It’s Not a Fair Trade
Reprinted from "Trauma and Victimization" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (3), pp. 30-31
“I didn’t and still don’t know who to blame, if anyone. I don’t know who I’m more disappointed with: the people that took advantage of me, my parents for not being there, other people for not stopping it, or myself for doing it.” *
t’s not something we like to talk about or even think about, but the reality is that young people in our urban and rural communities are trading sexual acts for ‘things’—like a place to stay, a ride somewhere or even a pack of smokes. Most adults have no idea this is happening.
This is called sexual exploitation. Engaging or luring a person under 18 into the sex trade or pornography, with or without their consent, is a criminal act. The exploiter is often in a position of trust or authority and takes advantage of this trust. Too many children and youth are being victimized every day. It is not okay.
“I was 12 years old, trying to get someone to buy me cigarettes at a variety store in a fairly good neighbourhood of our city. I was approached by a middle-aged man with a car seat in the back of his minivan. He had exposed himself to me and propositioned me to watch him masturbate—and in return he would buy me smokes. He was insistent and conniving with his words and behaviour. I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I felt sick to my stomach and anxious. I wanted someone to help me, but really wanted smokes too.”
This personal story, submitted by an anonymous youth, and many others similar to it were the reason Western Area Youth Services (WAYS), a youth agency in London, Ontario, initiated a campaign against sexual exploitation.
In January 2006, WAYS received seven months of funding from the Ministry of the Attorney General, Ontario Victim Services Secretariat, to increase awareness and educate people in their community. The agency developed posters, youth booklets and parent brochures, and gave presentations to social service providers, schools and parents.
Groups were conducted with young people from elementary and secondary schools, group homes and community youth groups. The results were astonishing as youth after youth disclosed personal stories of exploitation and abuse. Approximately 300 anonymous youth were asked if they had ever been sexually exploited and 20% answered yes. When asked if they knew someone who had been sexually exploited, 55% answered yes. It’s important to realize that many youth don’t ever disclose abuse and that having enough trust to confide in someone can take years. These numbers, therefore, could be a major under-representation.
Mindyourmind.ca builds on WAYS
“I left the group home when I was 16 to pursue my independent ‘career’ of prostitution and crazy drug addiction. I lived in shelters off and on. I walked the streets and had sex for money and drugs. I dated drug dealers and they ‘helped’ me with ‘leads.’ It was out of control. My body was not mine, and I completely disassociated and separated my head from my body.”
Mindyourmind.ca is an international website for youth, by youth. It strives to reach out to youth who are struggling through difficult times. Mindyourmind.ca acknowledges that those being sexually exploited often turn to self-harming behaviours and substance use to reduce the pain and trauma. And they often have suicidal thoughts. The website provides information, resources and tools to help manage stress, crisis and mental health problems.
Factors increasing a youth’s risk for sexual exploitation
Mindyourmind.ca, also based in London, saw the positive impact the WAYS awareness campaign was having on the local community and wanted to promote it on a farther-reaching scale. Given their parallel missions, it made good sense for the two organizations to join efforts in increasing awareness about sexual victimization of youth.
In collaboration with WAYS, mindyourmind.ca created an electronic version of the booklet about sexual exploitation, and developed a short online quiz. Having these resources on the website and the posters available as free downloads targets a much broader audience. Mindyourmind.ca reaches over 60 countries worldwide, including China, where a significant number of women and children are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation.
“For me, it is too late to prevent what happened or to lessen the burn, and my experiences will not reap the immediate benefits of this program. However, I feel solace in the fact that for others it may not be as isolating if initiatives like this continue. I will continue to promote and advocate for people who have had so much taken away from them because of other people. This to me is the only bit of empowerment I, personally, can get back.”
About the authorHeather is the Youth Projects Coordinator with mindyourmind.ca, an award-winning international website for youth, based in London, ON. Mindyourmind.ca promotes personal coping, positive mental health and reaching out to get help and give help when times are tough.
* passages in italics are excerpts from one young person’s story