Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) is a major violation of the rights of the child, and is a modern form of slavery. It consists of sexual abuse by an adult or sometimes an older youth, and the payment of cash or gifts to the child or a third party such as a parent or pimp. The various forms of CSEC include:
- The prostitution of children
- Child rape images (child pornography)
- Trafficking of children for sexual purposes
- Child prostitution tourism
- Arranged child marriage
The common denominator among all of these forms is that an adult or older youth is taking advantage of the power, wealth, and status they have over children. They may not all be “pedophiles”: some do it just because children are available, and they don’t bother to question the age of the child. Others may be curious, or not think about or know about how it hurts the child.
It’s the financial or material gain that makes the commercial sexual exploitation of children different from child sexual abuse. In some cases, CSEC occurs in exchange for housing, food, or other basic needs of the child. This gives the unfair view of “consent” or agreement on the part of the child.
A complex web of factors make children vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. They include:
Poverty: Poverty is often the greatest contributing factor to CSEC, but it isn’t the only one. Some families may knowingly sell their children or be tricked into it and some children may offer themselves without fully realizing what the risks are. Other factors work alongside poverty to increase a child’s vulnerability, which explains why some children who do not experience crushing poverty are involved in prostitution, and others who do face poverty are not. Nevertheless, prostitution may be a child’s last resort for survival, and the only way for them to support their family. It usually means that children aren’t in school or don’t have the skills to make the kind of decisions that can protect them.
Abuse: Parents, family members, or members of a child’s community can be perpetrators of sexual abuse, violence, and neglect. These children — often feeling worthless since they are used to being mistreated and having no support system — run away from home and become prime targets for exploiters who prey on their desperation, loneliness, and fear. Their vulnerability is heightened when their family or community is ashamed of them. To this end, a tactic used by exploiters is to offer a false sense of belonging and family to children. In the red-light district of Angeles City, children are taught to think that the owner, manager, and the other girls of the sex bar are their new family members. The children refer to the owner as “big daddy”, the female manager as “mama-san” and the girls as “ates,” meaning older sisters. If the child wants a life away from prostitution, the children are then made to feel guilty by asking them, “Why would you want to betray our family?” A false sense of family and belonging is cultivated to ensure loyalty among the children.
Discrimination: Sadly, in some societies, girls and women are considered to be the property of men, making them more vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. They are less likely to be in school than boys, and aren’t able to get jobs and develop the kinds of skills they need to protect themselves. Ethnic minorities are also at a risk because they are often at the bottom of the priority list of governments, or lack official status. For instance, many children of the hill tribes of northern Thailand are not given Thai citizenship, limiting their prospects of getting schooling, decent jobs, and protection. AIDS orphans and children infected with HIV who suffer from stigma and discrimination also receive less opportunities in their lives that can help to protect them.
Misconceptions, myths, and flat-out excuses: There are many misconceptions and myths about having sex with a virgin or a child. In many African and Asian countries, it is sometimes thought that having sex with young girls will provide protection against HIV/AIDS and other STDs, or cure them entirely. Others believe that it can bring them renewed youthfulness, luck, good health, virility, and success in business. Some argue that in certain cultures, children are sexually “free” and sexually mature at a young age, and that they have chosen to engage in prostitution. But we know that few children who are living happy and secure lives would choose to be exploited. We also know that those who claim that they are helping the children by giving them money or gifts in return for sexual acts, are actually taking advantage of their poverty and are doing them no favour.
Natural and man-made (war) disasters: When the chaos of emergency situations strike, children are often separated from their families and communities, and are without protection and the financial support to live. This leaves children to fend for themselves, and the chance for traffickers to use “adoption” as a cover to move children around for the purposes of sexual exploitation. It can also mean that those who are meant to provide relief and support can take advantage of their position, and use children as a means to their ends. For instance, there have been reports of CSEC among UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo who have traded food or money for sex from girls as young as 13. The chaos then, means that the justice systems that are supposed to protect children are broken down, giving exploiters the chance to commit crimes against children without punishment.
Poor laws and Corruption: Some countries may not have laws against CSEC or they may lack a system that properly manages investigations, prosecutes exploiters, and provides support to children as they heal. Others still target the children, rather than their exploiters. Corruption among law enforcement is also a major challenge in the fight against CSEC. For instance, police offers have been known to accept sexual services from children in exchange for keeping quiet about illegal activities the child may or may not have done.
Consumerism: Sometimes it’s not about crushing poverty, but about peer pressure, a desire to belong, and the value that our society puts on designer and luxury items that can drive children to exchange sexual services for the money to buy these kinds of things. For instance, in the northern hill tribes of Thailand, parents feel the consumer pressure of a growing economy, and the thought of selling a daughter to finance a TV set doesn’t seem like that bad of an idea. In fact, a recent survey found that of the families that sold their daughters, two-thirds of them just wanted to buy colour TVs.
The damage caused by CSEC is serious. For one thing, children are fragile and have delicate internal tissues. They’re often manipulated or intimidated to have sex with multiple partners without condoms, or so desperate that they will agree to have unprotected sex which fetches more money. This means that they’re more likely to be injured during sex (especially with adults), and more likely to contract and transmit HIV/AIDS and other STIs. They’re also at a high risk of physical violence. If they attempt to escape, refuse to entertain customers, or insist that their customers wear condoms, they can be beaten, maimed, or killed.
The rehabilitation and reintegration of child survivors is no easy feat. These children suffer from feelings of shame and guilt and can feel that they don’t deserve to be rescued. This often leads to depression, hopelessness, suicide, or substance abuse to numb the pain. Children can also grow up to become perpetrators of this crime against a new generation children, by becoming recruiters, pimps, and clients. When it comes time to reintegrate into society, they can suffer from stigmatization and can be ostracized by their community.
Our final word: CSEC will be defeated when the demand for sex with children and the supply of children for sex disappears. We have a mountain to climb, and it will require real change from governments, societies, and individuals who know little about the problem, or have chosen to look away. Don’t be one of the ones who look away! Keep your eyes open, and continue looking around to learn more!