Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and youth, commonly known as sex trafficking, is a type of sexual violence that occurs when minors are forced, tricked or coerced into sexual activity for commercial exchange. Commercial exchange could include payment in the form of money, or anything of value to the youth (food, drugs, clothes, a place to sleep, social acceptance). Commercial sexual exploitation affects youth of all genders, sexual orientations, economic classes, races, and education levels. Even so, some populations are disproportionately impacted by sexual exploitation more than others, including homeless youth, youth in poverty, and youth facing discrimination based on race, sexual identity, and sexual orientation.
While commercial sexual exploitation is not new, individuals and communities have more recently increased awareness about CSEC dynamics and evidence-based interventions. Advocates working directly with youth understand the added complexities and dynamics associated with sexual exploitation. Some issues of sex industry and trafficking subculture may emerge in advocacy with youth survivors who are in what they refer to as "the life". The types of exploitation can take on many forms, including but not limited to: exploitation through the sex industry, trafficker or "pimp" based, gang-based, family-based, or even survival sex. Furthermore, youth may or may not identify as victims of sexual exploitation, regardless of what form of exploitation they seem to be experiencing. They may have complex relationships with the people in their inner circle. Others may be experiencing physical and mental health issues as a result of sexual exploitation. Overall, youth may be experiencing varying degrees of ambivalence about their situation at any given time. Advocates can consistently assess their direct-service efforts with a survivor-focused and empowerment-based lens. This includes looking at relationship building, confidentiality, and safety planning with youth experiencing sexual exploitation.
Advocates work to build rapport and trust with survivors of sexual violence, no matter where they are at or how they present. Building trust is a long-term process with youth experiencing sexual exploitation, as the youth will need to know that an advocate can be reliable. Advocates can validate the youth's main concerns, even when these concerns do not match conventional problems and solutions. There may be instances when your advocacy does not follow a conventional path to reporting, prosecution, or exiting "the life" of sexual exploitation. In these situations, advocates can continue to build relationship with the youth by affirming their experience and feelings and remaining nonjudgmental. Safety planning efforts may also seem unconventional at first, but pointedly include meeting the survivor in their current state of change. Safety planning may look a lot like risk reduction, and for a youth in "the life" this could include: using condoms, screening people who buy sex, creating a phone tree with trusted friends, knowing a safe person who can provide a car ride when in an unsafe situation, etc. Safety planning will be individualized and out of the box. Advocates will more effectively safety plan with youth experiencing exploitation when they can build rapport with them. Survivor-focused advocacy is meeting a survivor exactly how they are, and basing your advocacy on their safety, healing, hopes, dreams, and self-determination.
In advocacy, we honor the decisions and empowerment of survivors. We do not tell survivors what to do or how to do it. Advocates may worry about compounded safety issues surrounding children/youth experiencing sexual exploitation. We may experience the urge to rescue a child or youth, or we may feel pressed to encourage them to leave "the life" of sexual exploitation. As much as we would like to change a survivor's situation, however, we must be willing to challenge our assumptions and bias about youth's self-determination and autonomy. In practice, our empowerment-based advocacy can include moments where we explore options with a child/youth, so that they can make informed decisions for themselves. In this way we can give power back, and generally give space for the child/youth to lead the discussion with their main concerns, self-reflection, and level of ambivalence. Advocacy can include validation of a youth's knowledge and experience in the world, and acknowledgment that they are the expert of their situation. Empowerment-based advocacy also includes providing resources for youth to be able to carry out goals and objectives. Relevant resources and referrals can assist a youth in making informed decisions about their future, and achieving safety and thriving beyond sexual exploitation.