The sexual exploitation of young people is a human rights violation and has significant health consequences for most youth who have been exploited. While boys, girls, and transgender youth are all affected, research has tended to focus on the risks for girls [1
] and the existing literature about the sexual exploitation of boys is limited [2
Sexual exploitation in Canadian law includes exchanging money, drugs, gifts, food, services, shelter, transportation, or other considerations for any type of sexual activity with an individual who is 17 years old or younger. It is based on the definition from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child optional protocol introduced in 2000 (Article 2), which identifies the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography as specific aspects of exploitation from which children need protection [5
] (pp. 248–249):
“(a) Sale of children means any act or transaction whereby a child is transferred by any person or group of persons to another for remuneration or any other consideration; (b) Child prostitution means the use of a child in sexual activities for remuneration or any other form of consideration; (c) Child pornography means any representation, by whatever means, of a child engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes.”
It should be noted that these definitions of sexual exploitation do not require force or coercion of children or adolescents, nor do they limit the definition of exploitation to sex purchased by adults, or sex that has been facilitated by a third party, i.e., a pimp, procurer or trafficker. Adolescents who purchase sexual activity from another young person, or purchasers who provide money, goods or services to adolescents directly in exchange for sex rather than to a procurer, still have sexually exploited that adolescent.
In a systematic review examining sexual exploitation among boys, Mitchell et al., highlighted that the term sexual exploitation is used inconsistently in the literature, which presents a challenge for researchers exploring this topic [2
]. Some commonly used synonyms for sexual exploitation include human trafficking or sex trafficking, which can include individuals 18 years or older [2
]. Sex trade, sex exchange, or sex work are also sometimes used, although these terms tend to obscure the exploitative nature of this form of child sexual abuse and imply a level of agency and consent to the sexual exchange that may not be consistent with the emerging capacity of adolescents. Survival sex, or sex in exchange for food or shelter, can still be considered sexual exploitation if the adolescent providing the sex activity is under 18 years old. Although the legal and health sectors recognize that the sexual exploitation of young people is problematic [6
], the research is hindered by varying definitions, and by studies that do not report the experiences of those under 18 years separately from those 18 years of age and older. Mitchell and colleagues recommend that research about boys who are sexually exploited needs to disaggregate young men who are 18 and older and boys who are 17 and younger, to allow for a nuanced understanding of the contexts in which boys are sexually exploited [2
Part of the challenge in addressing sexual exploitation is that stereotypes about this abuse persist in Canada and around the world. For instance, the majority of information in the literature and news media depict youth who are exploited as girls and women, and as heterosexual [6
], and policies typically focus on sexual exploitation among girls [10
]. This overlooks the risks of sexual exploitation for boys [2
]. However, a growing number of population-based and large-scale multiple-site studies have found similar rates between boys and girls who have been sexually exploited. For example, school-based surveys in the Canada, Norway, Sweden, and the United States find that a small proportion of youth report trading sex for money or alcohol and drugs, generally 2%–4%; in these studies, boys are as likely or more likely to report exploitation [12
]. Studies among homeless and street-involved youth identify larger proportions of young people who have been sexually exploited, with estimates ranging from 10% to 38% in studies across Canada and the United States over the past 20 years [18
]. In these studies, rates are not always reported separately for girls and boys, but when they are, some studies find similar rates, e.g., [21
] while others find girls are more likely to report sexual exploitation, e.g., [20
]. Studies among homeless youth in other parts of the world report an even higher prevalence, for example, 41% of boys in a study of street-involved youth in Pakistan [23
] and 45% in Ghana [24
According to Reid, a key vulnerability for boys relates to sexual orientation and sexual identity, with gay and bisexual boys more likely to be exploited than their heterosexual peers [25
]. Other studies find lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth of all genders are disproportionately at risk of sexual exploitation, although the majority of sexually exploited youth still identify as heterosexual [21
]. This raises an important but often overlooked element of research—the gender of the traffickers or purchasers. This is important because law enforcement requires accurate information about exploiters in order to effectively recognize and target exploiters for prevention and intervention. The majority of research identifies men as the primary exploiters of girls and young women, although in a systematic review of research about sexually exploited boys, Moynihan and colleagues identified six studies that reported both men and women sexually exploited boys, while three more studies only referred to men buying sex from boys [26
]; the majority of these studies were from low-income countries such as Brazil, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, and Thailand, and most did not provide details about the prevalence of boys who were exploited by which gender. One study from Sweden reported that, among boys in their study, 48% reported sex purchased by women only, and another 8% purchased by both women and men, while 36% of boys reported sex purchased only by men, and 8% were missing the information [13
]; recalculating those estimates only among those who provided a response, 74% of boys reported sex purchased by women.
Among studies of sexual exploitation that include both boys and girls, there are very few that compare their experiences or disaggregate by gender, so it is unclear to what extent contexts for boys might be similar to or different from the experiences documented about the sexual exploitation of girls. Similarly, while homelessness or street involvement is also a risk factor for sexual exploitation, there is limited recent research in high-income countries that examines the contexts of sexual exploitation among boys who are homeless or couch-surfing; most of this research is from low-income countries [3
]. In one clinical study of 62 sexually exploited adolescents seen at a Child Advocacy Centre in the United States, there were only seven boys, and insufficient power to detect statistical differences [27
]. However, in the qualitative analysis of forensic interviews, they noted that the majority of boys as well as a small number of girls did not have a pimp or trafficker, directly arranging their exploitation with purchasers through the internet. Similarly, more boys than girls in the study reported being homeless, while girls were more likely to be living with at least one parent. In a school-based survey of sexual exploitation in a resort community in Canada, boys were somewhat more likely to be homeless or couch-surfing than girls, although the large majority still lived with their parents [14
]; other predictors, such as binge drinking, more serious drug use, depressed mood, and impulsivity, were similar for girls and for boys. In a population-based study among Swedish adolescents in 2009, they found almost no differences in the family demographics or contexts of selling sex between boys and girls [13
]. Very few studies report how many times adolescents have been exploited; in the Swedish study by Fredlund and colleagues, more than half of boys reported selling sex two to five times (52%), while girls were more likely to have reported selling sex only one time (62%) [13
Thus, while some research with school-based or household populations and some with homeless youth samples describes the prevalence of sexual exploitation among boys, and a limited amount of community and clinical research has touched on some of the experiences of exploitation for boys, there is far less research for them than there is for girls, especially with regard to the contexts of exploitation in high-income countries such as Canada. Given this limited research, the purpose of our descriptive study was to provide information about the prevalence of and contexts within which homeless and street-involved boys report experiencing sexual exploitation in western Canada, drawing on multi-city surveys conducted in both 2006 and 2014. Furthermore, as the surveys were conducted with the same methods, eight years apart, we also compared the survey results between years, to identify whether there have been any changes in the prevalence or the contexts of sexual exploitation of homeless and street-involved boys.
This study reported the prevalence and experiences of sexual exploitation among adolescent boys aged 12–19 in multiple cities in two surveys of homeless and street-involved adolescents in western Canada. Just over one in four boys ages 17 and under reported trading sex for money or other consideration, which in Canada is a form of sexual exploitation, and which is within the mid-range among estimates that other surveys of homeless youth have reported [18
], but far higher than school population surveys report [12
]. A further 1 in 10 youth who were 18 years or older reported first trading sex at age 17 or younger, which also fits the legal definition of sexual exploitation in Canada. The majority of sexually exploited boys ran away, were kicked out, or became homeless before first being sexually exploited, although about a third reported first trading sex while living with their family, which raises questions about whether their families were the ones trafficking them, or if they were being exploited without their family’s knowledge. We were unable to determine this from the survey questions. As none of the existing limited research about sexually exploited homeless boys included information on whether they were first exploited before or after becoming homeless other than our earlier exploration of the 2006 survey data [8
], and the population-based studies only identified a higher risk of running away or homelessness predicting sexual exploitation but not actually calculating which came first, we identify novel findings of two primary patterns of exploitation: one while living within the family, and the other while on the street. The majority had also been in government care at some point in their lives, underscoring another key vulnerability, where young people were disconnected from family and may be less protected, or may need to exchange sex as a means for survival.
Both adolescents under the age of 18 and those 18 and older reported sexual exploitation first occurring as young as age 10 or 11, with a median age among younger adolescents of exploitation at 14 in 2006 and in 2014, and at slightly older ages among 18- and 19-year-olds. These age ranges are similar to those in most other studies.
A relatively small percentage of youth reported exchanging sex for a pimp or trafficker, or an escort agency, instead reporting they were trading sex to support a friend, partner, relative, or trading sex on their own. This is similar to the findings in the US in one study, where the majority of boys (although a small group) were exploited without a pimp, while a smaller number of girls did not have a trafficker [27
]. On the other hand, in that study, many of the sexually exploited youth did not identify their trafficker as such, but rather considered them a romantic partner, or friend, identifying a significant emotional connection to their trafficker. We similarly found that the majority of boys in 2014 reported exchanging sex for a friend, partner or relative instead of for a pimp or escort agency, while in 2006, the majority of boys who had been exploited indicated trading sex for “none of the above.” It is possible that some boys interacted directly with a purchaser, without a trafficker or procurer contacting purchasers and making arrangements, as described in the study above [27
]. Alternately, some boys who are being trafficked may not recognize the person as a trafficker if they are emotionally manipulated into sexual exploitation, rather than through violence or coercion.
An unexpected finding was that the large majority of boys were sexually exploited by women. The great majority of boys—77.8% or 85%-reported being exploited by women, and nearly two in three reported being exploited only by women. This is quite different from the common stereotypes of men as traffickers and purchasers, and is an even larger proportion than the estimated 74% described in the one study from Sweden that calculated the gender of purchasers [13
]. The survey identified the prevalence of boys who had at least one woman exploiter but did not ask how many women boys had been exploited by. The study by Fredlund and colleagues (2013) from Sweden noted that about half of boys had sold sex two–five times, but this was a school-based study. Therefore, it is difficult to estimate the actual numbers of women who might be exploiting homeless adolescent boys. The literature also offers almost no descriptions of women who purchase sex from adolescents or adults, other than a recent study of sex tourism in the Caribbean [32
]. Neither was our survey able to explore in greater detail who the women are who are purchasing sex from adolescent boys, or what they are exchanging for this sex, whether this is money, drugs, food, shelter, or other goods. More research is needed to understand the types of women who sexually exploit boys, in order for law enforcement to recognize to intervene to prevent this exploitation. Given the paucity of information, qualitative designs are a warranted first step.
A related difference in our findings was that the large majority of boys in both surveys identified as heterosexual, which differs from studies that identify a primary risk for sexual exploitation is a gay or bisexual sexual orientation [25
] and the statements that assume most or all purchasers of sex from boys are men, even where the studies did not actually ask about the gender of sexual partners. While sexually exploited youth often do not have a choice about who they exchange sex with, and heterosexual boys may well trade sex for money or goods with gay men, sometimes termed “gay for pay,” our findings did not suggest this was the predominant experience of the sexually exploited boys in our study. It is unclear why our findings would differ so much from studies in other countries, but given similar results 8 years apart, it suggests stability in these findings in western Canada at the least.
Another concern is that fewer than a third of sexually exploited boys indicated they had been sexually abused, although sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse, so all of them could have indicated a history of sexual abuse. This suggests that homeless and street-involved boys in Canada may not have the information to recognize exploitation as a form of sexual violence and a crime against them. Given that the pervasive discourse about sexual exploitation and sex trafficking focuses on women and girls, it is possible that boys who are exploited do not see their experiences in similar ways. Alternately, they may experience greater shame and stigma in exploitation, as it does not align with societal expectations of masculinity, and this might lead them to re-cast their circumstances in order to avoid that stigma [28
]. The limited research about the health of sexually exploited boys, however, suggests they experience the same health sequelae as girls [3
]. Interventions to help youth exit sexually exploitive relationships and circumstances must keep in mind this difficulty in identifying that exploitation is occurring, as well as the potential that youth may not want help exiting exploitation, especially if it provides a more consistent way to meet basic survival needs for food and shelter than other sources of income for homeless youth with limited education or work training. Education programs that try to prevent sexual abuse among children and adolescents should clearly include information about sexual exploitation as a form of sexual abuse or sexual violence.
Moreover, the cut-off age to define sexual exploitation as opposed to sex work is a relatively arbitrary one, given the varied timing of adolescent development for different young people; some youth may feel they have the agency and capacity to consent to sex work, while others of the same age, or older, may still be trafficked or sexually exploited, especially if fraud, force, or coercion is involved. The health consequences of sex work or sex trafficking may be similar, or the level of agency and decisional autonomy of young people involved may alter the sequelae. We were not able to determine this within our survey, which had only a few questions as part of a larger general health survey. Conversations about sexual exploitation and the sex trafficking of boys and young men need to consider their perspectives, as well as be aware of their health needs.
There are very few evaluated interventions to help sexually exploited and trafficked youth in general with their health and psychosocial needs [26
], and even fewer of these include boys, or are focused solely on boys. This may be partly because of the lack of knowledge about their experiences and the contexts they have in common with girls and transgender youth vs. contexts that are unique to boys limit the ability to develop effective, gender sensitive interventions for supporting sexually exploited boys. More research is needed to understand what works to help them, especially evaluations of interventions that either include boys, or are focused primarily on boys.
This research has strengths and limitations that should be noted in considering the evidence it provides. First, research with homeless and street-involved populations holds unique challenges for sampling, due to the uncertainty about the true underlying population. Without an accurate denominator for the target sample, it is hard to estimate the extent to which the sample is representative, so prevalence estimates should be treated with caution. At the same time, this is a limitation of all research with homeless youth, and by sampling from multiple cities across BC, eight years apart, with experiential youth as co-researchers, we enhance the likelihood of capturing a more diverse and representative group of youth. Likewise, because our surveys were separated by eight years, we can be confident our samples are independent. Our combined sample of 132 sexually exploited boys and young men from multiples cities across Western Canada is one of the larger samples in the extant literature, even from large-scale population surveys, and as such, provides a strength in its ability to capture a wider range of experiences than smaller, more focused studies would do. However, a significant limitation that must be considered is that the questions about sexual exploitation are sensitive, even in anonymous surveys. While we tried to create non-judgmental and concrete questions for youth, we did hear objections from some participants that this information was too personal or stigmatizing, and they skipped those questions. Thus, our estimates, while in line with other studies, must be considered likely undercounts of the true extent of sexual exploitation and trafficking among homeless adolescent boys in Canada. That our attempt at multiple imputation with the full dataset resulted in a much higher number of young people identified as likely to have been sexually exploited suggests this could well be an undercount, but unfortunately, there is no way to be sure. As this study was limited to self-reported cisgender boys and young men, these analyses cannot be generalized to transgender or non-binary young people. Further research about the experiences of sexual exploitation among homeless and street-involved transgender and non-binary youth in Canada is warranted.
Despite these strengths and limitations, it is clear that a significant proportion of adolescent homeless and street-involved boys in western Canada are experiencing sexual exploitation, some as young as 10 years old, and with a number of them exploited while living with family members. The majority of them experience homelessness or precarious housing as a precursor to their exploitation. Additionally, contrary to the general perception, women do sexually exploit boys—in the case of boys in western Canada, the large majority of those who participated in our study had been exploited by women, and a majority had been exploited solely by women. Our commitment as a society to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to protect young people from trafficking and sexual exploitation, must include young people of all genders. This study helps raise our awareness of the experiences of homeless and street-involved boys and young men who have been sexually exploited as adolescents, and points to some next directions for action.