Sex work law in the UK is complicated. Though it’s not fully criminalised as in most of the US, it is illegal for sex workers to share accommodation (“brothel-keeping”) even though this would improve sex workers’ safety. Soliciting and kerb-crawling are also illegal. One of the prostitution laws is that while the age of consent is 16 across the UK’s four nations, it is illegal for someone under 18 to do sex work.
Now, this used to fairly simple because all it meant was that escort agencies wouldn’t hire 16 and 17 year olds. Any teen who wanted to do sex work could do so on their own terms, and although there was always the risk that they could be deemed as “outwith parental control” if it was discovered by social services, on the whole there wasn’t a lot anyone could do about it. (I’m not saying that some young people’s lives weren’t turned upside down, or that they or their clients weren’t charged with soliciting, procuring or other offences- just that compared to the present day there was much less of a legal framework for detecting and interfering with young sex workers or prosecuting their clients).
That’s because the focus used to be on child exploitation through prostitution. In other words, the authorities had to have clear indications that money was being exchanged for sex before they could jump in. And that’s not always easy to detect especially if the young person is only doing sex work with a small number of clients. Sugar daddy/sugar mummy relationships and exclusive escorting are even more difficult to spot.
But since the 1990s the focus has shifted to child sexual exploitation. And this doesn’t merely cover sex work. It includes the exchange of sex for money, gifts, accommodation, drugs, etc- basically anything that isn’t sex or love. The ‘exploiter’ must have power over the ‘child’ by at least one of the following: age, emotional maturity, gender, physical strength, intellect, economic resources or access to drugs. This definition easily captures sugar relationships, exclusive escorting, survival sex and having sex for a promotion/access to their yacht/etc.
And actually that’s great. Because child abusers are not stupid. They’re going to choose the most vulnerable children, teens- and yes, young adults, because being over 18 doesn’t automatically mean you’re consenting. Ages like 16, 18 and 21 are arbitrary legal concepts which completely fail to reflect the fact that we all develop at different rates- and the fact that every relationship is different. A 14 year old with a high IQ sleeping with a vulnerable, low-achieving 18 year old may not be exploited; a lonely 19 year old with serious mental health issues dating a manipulative 18 year old might be. We just don’t know. Child abusers don’t always pay their victims in cash because they know how sketchy it looks. For example the victims in Rochdale were lured into exploitation with fast food, takeaways and alcohol, and once they were being abused, they were given accommodation, cash and “friendship” as remuneration. Abusers may even pretend to be the victim’s boyfriend or girlfriend to gain their trust, and then manipulate them into prostitution while the abuser keeps the profits.
As with many good things though, there are problems with this concept of child sexual exploitation.
One obvious problem here is the gender component. If I pay a 17 year old boy for sex and I’m the same age or only a little older, that’s fine. But if my twin brother pays a 17 year old girl for sex, he’s committing child sexual exploitation because he has the advantage of gender. It’s also difficult to see where genderfluid, trans and agender people fall into all of this.
Another issue is that of the teen who, instead of being targeted, groomed, pimped out and raped, willingly decides- without the involvement of any older person- to become a sex worker. (Bear in mind that most “children” involved in sex work are aged 15-17. I am not referring to a pre-pubertal child who “chooses” to become a sex worker; they do not have the capacity to so choose and their “clients” would be able to tell they are children, so would be abusers by definition). These young sex workers may find themselves victimised instead of supported by the law. It also seems illogical to say that a troubled 16 year old having sex with a 40 year old and receiving nothing in return is not being exploited, but that a 17 year old student being paid £250 by a 22 year old is a sexually exploited child. In this scenario the 40 year old is acting completely within the law but the 22 year old is an abuser.
It is also illogical that someone can legally consent at 16 to free sex but when they’re actually receiving remuneration, they must wait until 18- surely free sex is the more exploitative of the two? And if a 17 year old person lacks the capacity to consent to sex, then they cannot consent; the law cannot then say they can consent as long as it’s free. If they cannot consent to the act when they are paid for it then they cannot consent to the same act when they aren’t paid. They simply are unable to consent to sex. This makes no more sense than saying a child can’t consent to child molestation but if the child isn’t paid for it then they can consent.
But all of this is exactly what current child protection law and policy says.
Professor of Social Policy and Applied Social Research at the University of Bedfordshire, Margaret Melrose, argues in her article Young People and Sexual Exploitation: A Critical Discourse Analysis, that “By constructing the yoiung person as an ‘object’ that is exploited the discourse of CSE [Child Sexual Exploitation] manages, in one phrase, to negate the idea that the young people concerned might be exercising their own agency…by implication their involvement in commercial sexual transactions must be understood as forced or coerced on the one hand or as an irrational action on the other.”
This doesn’t mean that all underage sex workers should be assumed to have agency- clearly, some of them are indeed victims of trafficking and abuse. What Professor Melrose is arguing for is a more realistic view of underage sex workers which allows for both abuse and agency to be acknowledged.
She goes on to say: “There is limited evidence to support the idea that young people who become involved in commercial sexual transactions are always inevitably passive objects that are groomed, forced, or coerced…on the contrary, there is evidence to suggest that some of these young people may be making constrained, but rational, choices within the context of highly diminished circumstances”
“From within this discourse if these young people cannot be understood as ‘victims’ or as ‘innocent children’ then they must be understood in some way as ‘children’ or ‘victims’ who have something ‘wrong’ with them…that the young person is deluded, irrational, suffering from low self-esteem, false consciousness and/or other related (psychological) problems.”
The concept of “false consciousness” has long been used by the rescue industry to discredit sex workers’ lived experiences and deny that they have agency. (“Rescue industry” is a term coined by Dr Laura Agustin to describe the global network of NGOs who profit from Christian donors and governments by forcibly rescuing, sometimes even kidnapping, sex workers and forcing them out of the sex industry and into low-wage labour.) These NGOs use the term to ascribe victim status on sex worker activists and persuade lawmakers to criminalise sex work- laws which put trafficking victims, sex workers and victims of child sexual exploitation at risk. The fact that “false consciousness” is also now being used against minors to deny their choices is particularly alarming, as underage sex workers are already increasingly seen as victims due to media conflation of trafficking, sex work and child abuse. They’re also more easily marginalised members of an already stigmatised sex work community and have always been more vulnerable to “rescue” and state intervention.
To make matters worse, young victims of child sexual exploitation (whether they are victims or willing sex workers) are often alienated from their own care process. Camille Warrington’s article Partners In Care? Sexually Exploited Young People’s Inclusion and Exclusion from Decision Making about Safeguarding reveals that “their rights to participate were overlooked or considered inappropriate and they remained marginalised from choices about their care.” The young people are seen as a problem because of the blame culture within child protection services. They were often not even informed that meetings had taken place and that sometimes graphic information had been shared with other agencies and with their own parents and teachers.
“Young people were not able to differentiate between different types of multi-agency meetings. There was an overarching sense that young people remained unclear about the purpose of many meetings and the different roles of professionals…young people clearly demonstrated an appetite to be informed and involved in these meetings”
But even the lucky few who were told about the meetings and allowed to attend quickly discovered that attendance did not equal participation. They found they were not taken seriously, which led to feelings of powerlessness, embarrassment and mistrust: “the loss of control and humiliation experienced within abusive relationships can, at times, arise from professional carelessness, indiscretion or poor practice.”
It’s all too easy to imagine how it must feel for a victim of abuse or trafficking. But how much worse is this experience for a sex worker whose very agency and lived experience is being denied at these meetings by professionals who are supposedly helping him or her- just because s/he has not yet reached the age of 18?
Perhaps we can look toward a future where trafficking victims of all ages are swiftly identified and supported, where over-18s aren’t assumed to be consenting and under-18s to be coerced, and where underage sex workers’ agency is acknowledged and they are treated with the dignity they deserve.