Robin Hustle defends child prostitution, calling it a ‘choice.’
I’m putting some of the ‘best’ of what she wrote behind a cut, since I find it a bit upsetting, but here’s my commentary: Hustle’s framework is terrible. Her ideas rest on two different prongs of logic - childhood is defined with some flexibility in other areas, so why not here, and sex work is a job like any other, thus youths should be able to engage in the practice without everyone getting ‘hysterical.’ After all, flipping burgers for minimum wage (an example that frequently crops up in discussions of prostitution) is horrible and undignified too, if not more so. She uses one study to support most of her assertions, but criticizes it when the male researcher reports his findings on whether or not youth prostitutes want to leave the sex trade. To ask a kid whether or not they’d leave the sex trade if they could is to ask a leading question.
Excerpts from Robin Hustle:
Even prostitutes’ rights activists are loathe to question the premise of the exploited child prostitute, prefacing everything we say with disclaimers that we’re talking about consenting adults, not trafficked women, certainly not children. This silence requires that we ignore the intricacies of the issues at stake.
The recent release of a 2008 study by anthropologists at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice finally makes an informed look at the lives of adolescent prostitutes possible. Ric Curtis and his team assessed the “size, characteristics, and needs” of adolescent prostitutes (18 and under) in New York City. They initially assumed they’d find more youth prostitutes in the city than previous data indicated, tailoring their methods to encourage access to pimped girls. But what they found out didn’t reflect their assumptions at all.
There are approximately 3,946 youth prostitutes in the city, considerably less than previously thought. The mean age of the adolescents surveyed was 17.2. In all, 94% were 16 or older (over the age of consent in thirty-one states). The average age of initiation into prostitution is about 15 for male and female workers, 16 for trans workers, and most entered the field through friends (47%) or after being approached by a client (23.1%), not through pimps (8.1%). The experience of this 18-year-old woman interviewed for the study is fairly representative:
I was hangin’ around a lot and ended up walkin’ down 10th Street one day and ran into some friends who were doing it. And they told me it’s not that bad, and so, that’s how it happened. (Curtis 52)
The sample youth were 48% female, 45% male, and 8% trans. Less than 10% worked through a market facilitator (pimp, manager, or agency). Considering that the team decided to shift their focus toward exclusively contacting pimped girls midway through the study, the number of pimped youth may actually be considerably less than the reported 10%. Is a self-employed sixteen-year-old female an exploited child? What about a self-employed eighteen-year-old male? Can these adolescents consent to unpaid sex? What about paid sex?
The definition of “child” is not inflexible, nor is the definition of “consent.” Adolescence was identified as a phase distinct from childhood by psychologist G. Stanley Hall in the 1890s, but the understanding of that distinction has always been dependent on current cultural perspectives on gender, sexuality, and work. The mutability of this distinction is often erased entirely by reformers who consider all sex workers under the age of eighteen to be children. Children cannot, by U.S. law, give or deny consent. Consent is immaterial. Batting words around without consensus on or even discussion of their definitions is irresponsible and dangerous, especially when these words are being used to identify and categorize young people. Control of adolescent sexuality, especially when that sexuality is laced with dollar bills, has been rife with methodological and ideological contention since the late nineteenth century, when it first became a considerable “public problem.” The Curtis study, and what adolescent prostitutes say about their own lives, should be analyzed with these historical contentions in mind.
Sites like Backpage, and Craigslist in the past, offer youth prostitutes an affordable and easy way to be more discriminating about which clients they see while working for themselves.
Curtis and his team asked interviewees “if they would like to leave the life… if given the opportunity,” and the majority of the sample said they would. The flagrant bias of this question in an otherwise levelheaded study is disappointing. Pollsters ask doctors, plumbers, and data entry workers about their level of job satisfaction, and if researchers had asked the same of these youth we might be looking at very different data. Few jobs are ideal, and we all work with what we’ve got. The youth consistently expressed frustration at the lack of other living wage work available to them. This feeling is true for many teenagers, as well as many adults when unemployment levels are as high as they are now. For these youth, spotty job histories and low levels of education make “legitimate” employment particularly difficult. “Child” or not, an arrest record for prostitution hardly helps an adolescent sex worker get a straight job. Many of the problems that adolescent sex workers experience come from the criminalization of prostitution rather than the work itself.
They choose to do the work they do for the freedom it affords them in making their own decisions about their lives. Like all adolescents, they struggle with their plans for the future, self-acceptance, and the formation of healthy peer networks. They acknowledge the precariousness of their working lives and do their best to learn from their experiences.
But from a CSEC framework, adolescent sex workers are exploited children, incapable of making their own decisions, denied access to consent. This framework mimics the system of control within the family, precisely the dynamic so many of these youth are trying to leave behind. As the Curtis study demonstrates, youth prostitutes are capable of voicing their needs and desires: stable, long-term housing, living wage jobs, physical and emotional safety, flexible education, and most of all, the freedom to live their lives as they see fit. This freedom cannot be handed to them by a social service agency. Rescue and reform professionals have spent more than a century trying to decide if sexually unorthodox adolescents are child victims or juvenile delinquents, ignoring the possibility that they’re just teenagers. Like wage laborers in every other industry, some adolescent prostitutes face exploitative working conditions, but the true victimizers of these youth are reformers who deny them agency. A victim is a sacrificial offering—when the rescue industry offers up the consent of adolescent prostitutes, it is in the service of maintaining their own status as the keepers of public problems.