What Does a “Harm Reduction” Approach Mean for Exploited Minors?

The NSWP brief contains reasonable suggestions and demands – such as the full decriminalization of young adults and children in prostitution, easier access to health care and a non-judgmental approach by law enforcement and support services. Nonetheless applying the “harm reduction approach” to child sexual exploitation leaves society and children with the impression that there isn’t necessarily something harmful about being sexually accessed by adult men for money (despite international children’s rights agreements stating the contrary) and that this is a grey area best carefully watched, but not to be greatly interfered with.

While the final recommendations to policy makers call for fighting against homelessness, lack of education and poverty, when prostitution – including child sexual exploitation – is considered “selling sex” and “a service” – or even “work” (which is the language the New Zealand government uses to describe the paid rape of children!, p. 109ff) – support services working towards those goals do not only not magically spring up from the ground, they are actively disincentivized. After all what’s the urgency when it’s “work” or “a sale” instead of exploitation? In practice the “work” rhetoric allows institutions and organization to claim that adults (and children) already have an income, some semblance of economic security and peer support and don’t need systematic alternatives.

Examples of harm denial from Germany

One example of harm denial comes from the organization Hilfe für Jungs e.V. (Help for boys), an outreach organization from Berlin offering support to sexually exploited boys and young men. Their specialized project targeting boy children and young male adults (“Subway” – “Help for boys who are on the road and turning tricks”) was very clear back in 2015 in refering to prostitution as a situation which boys and men rarely ever choose and which in of itself constitutes violence – even naming the pedocriminals as perpetrators – the same cannot be said for their 2017 report that labels boys in prostitution as “trick turners” and “sex workers” and their current (2019) mission statement:

“We position ourselves as accepting of sex work and the people who choose this occupation. […] we want to work against societal discrimination and stay far away from judging individual life styles. Low-threshold service to us means first of all respecting the needs of those who come to us and to base our actions on that in a flexible way. We consistently try to take the perspective of the individual and to consider their individual environment to seek out solutions together.
It is not necessarily our goal to get an individual out of prostitution. Rather the individual is supported in their individual choices. We will gladly offer exit, but only when it is freely requested.”

The 2017 “Subway” report speaks of 12-17 year old boys and young men in situations of complete economic destitution, severe drug addictions, indebted to loan sharks, mostly homeless, overwhelmingly foreign and without a support network. The team describes working in tandem with police and youth protection services to develop better support services, which sounds hopeful (p. 7). However they also report working on projects in tandem with brothel owner organizations for a “safer work environment” (p. 8). Overall the content on their website shows an active struggle with trying to maintain that prostitution is harmless for adults, but maybe kinda bad, if you’re addicted, alone, homeless and/or underage. The exact approach taken when confronted with a male minor remains unclear.

Subway’s on report shows the overwhelming majority of boys and young men exploited in prostitution are there due to simple lack of alternatives.

There’s a second example from an organization working with anyone who identifies as a “young female” in Munich, Germany. I am unable to publically name this organization, as my information comes from a private email exchange. Thus anyone who is only interested in what can directly be evidenced by accessible sources should skip the following paragraph:

In protest to critics publically stating that (unspecified) youth organizations working with girls “romanticize the sex industry”, organization “X” writes in 2015 that prostitution is a “complex” topic which in their seminars with girls they engage with from a “variety of perspectives enabeling girls to form their own opinions” while “discussing both the arguments against and in favour of prostitution”. The same letter claims that prostitution, pornification and sexual abuse are three seperate issues with no inherent connections, because “not every prostitute is a victim of sexual abuse” and “not every victim of sexual abuse becomes a prostitute”. Further the letter claims “there are no studies to confirm a worsening body image, self-perception or harm to the sexual development of girls by pornography” (making me seriously wonder whether any of these youth workers have ever had an honest conversation with a teen girl…).

Images like these have no impact on girls. Go ahead and put them up in your 10-year-old daughters bedroom. I’ll wait.

In painful irony organization “X” has since recieved an award named after a pioneer feminist with strong prostitution abolitionist convictions.

Examples of harm denial from New Zealand

Kiwi media has repeatedly discussed child sexual exploitation using harm denying language. Examples include this female pimp telling her daughters prostitution is “Ladies doing dress-up and giving kisses and cuddles to men, making lots of money” or this article calling children in street sexual exploitation “underage sex workers” (thankfully the NGO mentioned in the latter example lucidly supports the Nordic Model, even if the journalist in question couldn’t be arsed to use appropriate language for paid child rape).

Chelsea Geddes from New Zealand, who was first sexually exploited as a young teenager, shares what it’s like when the “ask the child for confirmation of their victimhood first” approach is considered best practice policy by law enforcement and social workers. Chelsea recounts her own experience of being asked if she was consenting to rape by an adult when she was a minor abused on the streets (this happened prior to decriminalization in New Zealand, but is in accordance with the recommended approach by the NSWP policy brief of 2016):

“[The police officer] just knocked on the window of the car, the dude rolled down the window – I was half dressed, and half in my junior school uniform, so if he noticed the uniform it would have been very obvious, I was under 16, but not sure if he did. It might not have been obvious I was doing a prostitution job where the age is 18 – [he] might have just thought it was regular statutory or whatever, I don’t know. […] He asked if I’m happy to be there. I just silently nodded my head. I needed the money and since it was illegal I didn’t know if I’d be in trouble. I can’t imagine I would have been, but I didn’t know that as a child. He just left after that. […] I was 14. […] Police aren’t known for intervening here much. […] I’ve never seen anyone check [if we were adults].” – Chelsea Geddes

Chelsea also recounts encountering a teenage girl at the offices of the NZPC, who claims to support all adults and minors in prostitution (post decriminalization):

I wouldn’t know that’s how they treat children if I hadn’t witnessed [it] with my own eyes. […] [I and a teenage girl] were both there to see the free nurse for prostitutes […] to check for/treat STDs, but the interaction, while we waited, from unsolicited NZPC staff was groomy. […] They didn’t ask or offer anything [related to exit]. I asked the girl why she was in prostitution. I said I entered young, too. She said, because he[r] boyfriend was in prison. They were doing the sex work empowerment pitch, and one talked about how in India they have to use female condoms and showed us one so we knew what they were. She said sometimes the girls there had to use the same one all night long, because they didn’t have much. I feel it was trying to make us grateful for our own situation in prostitution. They don’t [tell you how you can get out]. I thought they might have for this girl, because she was clearly underage and also Maori/indigenous, so I figured they might have seen her as at risk, but nope – I was surprised – same treatment.” – Chelsea Geddes


Chelsea was still in prostitution in New Zealand at age 32 (at the time of this interview, she has since managed to exit), finding herself without an exit programme that adequately responds to the level of trauma she has incured. (All accounts given in an online interview with the author. Full transcript available on request.) Other women in prostitution in New Zealand have described similar situations with the NZPC, where exit was unavailable.

Another bad word you can’t say, because if you do somewhere in the world a pimp gets sad.

If exit isn’t a must when she is 10-17 years old, she can entirely forget exiting support when she’s an adult. By pretending to be inclusive of minor and adult populations who feel unharmed by the sex trade, a whole group of children and adults wishing to escape what they experience as daily rape is routinely abandoned to the men who perpetrate against both groups (that includes those victims unable to articulate their situation at the time and who may be describing the situation very differently weeks/months/years after the fact – which is normal for trauma victims of all ages!). This is how normalizing adult prostitution and the “sex work” and “harm reduction” rhetoric protects child abusers.

Read the next part here.

The corresponding YouTube Video

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