new internationalist
issue 187 - September 1988

Twisted Toy-Town
Adults like toys. They like them sweet, lovable and powerless - unfortunately for children.
Judith Ennew and Wendy Titman take an international perspective on child sexual abuse.

Prostitution in Thailand: the heart purse, Snoopy bag and cute dress are designed to appeal to Western 'child lovers'.
Benoit Gysembergh /

'CHRISTIANE', who worked in the infamous Bahnhof Zoo area of West Berlin in order to earn the money for heroin, is possibly the best-known child prostitute in the world. Her autobiography has been translated into many languages and the film based on her story has reached wide audiences. Her account is shot through with wistful images of the 'clean world' of magazines and advertisements, in which boys and girls meet, fall in love and make love by choice under cloudless skies. It is her awareness of the difference between this ideal and the sordid reality of clients, violence and fixes which makes her book so poignant.

You might think that such a tale would lead to a massive effort to prevent child and teenage prostitution. But it has not. Indeed, under the cover of 'shocked and horrified', newspaper reports and television documentaries do little but sensationalize the problem or even effectively advertise the sexual services of child prostitutes by revealing where they are to be found. The issue is further distorted by repeating well-established myths about profitable sex rings and the activities of international mafias involved in 'child-sex slavery'.

If this were the case it should be possible to mount international policing campaigns against child prostitution. But the real scenario is not just sordid - but petty too. There is no massive, evil, profit-making organization outside society to be combatted. Child prostitutes sell themselves cheaply, casually. In the West they do it to buy drugs, to pay to get into discotheques or purchase some of the fashionable clothes aggressive marketing insists they must have. Street children in the Third World have more basic needs. Without family or state support they sell themselves for a meal or to purchase solvents to sniff and forget their hunger, confusion and abandonment.

It is true that pimps and brothel owners lie in wait for young runaways and migrants from rural areas at the bus and railway stations of big cities like New York or Bangkok. But this is not 'big business'. Because hungry children sell themselves so cheaply on the streets, the price of a child remains low - and so the return for the pimp is not high. Often pimps are more concerned with running the children off the streets - because they are undercutting the adult prostitutes the pimps control.

The risks for child prostitutes are appallingly high. Psychologically there is little more destructive than being treated like a degraded object - especially if you are still developing. But the physical toll is heavy too. Because child prostitutes neither use contraceptives themselves nor insist that clients use condoms, the chances of getting pregnant or catching sexually transmitted diseases are considerable. Forty per cent of the girls in a study of young prostitutes in Bombay had syphilis and it has been reported that 15 per cent of the street boys working as casual prostitutes in Khartoum are already HIV positive.

Now it is often said that poverty is the root cause of prostitution. Certainly many Third World families wittingly or unwittingly thrust their children into prostitution. In the North East of Thailand, for example, peasant families are often deeply in debt. When a recruiter arrives from Bangkok or Pattaya Beach, offering to provide decent jobs for their daughters with an immediate advance on her wages, parents find it hard to refuse. But the poverty of the prostitute is only one side of the coin. For there to be a market in child sex there must be a demand. So why do so many adults - specifically men - want sex with children?

Perhaps we should look at a form of child sexual exploitation which has received much publicity recently: that of children being abused by (usually male) members of their own family. Although it is often treated separately from child pornography and prostitution this is not necessarily logical.

Up until recently most people though of child sexual abuse in terms of 'stranger danger'. The implicit belief was that children are safest within the patriarchal family. Like the myth of profitable child sex rings, this notion protected us from a far more unpalatable truth - that the cause of child sexual exploitation is not external to society but deeply embedded in family structures and the way in which we think about children and about sexuality.

Moreover, the large number of adult incest survivors who are now coming forward and talking for the first time about what happened to them as children shows that child sexual abuse within the home is not a peculiarly modern ill. This has prompted a reinterpretation of nineteenth-century child-welfare case records with their frequent references to children having 'carnal knowledge' or being in 'moral danger'; so Victorian times were incestuous times too.

Sexual abuse by family members is not, of course, confined to developed countries. In poorer countries the problem remains largely hidden. What has happened in the West is an increase in reporting - often confused with an increase in incidence. The positive aspect of all this is that at last the issue is being addressed and children are being listened to - and believed. However their voices are still muted by their lack of legal status as witnesses.

Lack of power is the crux of the matter. Everywhere - both in the rich and poor countries - children are regarded as an under-class, lacking physical and political clout. In developing countries their role is that of low-status family wage earners. In the West they are increasingly parental possessions supposed to demonstrate the power of their parents through success, intelligence and beauty.

It is their own lack of power which makes children at once so vulnerable - and so sexy to so many adults. For if sexual gratification is obtained through abuse or exploitation, it is the inequalities between the people concerned which produces the gratification. In other words it is power which is sexy rather than physical attributes.

One result of the greater public awareness of abuse has been the development of prevention programmes - especially in the US, Aotearoa, Canada, Australia, Britain and Scandinavia. These consist mainly of school-based programmes to teach children how to 'Say No' and how to talk about sexual abuse if it is happening to them.

Far more controversial has been the setting up of phone helplines for children. The lines have no legal powers and therefore cannot be of any practical help to the child. Behind them is the assumption that there is no adult in the home or school that the child could speak to. The solution is placed at a distance - encouraging parental and societal paranoia without providing any analysis through which abusers, abused and those close to them could deal with the problem as and when it happens.

If we look at our own behaviour towards children, almost inevitably we find that we only half listen to them, discount their views and perceptions, mock their opinions and make light of their sexuality. Child abuse has less to do with child rape by monsters than with the way we, victimized as children, turn round as adults and become the oppressors.

Judith Ennew and Wendy Titman work for Streetwise International based in Cambridge, UK.

1 Christiane F, 1980, H: Autobiography of a child prostitute and heroin addict. Translated by Suzanne Flataner, Corgi Books

[image, unknown] It's OK to say no!
Most children are taught to obey adults
without question. But what happens when
those adults are child abusers? What do
you do and how do you teach children
when they should not obey...?

It's my body
Probably the most important lesson you can teach a child is that no one has the right to touch their body and that if anyone tries to the child has the right to say 'No'.

Don't force a child to submit to physical contact if they don't want to. Allowing the child to follow their instincts shows that hugs and kisses are not something adults can simply demand from children.

Believe the child
Children rarely tell lies about sexual assault. If a child is not believed when they tell, the abuse may go on for years and result in suffering and guilt for the child.

It's OK to ignore strangers
Most well-meaning adults will not approach children who are by themselves (unless they are obviously lost or in distress). Children should feel free to ignore such approaches, pretend not to hear or run away. Tell them you will never be angry with them for refusing to talk to strangers.

'No' is enough
Children do not have to give a reason for saying 'no' - though many abusers will try and confuse the child by asking for one. By arming your child with a set of parental rules you could be making life much easier for your child.

Reading signs
Changes in your child's behaviour may be signs of a deeply troubling situation that your child is afraid to tell you about. Pay attention to changes in appetite, bed-wetting, insecurity, nightmares, itching or pain in the genitals. If your child says they do not want to be with someone in particular, ask them why. Do not belittle their fear.

Avoid hiring male baby-sitters. This may seem unfair but 95 per cent of abusers are men. By hiring a female baby-sitter you substantially reduce the risk. Teach your children never to answer the doorbell when alone or say that they are alone if the phone rings.

No secrets
Child abusers known to the child often say a kiss or a touch is 'our secret'. This confuses the child who has been taught to keep secrets. Teach children that some secrets should never be kept, even if they have promised not to tell.

Books on how to talk to children about safety and abuse include: It's OK to say 'No' by Robin Lenett and Bob Crane, Thorsons, 1986; Keeping Safe: A Practical Guide to talking with Children by Michele Elliott, Bedford Square Press 1986; No More Secrets for Me by Oralee Wachter, Penguin. 1986; Who would hurt a child?, Childwatch: BBC TV, 1986.

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