Thursday, March 1, 2001
Kid hookers: Do we care?
This week's national coverage of the 11-year-old girl forced to work as a prostitute in Vancouver has been shocking.
Not because this one girl was allegedly picked up in a shopping mall in Oregon, sneaked across the border and forced by three abusive adults to work the street, earning an estimated $1,000 before police rescued her and charged the trio. But because there are many girls just like her, being exploited on our streets every day.
And as shocking as this case is, what's truly appalling is how little our governments are doing to combat child prostitution.
This is not the first 11-year-old found working a Canadian street. Nor is she the youngest hooker. Hundreds, thousands of kids are working as prostitutes in all our big cities not just Vancouver, although that city's "kiddie stroll" has become notorious internationally as a pedophile cruising ground.
We know all this because this issue has been studied studied to death. Police and street workers across the country estimate the average age at which a girl becomes a prostitute (and usually they are girls, though many teenage boys are exploited, too) is 14. In other words, many start a lot younger.
Still, because of our persistent social squeamishness about the "profession" of prostitution (we tend to think of it as a racy, victimless activity, visions of a thousand glamorous Hollywood hookers with hearts of gold dancing in our heads), very little is ever done about it.
In Vancouver, after this story broke, there was some reaction, of course. An advertising campaign was launched, stating the obvious buying sex from an underage girl is abuse. Meanwhile, Vancouver police hotly rejected the perception that their city is a hotbed of child prostitution, saying it's no worse than any other city. Well, isn't that a comfort?
They're right, though. Consider some of these facts and figures gleaned from a pile of recent studies:
Task forces ad infinitum
Yet in all the stories about this week's case, I've yet to see one that asked: what are we, as a society, doing to stop this?
We have had task forces, summit meetings, interprovincial and international conferences. Reams of recommendations have been issued. Experts agree: child prostitution is child abuse.
But beyond that, their work too often gets mired in discussions about the children's rights (some actually argue prostitution is a "lifestyle choice"!) and ensuring they aren't "criminalized" by being charged or held in custody (so they don't go back to the street). Too often, the solutions involve "outreach" work monitoring young hookers, making sure they use condoms as opposed to something truly effective, like calling in the cops to shut the kiddie strolls down, period.
"We need to educate the public there are girls out there who are 8 years old that's child abuse," one young prostitute told an international summit in B.C. a few years ago.
True, but education isn't worth much without law enforcement. Our Criminal Code says engaging a prostitute under 18 can carry a penalty of up to five years in prison (for pimping, it's up to 14 years). But when was the last time you heard of anyone getting a sentence like that? Why aren't the feds investing resources in this, instead of, say, registering rifles?
In fact, the problem has largely been left up to the provinces. Right now, only Alberta has a specific law enabling authorities to remove child prostitutes to "safe houses" and impose harsher penalties on pimps and johns. Ontario will soon pass a similar law, while B.C., Saskatchewan and P.E.I. are working on changes of their own. It's a start, but not enough.
What's baffling is that, in a society that often claims to value children above all else, we accept the existence of "kiddie strolls" at all. We are outraged when a convicted pedophile is released from jail, or when a teacher writes love notes to her 14-year-old male student (two hot local stories this week). That outrage is fine : but why do we turn a blind eye to the pedophiles who are paying to exploit children every day, and the sick pimps who profit from them?
The Oregon girl is safe, back home in foster care. But Canada's shame is alive and well, and working the street as we speak.
Williamson, Sun senior associate editor, appears Thursdays, Sundays
Created: June 17, 2001
Last modified: June 17, 2001
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