and they do not have equal interests in the commercial sex trade. While some rely on that trade as a major source of income, others benefit from their involvement on a “one-off or irregular basis.
Very often, the action of those who knowingly derive economic benefits from CSEC is informed by the kind of moral indifference that was described above, but people can “buy into” such attitudes to different degrees and for different reasons. Some of those who sexually exploit children for profit are affluent and privileged individuals who are willing to cynically take advantage of the misfortunes of others for their own personal advantage. Often, the children they exploit are of a different racial, ethnic, caste, or national group from their own, and their willingness to tolerate or promote CSEC is partly linked to their racism/xenophobia. European and North American expatriates who allow children to solicit from bars they own in tourist resorts in developing countries, or procure children for tourists, provide a good example of this (see O’Connell Davidson and Sanchez Taylor 2001).
But other third-party beneficiaries of CSEC are far from privileged and powerful. Women and children, as well as men, are involved, and it is not uncommon for an individual “career” in the sex trade to start with selling sex, then progress to organising the prostitution of others. Nor is it unusual for prostitutes, including children in prostitution, to supplement their incomes by procuring or pimping others. Regardless of their age or gender, a good many people’s involvement as third-party beneficiaries of the sex trade is precipitated by exactly the same factors that make children vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, including poverty, lack of alternative economic opportunity, absence of educational opportunities, domestic violence, drug addiction, and/or a range of exclusionary social practices and policies based on discriminatory beliefs about gender, race, ethnicity, caste, and/or sexuality.
Indeed, the study of Bangladeshi brothel communities mentioned earlier shows that those born into highly stigmatized communities that are entirely economically dependent on prostitution have little sense of what life is like in mainstream society, and no hope of leaving the community. Moreover, “All but the most protected children are routinely caught up in illicit activities from drinking, drug taking and gambling to theft, pimping and extortion” (Uddin et al. 2001:45). In these and other similar communities, adults who are yesterday’s exploited children are today exploiting the children who will become tomorrow’s exploiters. Such cycles of exploitation have virtually nothing to do with individual morality or criminality, but a great deal to do with the legal and social construction of prostitutes as a separate class of persons and the systematic violation of their human rights. The actions of all those involved as third parties to CSEC are neither identical nor morally equivalent.
Penalize the Buyers?
Those who are currently involved in campaigns for the abolition of prostitution (whether it involves adult women or children) often argue that prostitution is a form of sexual violence and comparable with slavery in the sense that it involves the objectification of human beings as mere commodities to be bought and sold (Barry 1995; Jeffreys 1997). They therefore call on all states not only to take measures to protect women and girls from prostitution and to criminalize those who organise and profit from prostitution but also to criminalize the men who buy sex:
Penalize the buyers. The least discussed part of the prostitution and trafficking chain has been the men who buy women for sexual exploitation in prostitution, pornography, sex tourism and mail order bride marketing. We cannot shrug our shoulders and say “men are like this.” … Rather, our responsibility is to make men change their behaviour by all means available—educational, cultural, and through legislation that penalizes men for the crime of sexual exploitation. (Raymond 2001:9)
Though many policymakers would be reluctant to follow the example set by Sweden, where the buying of sex per se has recently been criminalized (Mansson 2001), the idea that men should be legally punished for buying sex from minors has gained much more widespread support. Again, if we concentrate on CSEC as a problem affecting very young children, such measures may appear eminently reasonable. Why should a man who pays another adult to rape a nine-year-old be treated differently from a man who abducts and rapes a nine-year-old or who rapes his nine-year-old daughter? But the idea of penalizing the buyer is more controversial when adolescents’ presence in the sex trade is considered, especially those who are above the age of sexual consent. Is it really possible to obtain a universal consensus on the need to legally construct and punish men who buy sex from 16- or 17-year-olds as child abusers?
Matters are complicated further if we recognise that adolescent males are also amongst those providing demand for prostitution (Anderson and O’Connell Davidson 2002; FPA HK 2000; Monto 2000). There are no data available on the age of prostitutes used by child clients. However, given that some boys under 18 are known to use prostitutes in settings where children aged under 18 are present in prostitution, we cannot discount the possibility that children in prostitution may sometimes be exploited by child clients. And still further problems are posed by the phenomenon of children who sexually exploit other children for financial gain, rather than sexual gratification. Poverty and other forms of social exclusion pave the way into this side of the sex trade, just as they are the major routes into prostitution itself.
The moral issues raised by men’s use of adolescent prostitutes also appear more complex if we consider the fact that in many parts of the world, there is strong demand for commercial sex from men whose lives are every bit as bleak, violent, and hopeless as those of the women and children they buy sex from. Consider, for instance, the 350,000 men who work in gold mines in South Africa (Campbell 2001). Around 95 percent of these workers are migrants, the vast majority housed in single-sex hostels, with up to 18 men sharing a room. Their living conditions are dirty and overcrowded; there is no space for privacy or quiet; and there are very limited opportunities for wives or family to visit and few opportunities for leisure or relaxation. Their working conditions are equally grim, underground in the heat, often working with noisy machinery for eight hours with infrequent breaks and lack of access to water, in constant fear of fatal, mutilating, or disabling accidents. This is hardly an environment in which it is easy for human beings to fulfill their own emotional needs or indeed even acknowledge that they experience emotions such as fear, loneliness, or sorrow. As one miner explained to Catherine Campbell (2001):
They told me that in this situation you must know now that you are on the mines you are a man and must be able to face anything without fear. … To be called a man serves to encourage and console you time and again…. You will hear people saying “a man is a sheep, he does not cry” … no matter how hard you hit a sheep or slaughter it you will not hear it cry…. So, that is a comparison that whatever pain you can inflict on a man you will not see him cry. (P. 281)
Sex is viewed as necessary to men’s health and well-being and a way of demonstrating one’s manhood, and it is unsurprising to find that prostitute use, one of the few possibilities for leisure, is common amongst miners in South Africa (also in parts of Latin America where similar conditions exist; see Sutton 1994). If some of the men who live and work in these conditions are indifferent about questions as to why the prostitutes they use are willing to sell sex or questions about the age of the prostitutes they use, then their indifference merely mirrors the indifference that the rest of world feels toward them.
There are other reasons to exercise caution when discussing sanctions against those who sexually exploit children. Consider, for example, the fact that there are places in the world where it is estimated that between 15 and 30 percent of those working in prostitution are under the age of 18 and that up to 75 percent of the male population engage or have engaged in prostitute use (Anderson and O’Connell Davidson 2002; Brown 2000). In such places, proposals to give custodial sentences to anyone who buys sex from a minor could translate into proposals to incarcerate more than half the male population. Custodial sentences would be equally problematic in contexts in which people become involved in the sex trade as third-party beneficiaries simply because this is their only real possibility for economic survival. Calls for the incarceration of all perpetrators of CSEC do not always or necessarily represent either a realistic or a humane response to the problem.
Feminist abolitionist analyses of prostitution as a social problem may be grounded in a deeper critique of patriarchal power structures, but it is perfectly possible for states to act on calls to penalize the buyer without even beginning to address the power relations that underpin either the supply or demand side of child prostitution. Indeed, an emphasis on punishing those who buy sex from children helps to discursively construct CSEC as a problem of individual morality and to deflect attention from the global and national economic, social, and political inequalities that underpin it. For example, instead of addressing the question of why refugee and displaced children are so often forced to live in such appalling circumstances that prostitution and/or other forms of sexual-economic exchange become their only or best means of subsisting, politicians can speak of their abhorrence for the individual aid workers and peacekeepers who exploit them, and claim to have addressed the problem by disciplining the few “bad apples” in an otherwise healthy barrel.
An emphasis on the morality of the sex buyer also clouds important questions about the more general and widespread social devaluation of poor and abandoned children. Where street children are popularly stereotyped as thieving, manipulative, unnatural, and immoral beings and referred to as “cockroaches” and “vermin,” it is very easy for an adult to rationalise acts of sexual abuse against them. They do not count as children, and they are unworthy of care or protection. Brazil is notorious for the prevalence of such attitudes (see Huggins and Mesquita 2000) but is certainly not alone in tolerating the dehumanisation and even murder of street children. Indeed, governments implicitly endorse the idea that poor children are unworthy of care every time they cut the social and welfare spending that might otherwise provide a safety net for such children. The same points need to be made in relation to global economic governance, for in many cases, children are made increasingly vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation by macroeconomic policies being enforced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reduce domestic expenditure and increase interest rates (Rhodes 1999).
In short, moral distinctions between those who are directly involved in CSEC as buyers or third parties and those who are not are much finer than many people care to recognise. Clients and nonclients alike inhabit a world in which prostitution is the only thing that stands between millions of people (adult and child) and the absolute indignities implied by poverty; clients and nonclients alike live in a world in which girls and women, sometimes also boys and men, are sexualised, denied access to educational and employment opportunities, and excluded from communities as a consequence of rape or abuse or sexual orientation or sexual choices they have made, or by virtue of their racial or ethnic identities or their status as noncitizens. And together, governments and world financial institutions play a central role in perpetuating the existence of such a world. So long as these facts are accepted, whether out of indifference or resignation, we all of us carry a degree of moral culpability for the phenomenon of CSEC.
There is a final and very important reason to urge caution about calling for extensions of the state’s punitive powers with regard to prostitution, adult or child. In most countries of the world, the civil and human rights of females who work in prostitution are routinely, and often grossly, violated. Prostitutes variously face arbitrary detention, deportation, forcible eviction from their dwellings; enforced health checks, including HIV testing; forcible “rehabilitation”; corporal punishment; and even execution. Few states offer prostitutes adequate protection from violent crime or abusive employers, and prostitutes are frequently victims of crimes perpetrated by corrupt law enforcement agents, including rape, beatings, and extortion. The scale and severity of the human rights violations perpetrated against female prostitutes in the contemporary world was recognised in the 1992 general recommendation made by the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to include prostitutes among those who needed to be offered equal protection under the law (Kempadoo and Ghuma 1999:293; see also Alexander 1997).
Since states are amongst those who most consistently violate prostitutes’ rights, it would be naive to trust that calls for stronger legal controls over those who exploit children within prostitution will automatically produce desirable outcomes for either prostitute women or teenagers. Indeed, crackdowns on CSEC and trafficking have often had extremely negative consequences for both adults and adolescents working in prostitution, and the numbers of people arrested for sexually exploiting children in prostitution generally pale into insignificance next to the numbers of women and teenagers arrested for prostitution and/or immigration offences. There is a great deal of work to be done in terms of changing attitudes toward prostitution and creating legal and social environments that are protective of female prostitutes’ human rights before we can be confident that calls for tighter and more extensive criminalization of CSEC will not continue to have these unintended and undesirable consequences.
Toward a More Complicated and Differentiated Vision of the Problem of CSEC
Questions about childhood, sexuality, and commercial sex can be hugely controversial, and those who campaign against CSEC often attempt to sidestep disagreements by focusing on aspects of abuse and exploitation upon which there is most agreement. In practice, this means keeping the focus firmly on the sexual use of younger children. Thus, we find that public awareness-raising materials produced by children’s rights NGOs, through the use of particular images (broken rose buds, discarded toys, small children being led away by large, shadowy male figures) and examples of cases involving children aged between 3 and 12, have tended to stress the sexual exploitation of young children rather than adolescents.
While the impulse to stick to uncontroversial, common ground is understandable, it also carries certain risks. It leads to an emphasis on sexual abuse and CSEC as the violation of childhood “innocence,” and in so doing, suggests that a particular model of childhood (as a state of passivity and dependence) can be universalised and extended to cover both young children and adolescents up to the age of 18. The general dangers of a discourse about child sexual abuse and exploitation as the theft, shattering, rape, or betrayal of “innocence” have been incisively discussed by Jenny Kitzinger (1997). This discourse also poses particular problems in relation to our vision of, and response to, those who sexually exploit children, since it allows participants in policy debates to evade the complexity of CSEC as a social problem.
At the time of writing, many people are increasingly concerned about how quickly and easily politicians can reduce complex geopolitical issues to simple fairy tales about “evil” and monstrous Others who must be “smoked out” and exposed to the “infinite justice” of good, liberty-loving democrats. I believe we need to be equally wary of much of the rhetoric surrounding children’s involvement in the sex trade. It is becoming commonplace to remark that CSEC is a global problem and to call for greater cooperation between states in order to police it. But CSEC is not an international problem simply because those who exploit children cross national borders to do so. It is also an international problem because the factors that precipitate children’s entry into prostitution and increase their vulnerability within it are global, as well as national and local, as indeed are many of the factors that stimulate the demand for prostitution. The discursive reduction of CSEC to a threat posed by child rapists, traffickers, and paedophiles serves to obscure the economic, social, and political realities that underpin the involvement of men, women, and children in commercial sex trade; it also serves to sideline questions about the mass of ordinary people who provide the demand for commercial sex, including commercial sex with persons under the age of 18. It also turns the problem of CSEC into something external to our own societies. And yet in reality, the problem is very much part of us, for both the supply and the demand side of the global sex trade are by-products of inequalities and injustices that are routinely tolerated.
Instead of accepting fairy tales about those who commercially sexually exploit children as the essence of all that is most monstrous and evil, we need to work to redress the inequalities that underpin the market for commercial sex. We also need to transform the ordinary, everyday attitudes and beliefs about gender, race, sexuality, age, economic life, and prostitution that make it possible for ordinary people to use but deny, justify, or humanize the powers such inequalities bequeath them.