Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Six: Youth Sex Workers on the U.S.-Mexico Border1

Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Six: Youth Sex Workers on the U.S.-Mexico Border1

Article excerpt

Abstract: The everyday lives of youth sex workers remain largely ignored in global debates about the impact of criminalization and policing on sex workers. Youth sex workers are often portrayed as victims of commercial child sexual exploitation, with little acknowledgement of their everyday worlds. Using data from a mixed method study with youth and adult sex workers in Tijuana, this paper will explore the occupational experiences of youth sex workers within a social context where many adult sex workers have obtained a quasi-legal status, as well as the consequences of age status with respect to occupational risks and hazards.


Roberto, age 15, has been crossing the border between the U.S. and Mexico on his own since he was seven years old. Although he used to run across, en masse, with other youth seeking entry to the U.S., tightened border restrictions have made this impossible. Now, he usually offers sex to a coyote (smuggler) in exchange for help crossing into California. He has lost count of the number of times he has been deported. When he gets deported, he is left at the border terminal in Tijuana, usually with no money for food or a place to sleep. He travels extensively; he says the men like to have sex with new boys they haven't seen before. When it's cold outside, he likes to be in the U.S., where he can find shelter and free food more easily. Roberto is proud that he doesn't steal or hurt others in order to survive on the streets. At age 15, he sees himself as a role-model for other street kids who have less experience. When asked what it was like when he first engaged in commercial sex, Roberto responded:

[I started] because of need, hunger. First it was for food, then money, later purely for drugs. More for drugs than money. I was seven years old when I started. I slept outside of churches, drunks would arrive to sleep there, first they sought me out and later I sought them out. In cities where there was no gay cruising (ambiente) I started it. I told them this was how you made easy money. I did not steal. I told them, "Give pleasure and charge for it".

Similarly, in describing their entry into commercial sex activities, fourteen year old Juan and seventeen year old Rico stated the following:

The first time it was to try what it felt like and to see if I could earn money that way. It was at the home of someone I knew who had offered me money for sex. He gave me 20 dollars for almost an hour. Later I tried to get more from them. I would play the fool until they offered me more and then I would go [with them] (Juan).

I was on the streets. I was fifteen and I had sex with a 27- year-old man who was a neighbor and we went to the hill3 the first time. Later I needed money and I started to ask him [for it]. Then later I had sex with other people and I would charge them (Rico).

Like other Mexican youth living in poverty in the border region, youth sex workers4 navigate a host of general health risks, such as malnutrition, contaminated water, tuberculosis, industrial pollutants and toxins, accidents, lack of shelter, and violence. Those who utilize sex work as a strategy to eventually escape these circumstances also face the occupational hazards brought by sex work itself, such as increased exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), client violence, social ostracism, and increased use of alcohol and drugs as a way to cope with their particular circumstances. However, if one simply takes into account the brief narratives described above, it is clear that these youth are active agents who, despite their limited circumstances, engage in potentially risky commercial sex exchange (as well as survival sex), as a way to exert some small amount of control over their personal circumstances, as well as meet their basic needs. Absent in these narratives are any notion of themselves as a victim, a stark contrast to the way that youth are portrayed in media accounts of child prostitution. …

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