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Sexually Exploited Children in Canada: The Law Is Not on Their Side

A change of attitude, as well as a change of wording, is called for

Hundreds of Canadian children sell sex on major city streets, and studies show that 70 to 80 percent of Canada's adult sex-trade workers begin as children. If Canadians are serious about protecting children, we must change federal laws that are weak and biased against young people caught up in this trade.

Vancouver, British Columbia - which is part of a North American circuit including Los Angeles and Honolulu - has a particularly severe problem. Youth workers estimate that 200 to 300 sexually exploited juveniles work Vancouver streets and are routinely arrested on prostitution-related charges.

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By contrast, only eight charges have been leveled against their adult customers since 1988, according to the police. Court records show that juveniles are charged 59 times more often for selling sex than their predators are for buying it, a statistic that echoes across the country under current Canadian law.

In eight years, only two Vancouver men were convicted under law 212(4), which forbids buying or attempting to buy sex from a minor. The crime is indictable, and a conviction could mean up to a five-year prison term. But police across the country complain that the law is far too difficult to enforce. A recently proposed amendment, which would empower police to pose as minors (thereby increasing the potential for higher conviction rates), is virtually cosmetic because the injustice results from contradictions still written into the federal criminal code.

Equal partners with adults

Though the intent of law 212(4) is to protect children, young prostitutes are routinely arrested under another statute, law 213, which allows them to be viewed as equal partners with adults in a contract for sexual services. Written as it is, this law fails to acknowledge the inherent power imbalance between young and old, big and small, autonomous and desperate. The law is fundamentally flawed, and politicians' attitudes and legal approaches must change - not merely the legal wording.

In Canada, there are no circumstances, other than those written into prostitution law, where the courts recognize a juvenile as capable of entering into a contract. Canadian children cannot get married, get divorced, or buy a home without a legal guardian's consent.

But an adult using money to coerce favors from a juvenile can provide sufficient cause for the child to be arrested. Children are held fully accountable when they "contract" sex for payment, but their clients are not. Vancouver police say that Crown prosecutors insist they will not get convictions unless children testify against their customers.

That men are purchasing sex from minors is obvious to everyone when a child is on a known prostitution stroll, when a steady stream of cars circle around, and when a child gets into a car only to be returned to a prostitution stroll sometime later. Often the vehicle's license number and the customer's description are known. But unless someone actually witnesses the sexual act, charges are not brought. Anyone who witnessed the sexual transaction, however, would be allowing the sexual abuse or rape of a child to proceed.

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Not only are sexually exploited children discriminated against in how the law is applied, they are incriminated by where they are placed in the criminal code. Children who are sexually abused or assaulted by a family member, school teacher, or athletic coach are protected under sexual abuse and sexual assault laws and are viewed as innocent victims. But sexually exploited children on city streets appear to be perceived by the Canadian government as having reduced rights to protection.

This distinction is crucial, because when children are paid by the men who abuse and assault them, they become subject to prostitution law and are formally sexualized and stigmatized. They are no longer viewed as children; instead, they are treated as wanton renegades.

Making things worse, the children who testify against their predators (whom they fear with good reason) must do so without the benefit of collaborating testimony from people who know that they are being exploited in the sex trade. Other child sex abuse and assault victims benefit from supporting testimony from social workers, youth workers, and parents. Sexually exploited children typically bear 100 percent of the evidentiary burden.

The message sent to these children is that they are not worth protecting, respecting, or supporting. That was exacerbated when the federal government considered a law last spring under which Canadians who travel abroad to have sex with children could face charges at home.

A double standard

Thus the man who buys sex in a foreign country from a foreign child could be liable for a prison term of up to 10 years, but if the same man buys sex from a Canadian child he is liable for only a five-year prison term - sending the message that it is more acceptable to buy Canadian children.

Sexually exploited juveniles are also unprotected under British Columbia's provincial child labor laws. The Ministry of Labor says that it cannot protect these children because they do not work for a single employer. They are viewed as freelancers working under contract.

Estimates indicate that 80 to 95 percent of Canada's juvenile sex-trade workers are in flight from sexual abuse that usually began at home. Like their counterparts across the country, Vancouver children now profit from sexual acts that they used to perform at home for free. Money represents power to children who were sexually abused at home and who have always felt powerless.

Sexually exploited children's tragic reality is Canada's untold story. Police and politicians here often use the same illusion to justify their inaction, insisting that most of "these kids" do not want help and keep returning to the streets.

Vancouver-based advocates for sexually exploited juveniles want the Canadian government to take these children out of prostitution law and protect them with sexual abuse and sexual assault law, which would allow them to be backed by our corroborating testimony. Children must be exempt from persecution under law 213. Long-term safe-housing and social services are needed to support these children through the intensive counseling required to heal unresolved family issues and the compounded trauma that characterizes the sex trade.

*Kimberly Daum is a freelance journalist and an advocate for sexually exploited children in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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