Abstract: Most media accounts of child prostitution rely on brief vignettes describing in detail the abuse endured by children who sell sex. In contrast, ethnographic studies look more holistically at these children, discussing their families, their social and economic situation and their lives before, during and after prostitution. This article will compare the various ways of portraying these children, arguing that in focusing so much on selling sex, the children's lives away from prostitution are overlooked.
Child prostitutes are usually portrayed as the most pitiful and victimized of all sex workers. For them, there can be no discussions about force or choice, agency or empowerment; they are simply abused and irrevocably damaged by their experiences. Prostitution steals their childhood, betrays their innocence and ruins the rest of their lives. This overwhelming emphasis on abuse and sexual degradation obscures other equally important aspects of their lives, however, in particular the complex set of familial and social relationships and responsibilities that are often of greater importance to these children than the intermittent sex work they perform. Furthermore, those whom researchers label as "child prostitutes" may themselves only see prostitution as a small, and not particularly important, part of their identity. In this article, I will look at several studies of child prostitution in Thailand, including my own ethnographic work among children who, while admitting to exchanging sex for money and other goods with Western men, utterly rejected the term prostitution and saw themselves primarily as dutiful daughters, sisters and friends.
Discourses and Silences
Concerns about child prostitution in Asia first gained widespread international attention in the early 1990s when it was revealed that Western and Japanese men were traveling to Thailand and the Philippines specifically to buy sex from children. The subsequent international outcry and calls for action were loud and sustained and spawned a number of dedicated non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as governmental and intergovernmental initiatives, set up to combat the problem (Montgomery, 2001a). There quickly became an agreed angle on the story of children who worked as prostitutes and the narratives that were established by the media and campaigning groups tended to follow a reliable pattern of young Thai girls being tricked into leaving home, or sold by impoverished parents into a brothel, where they were repeatedly raped or terrorized into servicing many foreign clients a night, before being rescued by a charitable organization, only to be discovered to be suffering from HIV (Montgomery, 2001a; Murray, 2006). On the few occasions their Western clients were caught, they simply bribed their way out, or jumped bail and left the country (Montgomery, 2010).
There was some evidence for these claims, although systematic investigation was rare (for a notable exception see O'Connell Davidson, 2005). Children were tricked or trafficked from neighboring countries, especially China and Burma, and girls from Thailand's socially and economically marginalized hill tribes were especially vulnerable (Hantrakul, 1983; Asia Watch, 1993; Boonchalaksi and Guest, 1994). Other children were sold or debtbonded by their parents into brothels where they were forced to stay until they had repaid the advances taken out on them (Muecke, 1992; O'Connell Davidson, 2005). The spread of HIV/AIDS was also a serious concern and children, whose bodies were not always able to cope with penetration by adults, were at particular risk of infection through tearing (see Willis & Levy, 2002 for a full discussion of the health risks associated with child prostitution).
It is not surprising that the concept of child prostitution in general, and child sex tourism in particular, provoked a visceral horror. This was reinforced by its iconography: the back view of a small Asian child holding the hand of a much older, larger man; the young girl sitting alone on a chair sobbing to the camera sometimes, although not always, with her face obscured; the group of slim young boys lying on a beach next to a gross Westerner (for a discussion of such images see Suwanmoli, 1998; Montgomery, 2001a; Fordham, 2005; Murray, 2006). …