PAGE 14 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK ISSUE 26(4), 2014
Children and survival sex: A social
Natalie Thorburn and Irene de Haan
Natalie Thorburn is a social worker working in the sexual violence sector and is currently studying
towards her Masters in social work, focusing on child involvement in transactional sexual activity.
Dr Irene de Haan is a lecturer with the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work
at the University of Auckland. Her research interests include prevention of child maltreatment and
family violence and she chairs regional Family Violence Death Review Panels.
The purchasing of sexual services by adults from children and adolescents aects an un-
known proportion of New Zealand youth, and is present in both rural and urban settings.
International research shows that on average girls begin using sex for survival between the
ages of 12 and 15. It can be argued that the terms used to denote adolescent transactional sex
indicate the researchers’ moral position of the subject; the terms ‘prostitution’ and ‘client’
suggesting equal bargaining power and the terms ‘criminality’ and ‘delinquency’ implying
victim responsibility. Recent articles are consistent in their comparison of transactional sex
to child sexual abuse. Patriarchal ideals relating to gender roles and female sexuality may
perpetuate the selling of sexual services by young people. Three primary pathways into
survival sex have been identied: through intermediaries, through child sexual abuse and
through inadequate protective systems. Children and young people engaged in transactional
sex experience a range of adverse eects related to physical, sexual and mental health, and
relationships. In New Zealand the use of children under 18 for sexual services is explicitly
prohibited, but there are no comprehensive, nation-wide services for victims of transaction-
al sex. Recommendations from the literature support a multi-systemic approach, with an
extension of street outreach services, welfare provision and targeted prevention strategies.
Adolescents’ use of sex for survival, also called transactional sex or child and teen prosti-
tution, is a damaging manifestation of abuse in society. Goddard (2005) suggests that the
use of the word prostitution is intrinsically harmful when it is applied to young people, as
it assumes complicity on their part. He refers to the misuse of this phrase as ‘lexical rede-
scription’ and explains it as abusive in its denial of the criminal nature of sex purchasing
from minors (Goddard, 2005). He further proposes that choices of words are linked to
thoughts, and as prostitution is synonymous to harlotry, the term fails to reect the victi-
misation experienced by children using sex for survival. While commonly perceived to be
a transaction or agreement into which both parties freely enter, adolescent involvement in
sex for survival is ultimately the sexual abuse of children and demonstrates the inability of
society to protect them. The term ‘survival sex’ more accurately reects the inherent lack of
choice in children’s use of sexual transactions to meet their physiological and social needs.
Although the prevalence of young people using sex for survival is dicult to measure, it
ISSUE 26(4), 2014 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK PAGE 15
has been found that girls using transactional sex usually begin between ages 12 and 15;
before they could conceivably be legally, developmentally or socially capable of giving
informed consent. Society plays a central role in the ability of perpetrators to purchase sex
from children through its failure to challenge and change harmful gendered beliefs and
gender inequality. Childhood sexual abuse, homelessness and separation from family of
origin often play a part. The consequences of adolescents’ engagement in transactional sex
are far-reaching, and include negative physical, sexual and mental health outcomes. The
purpose of this literature review is to explore perspectives, causes and correlates of the social
problem of survival sex and to identify ways in which potential solutions may be consistent
with a child protection agenda.
Using a multi-database search, the terms teen* OR adolescen* OR child* AND prostitution
OR transactional sex OR sex for survival OR sexual exploitation were used to identify rel-
evant literature. This was supplemented with a search for grey literature on New Zealand
government and individual organisation websites, and a search of recent news articles.
Literature from non-Western countries with signicantly dierent cultural dynamics from
New Zealand was excluded. The search yielded 20 relevant resources, which were then
synthesised and the results organised thematically.
Results and discussion
Denition and prevalence
Sex for survival, sexual exploitation and transactional sex are the preferred terms throughout
this literature review. Sex for survival is also referred to as the commercial sexual exploitation
of children, child prostitution and opportunistic prostitution, depending on how the authors
conceptualise young people’s involvement in prostitution (Ministry of Justice, 2001). The
descriptions of what can be considered sex for survival vary within the literature but it has
been variously described as the utilisation of children and youth to provide for the sexual
needs of adults (Herman, 1987); the exchange of sexual services in return for remuneration,
(Ministry of Justice, 2002); or the transaction of sex for goods (Svensson, Fredlund, Soran-
suedin, Priebe & Wadsby, 2012). The prevalence of young people using transactional sex is
dicult to ascertain due to its secretive and hidden nature (Ayre & Barrett, 2000); however,
it is recognised as being present New Zealand in both rural and urban settings (Ministry
of Justice, 2002). Internationally, research has found the age by which young people begin
trading sex for survival is between 12 and 15 (Jordan, Patel, & Rapp, 2013; Holger-Ambrose,
Langmade, Edinburgh, & Saewye, 2013; Lukman, et al., 2011; Chase & Statham, 2005). The
victimisation of young people using survival sex is comparable to other types of sexual
victimisation; accordingly, it should be regarded as principally a child protection issue
The policy context and media coverage
While prostitution in New Zealand has been decriminalised as a result of the Prostitution
Reform Act 2003, sections 20, 21 and 22 expressly prohibit the use of any person under 18 for
commercial sexual purposes (New Zealand Parliament, 2004). Section 149A of the Crimes
PAGE 16 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK ISSUE 26(4), 2014
Act 1961 also disallows the purchasing of sexual services from a person under 18, with the
previous gender bias inherent in the legislation being rectied by the Crimes Amendment
Act 2001 (Ministry of Justice, 2002). New Zealand has also signed and ratied Convention
182 of the International Labour Conference, which concerns the use of children for commer-
cial purposes, including prostitution (Ministry of Justice, 2002). Following this, government
agencies expressed commitment to inter-agency work to address the widespread problem
of transactional sex among youth; however, debate continues regarding which department
should take responsibility for action (New Zealand Parliament, 2004). Youth involvement
in survival sex also remains the topic of media attention, with recent Herald articles with
headlines such as ‘MP nds 13 year old prostitutes taking $600 a night’ and ‘Girls pimped
out by relatives – pastor’ featuring calls from conservative politicians and churches to tight-
en up on prostitution laws and target oenders (Gillies, 2013; Dorday, 2013). Other news
articles discuss attempts of police to curb the issue and draw attention to growing numbers
of underage girls as young as 13 using transactional sex in parts of Auckland (Shepherd,
2010; Crampton, 2013).
New Zealand research
Since 2000, only three separate research projects exploring young people’s involvement in
survival sex in New Zeaand have been identied. The prevalence of sex for survival in a
domestic context is impossible to estimate due to its hidden nature, but research by ECPAT
NZ (Ending Child Prostitution, Pornography and Tracking) surveying professionals such
as social and youth workers generated a list of 195 (145 of whom are under 16) known young
people using transactional sex (Saphira, 2001). A 2004 study of 47 sex workers revealed that
the mean age at which participants rst used sex for survival was 13.5, with ages ranging
from nine-17 (Saphira & Herbert, 2004c). Similar ndings resulted from Plumridge and Abel’s
(2002) study, in which 31% of the 303 sex workers reported beginning their involvement in
transactional sexual activity before age 18. Two New Zealand studies included an explicit
focus on transgender youth and their involvement in and experiences of transactional sex-
ual activity. In comparison to cis-gender youth, they have disproportionately high levels of
involvement in survival sex, with seven of 47 respondents in Saphira and Herbert’s (2004c)
study identifying as transgender. Maori are also over-represented in survival sex statistics,
with the same study showing that 40% of respondents identied as Maori (Saphira & Her-
Conceptualising child prostitution: Victim or criminal
Earlier works appear more likely to conceptualise young females using sex for survival as
immoral, criminal or delinquent; however, these concepts persist despite an increasing body
of knowledge conrming that children do not have the social, emotional, developmental
or legal ability to consent to sexual acts (Lukman, et al., 2011). Dorais and Corriveau (2009)
categorise girls involved in transactional sex as being sex slaves, submissives, independents
or daredevils, thereby recognising the implicit coercive elements of their involvement, but
suggesting girls whose behaviour falls in the latter categories have some degree of power
over their circumstances. The perpetuation of the insecurities and inequities within society
that often precipitate the need for sex for survival are largely ignored, while the individual is
often pathologised and regarded as problematic (Peace, 2009). This construction is frequently
seen in the media’s portrayal of sex for survival, with the use of the word ‘prostitute’ convey-
ing a sense of equal transactional power and the use of the word ‘client’ lending legitimacy
ISSUE 26(4), 2014 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK PAGE 17
to the illegal act (Goddard, 2005). The only distinction between child sexual abuse and the
purchasing of sex from young people is payment to the victims, which does not equate to
a moral transaction (Herman, 1987).
Despite laws stating that children under 16 cannot give informed consent (Dorais and
Corriveau, 2009), the victims of this pervasive type of sexual exploitation are blamed for
men’s use of their bodies. The provision of helping services is often determined by helpers’
perceptions of the victims as deserving or undeserving, with girls more likely to be con-
sidered worth helping if they conform to a gendered moral framework by demonstrating
traditional ‘female’ values of passivity and chastity (Peace, 2009). For those deemed un-
deserving, a punitive approach is used to halt the ‘delinquent’ behaviour. This response
indicates that the dominant perspective of the seventies and eighties of child prostitutes as
over-sexualised temptresses still prevails in some settings (Peace, 2009), and demonstrates
the continued unwillingness to dierentiate between women’s and children’s involvement
in transactional sex (Lukman, et al., 2011). Consequently, social and political constructs of
morality in relation to sex for survival need to be considered when examining the context
in which sex for survival occurs (Lukman, et al., 2011).
Gender, power and society
Societal beliefs and practices play a role in the continuation of survival sex. Patriarchal ideals
contribute to a culture of silence and inaction surrounding survival sex, in part through the
widely adhered-to myth that men cannot control their sexual wants and it is up to women
and girls to set moral standards (Saphira & Oliver, 2002). Furthermore, the internalisation
of adults’ messages about gender roles and sexuality contributes to children’s propensity to
become either a victim or a perpetrator of abuse (Peace, 2009). For example, girls are inducted
into play depicting them as carers from a young age, while boys are generally encouraged
to be aggressive, use actions and demonstrate power through play (Ennew, 1986). Further,
girls are sexualised early in their appearances, a phenomenon increasingly targeted by
women’s and parents’ groups (Odone, 2010). Desirability and attractiveness are promoted
as ideals to which girls should aspire, leaving them vulnerable to manipulation from men
who recognise and exploit this (Dorais & Corriveau, 2009). Constructions of desirability
also play a part in the demand aspect of sex for survival, with the media being saturated
with ideals about young, newly developed teenagers as the ultimate sex object (Dorais &
Corriveau, 2009). Finally, as part of a patriarchal system, male violence towards women in
a variety of contexts is regarded as normal and perpetuated through family cycles, leading
to an entrenched gendered power imbalance (Shannon, et al., 2008).
Pathways into survival sex
Coercion from gangs or individuals
For girls, the pathway into survival sex is often through an intermediary such as a gang
member or ‘pimp’. In a gang or pimp context, the process of ‘love-bombing’ girls, that is,
repeated declarations of love, protectiveness and aection often accompanied by presents,
is usually followed by systematic degradation until the girls no longer distinguish between
forced and consensual sex (Dorais & Corriveau, 2009). The transition to total powerlessness
at the hands of the gang members or pimps is characterised by dehumanising and violent
acts, in conjunction with emotional manipulation and threats to withdraw aection (Dorais
PAGE 18 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK ISSUE 26(4), 2014
& Corriveau, 2009). Following their work with an increasingly alarming number of clients
aected by survival sex, Barnardos created a ‘grooming model’ to explain the process by
which girls were drawn into transactional sex (Pearce, 2009). This model suggests that after
beginning with the provision of love, gifts and excitement, perpetrators then facilitate emo-
tional and physical dependence and ultimately coerce victims to generate income through
transactional sex (Pearce, 2009). This is similar to Chase and Statham’s (2005) theory, which
identied the four stages of assuming control over victims as ensnaring through aection,
isolating from family, assuming power over the girl’s life and total dominance. Gang members
and pimps often recruit from runaway spots and youth residences, and gain power over the
victims by a ‘trauma bond’, through which fear, violence and gratitude act to ensure victims’
submission (Jordan, Patel, & Rapp, 2013). This has been likened to Stockholm Syndrome,
as techniques such as violence, aection and degradation are used to facilitate dependence
(Jordan, Patel, & Rapp, 2013).
Child sexual abuse
Child sexual abuse has been long recognised as a precipitating factor in girls’ decisions to
use sex for survival. As sexual abuse can result in changes to thought processes, relation-
al styles, mental health state and stress responses, it is a signicant risk factor for sexual
exploitation (Holger-Ambrose, et al., 2013; Ahrens, et al., 2012; Saphira & Herbert, 2004a).
In addition, sexual abuse creates a distorted perception of sexuality, sexual behaviour and
self-worth (Ahrens, et al., 2012), and may be viewed as fullling a self-harming compulsion
resulting from past abuse (Saphira & Oliver, 2002). Consequently, transactional sex can be
seen as a continuation of prior victimisation (Jordan, Patel, & Rapp, 2013). Involvement in
survival sex may then reinforce feelings of stigmatisation and marginalisation that began
at the time of the initial victimisation (Ahrens et al, 2012). Studies drawn from a diverse
range of countries and methodologies have demonstrated that between 40 and 60 percent
of respondents engaging in transactional sex report historical sexual abuse, with the actual
prevalence likely to be higher due to underreporting (Svensson, et al., 2012; Cobbina &
Oselin, 2011; Saphira and Herbert, 2004a; Silbert, 1981).
Runaways, throwaways and marginalisation
The reasons girls enter transactional sex other than sexual abuse or gangs are multifaceted,
but there are common themes in the literature. Girls consistently report a lack of choice and
the need to survive as driving them towards survival sex (Peace, 2009). Jordan, Patel, and
Rapp (2013) use the terms runaway and throwaway to denote the circumstances in which
children have left home and subsequently become victims. This reects Ennew’s (1986)
explanation that children and young people without protective systems around them are
easy targets for sexual exploitation. Also recognised as precipitants to sex for survival are
physical and psychological abuse (Jordan, Patel, & Rapp, 2013); children who have been
in state or foster care (Ahrens, et al., 2012); homelessness, poverty and family breakdown
(Ministry of Justice, 2001); alcohol and drug use (Ministry of Justice, 2002); and peer pressure
(Cobbina & Oselin, 2011). Where more than one risk factor is present, the eects may be
compounded and result in demoralisation and the disintegration of self-ecacy, leading to
sex for survival being seen as the only viable or easiest option (Caplan, 1984). People who
identify as Maori or transgender are at increased risk, as both tend to exhibit increased
clusters of risk factors which may work synergistically to create vulnerability to exploitation
(Ministry of Justice, 2002). Transgender sex workers in Auckland have reported the devel-
opment of their sexual identity as a reason for using survival sex, in conjunction with the
ISSUE 26(4), 2014 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK PAGE 19
perceived diculty to obtaining alternative employment due to prejudicial attitudes held
by potential employers (Worth, 2000; Boles & Elifson, 1994). This signals two discrete arenas
of youth development where discriminatory attitudes hinder natural transitory processes
for gender-liminal young people.
In the limited available research featuring New Zealand children and young people involved
in transactional sex, poverty and economic pressures are consistently named as precipitants
to entering sex work. This is consistent with studies conducted in Australia, where the need
for accommodation, money, food and drugs were named as key reasons for transactional
sexual activity (Grant, Grabosky, & David, 1999). An unresponsive welfare system argu-
ably plays a part in this drive to meet nancial needs through survival sex, as the scarcity
of nancial support for young people living transient or chaotic lives perpetuates their
reliance on survival sex (Abel & Fitzgerald, 2008). A study featuring 17 adolescents using
sex for survival showed that none were living with or receiving nancial assistance from
their families; a notable departure from ‘typical’ living situations of that age group (Abel
& Fitzgerald, 2008). Young people aged 16-17 can access an unemployment benet only if
they have children, and an independent youth benet only if their caregivers conrm that
qualiable barriers to them living at home exist, which assumes a level of collaboration be-
tween child, parent and State that is often conspicuously absent (Abel & Fitzgerald, 2008).
In addition, the problem-solving skills needed to navigate formal systems and transcend
bureaucratic barriers are undeveloped in adolescents, indicating a need for alternative pro-
cesses for children and youth whose circumstances do not conform to the normative ideals
inherent in these welfare policies (Gillies, 2005).
Consequences of survival sex
A host of physical, psychological and behavioural outcomes have been linked with survival
sex. Desensitisation to violence is common, and approximately 47% of victims will sustain
serious injuries while engaging in sex for survival (Silbert, 1981). This is often accompanied
by a sense of powerlessness to escape (Silbert, 1981). Herman (1987) lists some of the common
eects of transactional sex as diculty building trusting or meaningful relationships, low
mood, poor concentration, self-harming behaviours including drug and alcohol use, and
possible poor sexual health outcomes such as diseases and pregnancy. Both Post-Traumatic
Stress Disorder and Stockholm Syndrome are among the possible consequences, and the
extent to which these are experienced are dependent on the victim’s experiences of sur-
vival sex and his/her pathway out of it (Dorais & Corriveau, 2009). Emotionally, victims
are likely to feel invisible and worthless, and these feelings may persist throughout their
lifetimes (Saphira & Herbert, 2004b). Victims are also at risk of signicantly poorer mental
health outcomes (Svensson, et al., 2012; Ahrens, et al., 2012; Holger-Ambrose, et al., 2013).
Given that the issue of survival sex for children and young people has multiple causes and is
associated with multiple manifestations of inequality and marginalisation, a multi-systemic
approach to addressing it is required. It was previously suggested that social workers are in a
position to make a signicant dierence to the experiences of youth who use sex for survival,
as social workers’ stated values and goals are consistent with addressing discrimination and
PAGE 20 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK ISSUE 26(4), 2014
contributing to social change (Herman, 1987). However, there is no recent literature outlin-
ing the social work role in combating survival sex. Victims of transactional sex commonly
view professionals with distrust, indicating a further barrier to accessing services (Saphira
& Herbert, 2004b). Government has recognised that youth who engage in transactional sex
need services that address their emotional, physical and spiritual needs, and help them
to identify avenues of safety (Ministry of Justice, 2002). Street outreach programmes are
considered the most eective with this client group, however their success is reliant on
adequate funding, which in turn is dependent on sexual exploitation being prioritised as a
social issue (Ministry of Justice, n.d). Street outreach initiatives could potentially be expanded
to access victims through the internet, as many young people use this to engage with their
perpetrators (Holger-Ambrose, et al., 2013). In addition, approaches to welfare provision
that are inclusive and without substantive barriers may facilitate safer pathways for young
people. Prevention initiatives may be successful if targeted at those known to be vulnerable
to exploitation, such as children in foster care or with abuse histories (Jordan, Patel, & Rapp,
2013). These initiatives should confront beliefs about prostitution; invite discussion about
gender roles, power and relationships; and facilitate the building of trust between young
people and social services (Dorais & Corriveau, 2009).
Child and adolescent involvement in transactional sex for survival is an undeniable social
problem, resulting in a range of adverse outcomes for children and young people. Society’s
widely held dominant ideals about gender, power and sexual desirability contribute to the
perpetuation of transactional sex among young people. Common pathways through which
victims begin using transactional sex include gangs and pimps, sexual abuse, and the ab-
sence of protective systems and subsequent lack of viable choices. While New Zealand’s
legal framework expressly prohibits the purchasing of sexual services from those under 18,
insucient policy and practice initiatives exist to provide an optimal level of support to
such victims. Recommendations drawn from the literature include the extension of street
outreach approaches to include internet-based strategies; changes to welfare provision for
young people; the introduction of a cohesive nationwide service specically for Maori;
and the implementation of targeted prevention strategies to be delivered to young people
vulnerable to sexual exploitation. In conclusion, the literature examined overwhelmingly
supports the development of a social work role in supporting victims of transactional sex
and in working with vulnerable young people to identify alternative pathways towards
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