Youth and the sex industry

In Canada, the legal age of consent to sexual activity is 16 years old, along with the following close in age exceptions:

  • A 14 or 15 year old can legally consent only if their partner is less than five (5) years older
  • A 12 or 13 year old can legally consent if their partner is less than two (2) years older
  • Close in age exceptions only apply if there is no relationship of trust, authority or dependency or any other exploitation of the young person.

Legally, the exchange of sexual acts for drugs, food, shelter, protection, other basic needs, money, acceptance or love by children and youth under the age of 18 is considered youth sexual exploitation. Youth sexual exploitation includes involving children and youth in the creation of pornography and sexually explicit websites, online exploitation, sexual assault, and sexual interference.

To prioritize youth safety, it is important to recognize that many youth decide to enter the sex industry because they are impacted by the same dynamics of choice, coercion, and circumstance that impact an adult’s decision to enter the sex industry.

“Young people move in the same socio-economic, sexual, gendered, and racialized world as adults and this includes witnessing and taking part in the exchange of sex for money…”

(Orchard, 2018)

In Canada, youth who are determined to be involved in the sex industry are subjected to “secure care” legislation, which has been widely recognized as infringement on youth civil liberties (Kempadoo & McFayden, 2017)

Through secure care legislation, youth may be detained by police, sent to the child welfare system, or sent home. Often, youth who are being returned places had independently decided to leave a familial or child welfare home that felt unsafe or unhelpful for their needs. Returning youth to such spaces risks re-exposing them to the reasons they may have left in the first place, including traumatic or dangerous circumstances.

Youth deserve to have a say and to not be dismissed. Growing up, I believed that what I thought didn’t matter and that liking sex work, or even sex, was bad. This was because my family, social workers and other women told me I was a whore for doing this line of work. After constantly being told this, I carried a lot of shame and internalized hatred for myself and my sexuality. It was not until I met other sex workers and began to access sex-worker-run organizations such as Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project that I was able to overcome that shame and self-hatred.

Phoenix Anne McKee

What does this mean for service providers?
Classifying all youth engagement in the sex industry as sexual exploitation removes youth’s agency and denies their right to make decisions. In line with a client-centred / youth-directed approach, service providers should respect youth’s choices to engage in the sex industry, and support youth according to what youth determine they need.

Practice what we’ve learned so far using the scenario below.

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