A study has found that underage sex workers take methamphetamine and work all night on the streets of Auckland – then attend school the next morning.
A University of Auckland masters student has interviewed underage Auckland sex workers, revealing the unsafe and extreme lives they lead.
As part of her Masters of Social Work (MSW), Natalie Thorburn spoke with 10 teenage sex workers, aged between 12 and 16 over a two year period ending in 2014. Many were the victims of sexual abuse.
None of these young sex workers are protected by the Prostitution Law Reform Act and often work in unsafe circumstances.
“My usual stance on sex work is from a women’s rights and prostitutes’ rights point of view – but that doesn’t really apply to someone who is 12, powerless, and in a state of desperation and fear,” Ms Thorburn said.
“These girls were participating in prostitution after childhoods where their bodies had been hired out for sex or been used by adults for sexual purposes.”
With the help of social service agencies, flyers were distributed seeking volunteers to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity and the promise of $40.
As a result, Ms Thornburn was contacted by nine girls and one boy, who were selling sex on the streets. She found that many of these participants continued to attend school.
“For a lot of them they attended school while they were 12 to 15 but were also going out all night to sell sex and take methamphetamine on the streets of Auckland,” she said.
“The norm for these participants was having a background of significant deprivation and quite chaotic family structures.
“But there was one who had quite a ‘normal’ life, was attending a decile 10 school and was achieving really highly, but was going out all night to do sex work and then coming home and putting on her school uniform.”
There were even a couple of children whose families knew they were involved in sex work, but hadn’t intervened. However, she said it was not always possible for parents and family to fix these issues themselves, as many were also battling mental health and drug issues.
Severe economic deprivation was also common and she said some of the children she interviewed had parents that had been suicidal or mentally ill.
“It makes me angry on behalf of the children, angry that the child doesn’t have a better community.
“It’s not that the families didn’t care, it’s that they actually didn’t have the capacity to care for these kids. And the communities were turning a blind eye, so the schools didn’t notice.
“It made me wonder how someone can go to school every day while coming down off methamphetamine, having been out doing sex work the night before – and never have that picked up by anyone at the school?”
Some of the participants told Ms Thorburn they had been abused by organisations set up to assist them, with claims of sexual exploitation and sexual assault. This resulted in them returning to the streets and shunning any further assistance.
Unfortunately there was no way for Ms Thorburn to maintain contact with the children she interviewed, due to the ethics agreement with the University. She had no way of knowing whether their circumstances had improved.
Ms Thorburn was motivated to study the lives of young sex workers due to her own experiences. After leaving home and being expelled from school at 16, she lived in with friends and in youth hostels while stripping to make ends meet. She was involved with drugs, before turning her life around and attending university.
She now works as an ACC registered social worker for sexual abuse cases and also works with the Ecpat Child Alert organisation.