Numerous New Zealand teenagers between the ages of 12 and 16 are being paid for sex by men who go out specifically look for underage sex workers.
The revelation comes in a report from the agency Child Alert, which aims to stop the sexual exploitation of children.
Their report indicates the practice is relatively widespread, and could just be the tip of the iceberg given the secretive nature of underage sex workers.
Young people interviewed by researcher Natalie Thorburn described what is happening on the streets:
"The girls said to me that they provided a specific client group with services. And that they would have specific parts of the street that were only for the underage people, where the men would target them because they knew that they could perpetrate violent acts that they couldn't, perhaps, on the older workers."
Thorburn said all the young people she spoke to told her they had been abused prior to their involvement in sex work, often to the point of physical injury.
"This was largely normalised within girls' families and immediate networks. Moreover, the practice of trading sex for material goods, money, or safety was regarded among this group as a common practice from the age of 12, indicating an underlying social norm sanctioning the use of girls' bodies for transactional purposes," she said.
"Teens' decisions to sell sex are consequently driven by the complex interplay between their need to procure essentials such as food and clothes, internalised ideas about what it means to be female, and the need to pursue lifestyles that enable them to silence their trauma-related symptoms of distress."
While some of the girls interviewed stated that their involvement in sex work had been a choice they had made for themselves, they also acknowledged financial deprivation and psychological distress had an influence.
Most described feelings of depression and anxiety, often accompanied by symptoms of post-traumatic stress, something Thorburn said is hardly surprising given the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse most had been subjected to since early childhood. “They associate the feelings and behaviours stemming from this abuse with their need to take drugs, primarily methamphetamine, because it masks feelings of distress and shame and provides alternative social connections."
Thorburn believes many had actually sought help, and been greeted with disinterest or shaming. "They felt like the people who they were seeing in professional services, whether that was Child, Youth and Family or community agencies, that they didn't really care about them. And that they didn't want to hear their stories. And so they shut off and refused to speak about their stories."
While adult prostitution was decriminalised by the Prostitution Reform Act, payment for sexual services from a child or young person under the age of 18 remains illegal.
Natalie Thorburn says there are many possible levels of prevention and intervention that simply are not happening. "Obviously the most immediate issue would be whether or not police are out there looking and charging the people who are committing the crimes by hiring sexual services from underage girls.
"But more than that we need to look at the overarching factors that enable this to be perpetuated. Things like gender inequality and economic inequality - and also the fact that there is no community awareness, and no real awareness among agencies and professionals either."
ECPAT is calling for individuals, agencies, and communities to educate themselves about the nature of child abuse and underage sex work, and proactively support vulnerable children and teenagers.