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Children in global sex work and trafficking discourses

It is too simple to frame children involved in child prostitution in India and ‘sex trafficking’ in Canada as mere victims. Their roles in these phenomena are far more complex.

Bharatanatyam dancers. Arian Zwegers/Flickr. Creative Commons.

One of the most perplexing features of contemporary child prostitution and sexual trafficking discourses is their conflation with one another. The sexual labour of children is often described as child prostitution and unproblematically equated with the distinctive phenomenon of ‘child trafficking.’ This occurs with such frequency and inattention to cultural context, with such disregard for the lived experiences of the children or youth involved, that many people are often confused. Identifying the unique but overlapping socio-economic, sexual, and political features of child prostitution and sexual trafficking is critical to alleviating this confusion. I seek to nuance discussions of these phenomena using the examples of the Devadasis in India and ‘sex trafficking’ in Canada.

Devadasis in India

I confronted these issues during my fieldwork in 2001 and 2002 with Devadasi women and girls in rural south India, who belong to a traditional system of temple and religious servitude that often involves the exchange of sex for money or other material goods. Much of the academic literature and everyday social discourse holds that Devadasis are oppressed victims of ‘backwards’ cultural traditions. The Devadasi tradition has also featured prominently in debates about sex trafficking and HIV/AIDS, often as a ‘naturalised’ supply of girl children to feed the sexual demands of men in large cities and to ‘cure’ men of the disease. The solution, it thus seems to many, is rescue by the state or regional service agencies in order to allow these children to achieve a more respectable kind of femininity and spiritual redemption.

Over the course of my fieldwork I spoke with many women and girls about their lives and how they are shaped by the Devadasi system. Their answers were complex. They wove together gender inequity, poverty, and ambivalence toward sex work with the indignity of being part of a tradition under attack by social reformers. They also spoke of the positive aspects of the Devadasi tradition, such as generating and keeping a significant portion of their income, as well as being able to spend leisure time with their peers; two meaningful aspects of social life that are unavailable to many Indian women. Their responses to questions regarding the involvement of young girls and youth were equally nuanced. The laments of both mothers and daughters mixed with notions of filial duty and a sense of pride from girls who materially helped support their families.

In this context neither sex nor childhood were understood as bounded, discrete phenomena. Rather, they were factors of life that necessitated survival and also gave meaning to their lives. These insights contest the universal assumptions of victimhood. They tell us, if nothing else, that it is wrong to see child prostitutes in less-developed countries as merely oppressed victims of cultural superstitions, desperate for state-sanctioned interventions to lift them up from their fallen status.

‘Sex trafficking’ in Canada

Similarly complicated ideas about of the role of children in sexual trafficking discourses exist in Canada. The issue of sexual trafficking has been featured prominently in print and social media, often in reference to the federal government’s recent release of twenty million dollars to agencies that support women exiting the sex trade. A recent story from the London Free Press encapsulates various aspects of the contemporary sex trafficking discourse. Headlined as “SEXUAL TRAFFICKING” and illustrated with a colour photo of a young person’s hands in chains, the story regales us with harrowing tales of young girls lured into abusive sexual relationships by so-called boyfriends. Devastated parents and valiant service agents, the story tells us, seek to educate the public about the “possible signs of trafficked women” so as to prevent future victims.

Trafficking in Canada is thus discussed alongside not only sex work and crime, but also abusive relationships and a range of normative behaviours many young girls experience as they grow up: withdrawal from family and friends, staying out late without telling their family, absences from school, and substance use. The story also states that any “lies” these girls tell parents or police, which includes their stated consent to taking part in certain activities or relationships, should not be believed.

This ‘everything is trafficking’ discourse confuses the issue and produces troubling outcomes at systemic and individual levels. It overwhelms those in service provision, who are pressed into service like never before and are often unable to meet the growing demands for ‘trafficking’-related services. It also engenders familial panic about female children, which centre firmly on ideas about misplaced trust, premature sexualisation, and external coercion. This encourages parents to report or take their daughters to the authorities if they think they have been ‘trafficked.’ Young girls are framed here as not only victims of inappropriate socio-sexual relationships, but also as criminally suspect in their own families. As for the girls, whose experiences are rarely featured in such accounts, they reside in the vacuous spaces allotted to them within this frenzied discourse: victim, survivor, and the gratefully saved.

The child prostitution discourse in India and the sex trafficking discourse in Canada are unique in their constituent elements and outcomes. However, they are also two sides of a shared global story in which constructions of ‘children’, especially young girls, play central roles. The lives of these children or youth are similar in some ways and very different in others. It is critical that we disentangle and contextualise them if we wish to address in meaningful ways the underlying structural issues associated with sexual trafficking and sex work that involves children. Papering over the complexities of their lived experiences with discourses that reduce various events or behaviours to products of ‘internal culture failings’ or ‘external criminal forces” is oppressive. Moreover, to do so does not help explain the dynamics of these complex situations and reduces young people to non-agential players in an adult’s game.

About the author

Treena Orchard is an associate professor in the School of Health Studies, University of Western Ontario. She is a medical anthropologist who conducts qualitative, collaborative research with marginalised populations in Canada and India (i.e., women in sex work, Aboriginal communities, gay men, people living with HIV/AIDS, and youth). Her areas of research expertise include gender and health, post-colonialism, sexuality and sexual minority groups, the body, and arts-based research.


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