“Child prostitution”. It’s a term that should never be used. It insults both sex workers and victims of child abuse. Why? Because it equates consenting adult sex workers with child victims of abuse, rape and trafficking. It suggests that consenting sex workers don’t have agency and that child abuse victims are somehow complicit in their rapes.
Girl A, the main witness in the Rochdale sex abuse ring case, describes how social workers assumed she and her friends made “lifestyle choices” to work as “prostitutes” in her book Girl A: My Story. I’m certainly not saying that all underage sex workers can’t consent- some sex workers such as author and columnist Tracy Quan do start sex work while underage and studies have shown that underage sex workers do have agency. Underage sex workers who are independent (don’t have a pimp) often have to do the soliciting and advertising themselves, which means they can’t usually be groomed by their clients. Contrast this with teachers and neighbours grooming teens who know and trust them. And of course the age of consent varies around the world- and on top of that, some states have one age of consent for free sex and another age for paid sex. Likewise I’m not saying that just because someone is over the magical age, they are automatically consenting. Girl A was 15- a few months shy of 16, the British age of consent. But if the ephebophile rapist gang hadn’t been stopped, she could well have carried on being abused past the age of 16. That’s the trouble with the age of consent: it’s absolutely necessary to protect young people but it’s arbitrary and one size certainly doesn’t fit all.
Her story is sick. It is distressing. It is vile. For those reasons it is difficult for me to read. But what strikes me isn’t so much the cunning and cruelty of the rapists, but the whorephobic, neglectful and racist attitudes of social workers, police and the girls’ own families and community.
Social workers told Girl A/”Hannah”‘s parents in her presence that she was a “prostitute”. Not even “sex worker” (apparently their sensitivity training didn’t stretch to thirty-year-old terms that even the dreaded mainstream media manages to use). They kept trying to force her to out herself to her parents as a sex worker until she finally did. The social workers had not even told Hannah that they were going to visit her family and out her. They also failed to deal with Hannah’s parents’ whorephobia before they left, because after they’d gone Hannah’s father said to her “Not only are you a prostitute, you’re a prostitute to fucking Pakis!” Brilliant- whorephobia, racism and victim blaming all in 12 words! Hannah was 15. She was underage. That in itself should mean that her experience should be thought of as being likely to be abuse unless Hannah’s lived experience differs and she claims to have agency like other consenting underage sex workers.
Hannah’s younger sister started calling her a “Paki shagger” and telling others in the community. The fact that Hannah’s parents weren’t that upset over her pregnancy scare but were very angry and ashamed when she did become pregnant seems to back up Clark E. Vincent’s observation in 1950 that society tolerates girls having sex but only ostracises the girl when she becomes pregnant. Seems like the times they are not a-changing. The fact that shortly after outing her, the social workers asked her what she would do if the baby was born half Asian is very startling: what precisely is wrong with half Asian babies? Would they have asked her what she’d do if the baby was born full white? I doubt it. This is all clearly stigma directed at lone white mothers of mixed race children, as discussed by Dr Vicki Harman here.
A student had reported suspicious behaviour by the abuser to police. Witnesses reported they saw a young teen girl carried naked out of a hotel. But the authorities did nothing. Social workers assumed that the girls were making “lifestyle choices” to sleep only with Asian men or to start careers in sex work. Yes, I agree that teens should be free to make lifestyle choices that don’t harm them and certainly who you sleep with is a very personal and important lifestyle choice. But given the overall negligence revealed in Hannah’s book, this seems like an excuse.
These girls were seen as trouble. Some of them allegedly weren’t that bright, they were often seen drinking underage in the streets and had their alcohol confisticated by the police (which is legal for police to do to underage drinkers in Britain, I’m sad to say). One or two of them were very successful at getting boys into bed and were proud of their achievements in this field. This was all known to police and social services. The girls were also working class. It is possible that because of their class, likely future class and their non-gender role conforming sex lives, the authorities did not value these children. When children of middle class parents – or maybe even children of working class parents whose grades might push them into the middle class in future- get drunk in the street or sleep around, that’s just youthful high spirits. It’s not seen as a problem. But when a working class child does it it means they’re trouble. The idea that the authorities had given up on them is reiterated throughout the book.
There is no such thing as a child prostitute. For the teens that do consent to sex work, I would just call them sex workers or ‘underage sex workers’ if the need to describe their age arises. Hannah was a sexual abuse victim. She was never a sex worker because she did not consent, just as any rape victim never “had sex”, they were raped. Conflating abuse victims with sex workers is a favourite trick of the vastly wealthy anti-sex work organisations. They deliberately do this to further their own lucrative agenda to criminalise sex work (or sometimes to criminalise clients). These schemes cause sex workers to be murdered, raped and destroy ties between police and sex worker organisations. Dr Laura Agustin refers to anti sex work organisations as the ‘rescue industry’. So that’s another reason why the term “child prostitute” should not be used.
Just as it is not always clear to courts whether an adult had sex or was raped, it may not always be clear to authorities whether underage people are sex workers or abuse victims; we all know kids can be groomed into believing they’re consenting or conversely that adults may frame underage sex as exploitative even when it’s not. Obviously, younger teens or those who are controlled or pimped are (usually but not always) unlikely to be fully consenting even if they appear to initiate it. Given different individuals’ rates of development, varying cultures, provision of adequate sex education and so on, it can sometimes be impossible to tell who’s consenting and who isn’t. But this uncertainty doesn’t stop us from not insulting these kids further by using the term ‘child prostitution’ to minimise their abuse or deny their agency and lived experiences.