by Lydia Swiatkowska

On March 8, 2018 at Dalhousie University, CCEPA co-hosted a public forum called “Nowhere to go: A public dialogue on youth and sexual exploitation, ” along with the MacEachen Institute, the Healthy Populations Institute, the Gender and Health Promotion Studies Unit, Health and Human Performance, and the Faculty of Health at Dalhousie University.

The motivation behind “Nowhere to go” was the reality that youth between the ages of 16 and 18 who face sexual exploitation currently have limited access to crucial support and resources

It was organized by Dr. Jacqueline Gahagan with the Stepping Stone Association, a non-profit organization committed to supporting and outreach services for street-based sex workers. The goal was to foster discussion, address misconceptions, and explore potential solutions to some of the issues faced by individuals impacted by the sex trade.

The motivation behind “Nowhere to go” was the reality that youth between the ages of 16 and 18 who face sexual exploitation currently have limited access to crucial support and resources. This issue raises numerous ethical questions about the experiences of youth in the sex trade and the lack of support for vulnerable populations. From an ethical standpoint, it is worth asking: What does this issue say about the moral failings of our society, and what potential solutions could be used to address this failing?

Moderating the panel discussion was Kelly Toughill, an award-winning journalist and journalism educator at the University of Kings College. Panellists included Charlene Gagnon of YWCA Halifax, First Voice presenter Dametre Peverill, Wanda Taylor from Stepping Stone, and Denise One Breath Mitchell (John), who works in victim support at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre. Words of welcome and an opening prayer were offered by Elder Geri Musqua-LeBlanc.

Dr. Lauren Casey, co-principal investigator of a national research initiative “The Ethics Project”, was the evening’s keynote speaker. In her presentation, she focused on how language can create stigma towards individuals facing exploitation generally, highlighting media treatment of those involved in the sex trade. She questioned the ethics of using derogatory and dehumanizing terminology to refer to those in the sex trade and noted its impact on the perpetuation of stigma and its implications for those seeking justice. Casey also touched on the injustice of punishing victims more stringently than perpetrators and discussed briefly how power and race play into systems of exploitation and sympathetic treatment of offenders.

This train of thought was echoed by Denise One Breath Mitchell (John), who spoke to the notion that women and girls are often seen as disposable and are unfairly treated within the justice system. Young girls from minority communities are often more vulnerable due to distrust of police and other systemic factors that make them more susceptible to sexual exploitation. Wanda Taylor also touched on the importance of stigma, and Demetre Peverill shared her own lived experience in sex work to illustrate the lack of access to necessary services and discussed how important it is to focus the voices of survivors in pursuing empowering solutions. She highlighted that when she was in the sex trade she felt there were few supports in place to help her. Panelist Charlene Gagnon cited a lack of data and insufficient police training as two key obstacles to adequately addressing the crisis of youth sexual exploitation. Institutional and systemic challenges, such as questions of jurisdiction, make it difficult to properly track the phenomenon. Gagnon also addressed the misconception that victims of sexual exploitation who engage in peer recruiting are not victims themselves. Further, she noted the need to better understand who perpetrates human trafficking, explaining that in fact more women than men are charged with the crime.

The discussion impressed a sense of urgency about the ‘silent emergency’ of youth sex trafficking.

While each of the panellists came from different perspectives and different backgrounds, many offered similar insights with regard to potential solutions and ways of addressing the problem of youth sex trafficking. Dr. Casey advocated a widespread, harm-reduction approach inclusive of the justice, public health, research, and social services sectors. She also suggested an increased focus on tackling the demand for sexual services that feeds such exploitation. Wanda Taylor advocated direct consultation with youth to determine their specific needs and recommended we educate ourselves about current policies as an important step to address what is lacking. Demetre Peverill spoke more broadly of the need to ensure that support for victims is in place, including viable employment options for exploited youth looking to exit the sex trade.

Throughout the course of the evening, numerous ethical issues were raised touching on racism, institutional apathy, gender-based violence, injustice in the legal system, insensitive media reporting, and stigma. During the question period of the evening members of the audience engaged with the issue and offered their own suggestions about how to better protect young people from sexual exploitation. The discussion impressed a sense of urgency about the ‘silent emergency’ of youth sex trafficking and highlighted the importance of more education in schools as a means to addressing this harmful phenomenon.

Lydia Swiatkowska studies Political Science at Dalhousie University. She interned at the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs in 2018.