Who might try to exploit youth?
People who exploit can be any gender, age, race, socio-economic background, and hold a variety of relationships with the youth they seek to exploit. People who exploit youth may do it for financial gain or other forms of personal gain.
• Friends, acquaintances, classmates
• Family members (immediate, distant, symbolic, or otherwise)
• Intimate partners
• Community members
• Persons affiliated with civic or religious organizations
• Representatives of “employment” agencies
• Agents of industry, restaurant, or entertainment establishments
• Gang and criminal network members
Although people who exploit others can benefit from another person experiencing the harms of exploitation, people who exploit are not always cruel or intentionally harmful.
The complexities of people who exploit for personal or financial gain
When we talk about criminal activity – any activity that is considered illegal by the state (including the sex work and sex work safety practices discussed in Module 1) – it can be a lot easier for us to see it as a clear-cut concept: legal vs. illegal, good person vs. bad person.
The word ‘criminal’ is used to justify punishing a person through mainstream criminal justice procedures, like prison. If someone is a criminal then we can convince ourselves (as individuals and as a society) that inhumane treatment is okay and somehow necessary. Our criminal justice system does not give us space or opportunities to see people as many different things (good, bad, fair, selfish, trying their best, making hard decisions) all at the same time.
This is not to say that harmful behavior is okay, but to remind us that everyone faces challenges, that often these challenges are not in our control, and that these challenges can lead us to making decisions that harm others.
In Module 3, we will introduce factors impacting a youth’s exposure to exploitation. These factors include systemic conditions like economic inequality. It is important to remember that persons seeking to exploit youth may face similar systemic challenges and resort to exploitative activity due to the need to generate income and the conditioning of their environments. Again, this does not make exploitation okay but it takes us back to Kelly Hayes quote on the last page, “the forest is on fire.”
For example, it is very possible that the person seeking to exploit a youth is another youth who is experiencing exploitation themselves. If we can collectively understand that people are more complex than labels like criminal or not criminal, this makes it possible for society, and our mainstream systems, to care about the well-being of both youth in this situation.
*** This is especially important to keep in mind because incarceration and youth detention increases a youth’s exposure to exploitation.
If youth A is exploiting youth B and our solution is to place youth A in conditions that increase their exposure to exploitation (i.e. incarceration), we are only contributing to exploitative circumstances, and effectively failing the youth we seek to support.***
Watch this video to get a visual explanation for why incarceration is not an answer for youth who exploit other youth.
How do people learn to exploit?
Although the stages of exploitation are strategic, the ways people learn to exploit often occur unintentionally throughout life. They may have been exposed to manipulative dynamics growing up, unconsciously learned manipulative tactics as a method of taking care of themselves, or intentionally found resources online or by securing a ‘mentor’.
It can be useful to keep this in mind because the stages of exploitation can be very subtle and may not appear overtly cruel or malicious. This is particularly true in the early stages of exploitation and when recruiters are other youth who have been pressured into the role by the people exploiting them.