The Guardian is still calling commercially sexually exploited children ‘workers’, and it is particularly frustrating, when the term ‘sex work’ is not used by the children/teenagers, or researchers quoted in the article.
Teenagers in America are resorting to sex work because they cannot afford food, according to a study that suggests widespread hunger in the world’s wealthiest country.
Focus groups in all 10 communities analysed by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based thinktank, described girls “selling their body” or “sex for money” as a strategy to make ends meet. Boys desperate for food were said to go to extremes such as shoplifting and selling drugs.
The findings raise questions over the legacy of Bill Clinton’s landmark welfare-reform legislation 20 years ago as well as the spending priorities of Congress and the impact of slow wage growth. Evidence of teenage girls turning to “transactional dating” with older men is likely to cause particular alarm.
“I’ve been doing research in low-income communities for a long time, and I’ve written extensively about the experiences of women in high poverty communities and the risk of sexual exploitation, but this was new,” said Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and lead author of the report, Impossible Choices.
“Even for me, who has been paying attention to this and has heard women tell their stories for a long time, the extent to which we were hearing about food being related to this vulnerability was new and shocking to me, and the level of desperation that it implies was really shocking to me. It’s a situation I think is just getting worse over time.”
The qualitative study, carried out in partnership with the food banks network Feeding America, created two focus groups – one male, one female – in each of 10 poor communities across the US. The locations included big cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington and rural North Carolina and eastern Oregon. A total of 193 participants aged 13 to 18 took part and were allowed to remain anonymous.
Their testimony paints a picture of teenagers – often overlooked by policymakers focused on children aged zero to five – missing meals, making sacrifices and going hungry, with worrying long-term consequences.
Popkin said: “We heard the same story everywhere, a really disturbing picture about hunger and food insecurity affecting the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable young people. The fact that we heard it everywhere from kids in the same way tells us there’s a problem out there that we should be paying attention to.”
The consistency of the findings across gender, race and geography was a surprise.
“I wasn’t sure we would see it,” Popkin said. “Kids knew about all these strategies: hanging around your friend’s house and see if they’ll feed you, going hungry so that their younger brothers and sisters could eat, saving their school lunch so they could eat it at night so they could sleep at night.
“Everybody knew where you get the cheapest food and how you keep some emergency stuff in your house. It was just very matter-of-fact and very common, in the richest country in the world.”
In every community, and in 13 of the 20 focus groups, there were accounts of sexual exploitation, often related with distaste. A girl in Portland, Oregon told researchers: “It’s really like selling yourself. Like you’ll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat.”
Another comment from Portland: “You’re not even dating … they’ll be like … ‘I don’t really love him, but I’m going to do what I have to do.’”
Many prefer to rationalise what they are doing as dating of sorts. A boy in rural North Carolina said: “When you’re selling your body, it’s more in disguise. Like if I had sex with you, you have to buy me dinner tonight … that’s how girls deal with the struggle … That’s better than taking money because if they take money, they will be labeled a prostitute.”
In seven of the 10 communities, teenagers told stories of girls exchanging sexual favours with strangers or stripping for money in abandoned houses, at flea markets and on the street. A girl in San Diego, California, said: “Someone I knew dropped out of high school to make money for the family. She felt the need to step up. She started selling herself.”
Another girl in Chicago told researchers of an 11-year-old girl who dropped out of sixth grade to work in the sex trade, while boys in Los Angeles described how middle school girls put up flyers in public places to advertise their services.
In the communities with the highest poverty rates, both girls and boys steal food and other basics from local stores for themselves or their families. A male teenager in Chicago said: “I ain’t talking about robbing nobody. I’m just talking like going there and get what you need, just hurry up and walk out, which I do … They didn’t even know. If you need to do that, that’s what you got to do, that’s what you got to do.”
Some children begin stealing at the age of seven or eight, according to the focus groups. Boys mainly take items such as phones, shoes, jewelry and bikes. Selling drugs is also common. One in Los Angeles said: “A lot of kids at a young age will sell drugs to get money for their families. People think it’s good but it messes you up.”
Popkin, who has been researching distressed public housing communities for more than 25 years, explained: “With the boys there was a lot of hustling and shoplifting or maybe stealing a car stereo or something small they could sell. Getting pushed into drug dealing, sometimes getting pulled into gangs.
“I find it particularly disturbing that all the kids in almost every focus group were aware about what was happening to the girls – they knew the story about girls dating older guys or being exploited. The stories we heard were mostly about girls dating older men in order to get them to provide money for them for rent, for food, for clothes. They’re just very vulnerable.”
She added: “It’s a sexual exploitation. You hear about homeless teenagers engaging in transactional sex, you hear it about refugees. To hear it from stably housed kids in the United States is shocking and even if it’s only a handful of kids, it should be something that we’re paying attention to, that there are kids that desperate.”
I have lost count of the number of times I have emailed the Guardian about this, and I have yet to receive a single response, but I will keep on trying.
Please feel free to use or adapt the template below.
I am writing to you to complain about the use of the term ‘sex work’ in an article about the commercial sexual exploitation of children and teenagers (“US teens often forced to trade sex work for food, study finds” published online 12/Sep/16)
The children interviewed for the study were between 13 and 18 (and a sexually exploited 11-year-old girl was mentioned), an 11- or 13-year-old child cannot consent to sexual activity with an adult, it is statutory rape at the very least.
While this is very much a poverty issue, it is also a sexual exploitation issue; by using the term ‘sex work’ you reduce child sexual exploitation to a labour issue, and also invisibilize the men who use economic and social inequality to coerce children and teenagers into sexual activity.
In the quotes in the article from the children and teenagers interviewed, none of them used the term ‘sex work’, and the academic who wrote the article used the term ‘sexual exploitation’.
I would like to remind you that the Guardian style guide calls for ‘child pornography’ to be referred to as child abuse images. Therefore a recording of a child doing ‘sex work’ would be an image of abuse, but the creation of that abuse image would just be ‘work’, which is nonsensical.
The guide also says to use the term ‘child sexual abuse’, rather than ‘child sex’, so how is referring to commercial child sexual abuse as ‘sex work’ in keeping with the Guardian’s stated guidelines?
Earlier this year, Stephen Pritchard, the Observer’s readers editor, altered an article on child exploitation (“10,000 refugee children are missing, says Europol”, published 30/Jan/2016) to remove the term ‘sex work’, stating: “This article was amended on 11 February 2016 to remove the term “sex work” relating to children. Children caught up in the sex trade are victims of abuse.” I hope you will follow the precedent he has set.
The Guardian readers editor is on Twitter, if you have a twitter account, please ask them why they think it is ok to call a raped child a ‘worker’