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My Take

Adolescent Sexual Exploitation: New Keys for Prevention

Pamela Anderson, PhD

Those of us at ETR who work in the area of sexual and reproductive health agree that healthy sexual development is an issue of human rights, and that coercion-free, violence-free relationships are essential to healthy sexuality. For over 30 years, we’ve pursued research that helps us better understand what promotes sexual health, as well as what interferes with it.

In recent years, our research has led us to bring more emphasis to the context in which sexual risk behaviors may occur among youth, particularly with respect to the importance of romantic relationships.

Using a Relationship Framework

Many current evidence-based HIV/STI and pregnancy prevention programs use an individual paradigm rather than a relationships perspective to teach content and skills. However, when we use a relationship-based framework, we’re able to support a broader constellation of content and skills, such as negotiating boundaries within a relationship, exploring intimacy without having sex, expressing affection and resolving conflict peacefully.

Vulnerable Youth and Sexual Exploitation

In 2006, while working on a large HIV/STI intervention study in urban alternative high schools, we learned about a phenomenon school-based personnel were calling “tennis shoe pimping.” We successfully secured a small supplemental grant to explore what we came to understand as peer-to-peer exploitation—a phenomenon that usually involved adolescent males and females.

In these scenarios, young women became romantically involved with young men they viewed as their boyfriends. After a period of time, the women were asked to provide sexual favors to other males as a way to help their boyfriends get money. These young women usually didn’t consider themselves victims, because they didn’t view their relationships as unhealthy. They often assumed they were involved in a consensual relationship and were doing a favor to contribute financially to that relationship.

Young people who are sexually exploited are often coerced into the behaviors by someone they care about. Historically, we’ve seen more of this exploitation carried out by older males who use power in relationships to control vulnerable young women. These women frequently encounter extreme difficulty (e.g., escalating violence and/or intimidation) if they try to end the relationships or get away from their pimps. This dynamic appeared to hold true in our peer-to-peer study population as well.

Promoting Sexual Health

We believe, and have some very preliminary data to support, that bringing the context of relationships into the discussion of sexual risk behaviors has the potential to make a difference for youth. By changing the focus from an individual to a relationship perspective, we contextualize the learning in a way that makes sense to students. This strengthens their ability to access and use the learning. Among the broader array of risk factors addressed is the very essential element of power in relationships—a pivotal component in human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of youth, including peer-to-peer exploitation.

Young people sometimes know more about these issues than we realize. In one of the focus groups we conducted for our study, we asked, “What are some of the things you might see in a relationship that’s not healthy?” The youth spoke candidly, and when one responded, “You mean like when a boyfriend is turning his girlfriend out?” (i.e., when he is pimping her), the majority of the group had either first- or secondhand knowledge of this occurring among their peers.

To date, school-based prevention efforts that focus on identifying and bringing awareness to the issue of sexually exploitative relationships are rare. We recommend additional steps that can help prevent the exploitation of youth, including:

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  • Building greater awareness of the issue within schools/communities and among parents/guardians and health care providers.
  • Providing education and training for youth about the prevention of sexual exploitation. This might include helping young people:
    • Identify healthy and unhealthy elements of relationships.
    • Identify signs and situations that may place them at risk for sexual exploitation.
    • Identify recruitment tactics used by pimps.
    • Identify resources where they can get support and help if they are concerned about exploitation in their own or friends’ lives.

To Learn More

We’ve recently written a paper about this study on peer-to-peer sexual exploitation within an urban school setting. The results will be published in an upcoming issue of The Journal of Primary Prevention, which will be announced in this newsletter.

Pamela Anderson, PhD, is a senior research associate at ETR. You can reach her at pamelaa@etr.org.