The Canadian Criminal Justice Association
CJCCJ/Volume 64.3 (2022)
Sex industry slavery: Protecting Canada’s youth
By Robert Chrismas
Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2020. 277 p.
Robert Chrismas’ Sex Industry Slavery: Protecting Canada’s Youth offers a unique contribution to the existing adolescent sexual exploitation and human trafficking discourse by presenting the author’s practical solution-based research using a comprehensive qualitative approach. Whereas much of the available youth sex trafficking research focuses on gathering headcounts of victims and providing ‘shock and awe’ estimates of the financial lucrativeness of the industry, Chrismas’ book helps to fill the persistent gap in effective responses to adolescent sex trafficking with first-hand perspectives of young sex trafficking survivors and the frontline service providers that are dedicated to helping them. The voice of each expert is qualitatively woven among the existing literature on this issue to answer Chrismas’ central thesis question: what can we learn from those working on the issue of youth sexual exploitation and from those most affected by it?
Although it is not explicitly organized using the United Nations’ “4Ps” pillars (i.e., prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership), Sex Industry Slavery achieves its purpose by compiling the collective knowledge of youth sex trafficking victims, law enforcement, social workers, policymakers, and other advocates to address challenges across the entire 4Ps continuum. From identifying at-risk and vulnerable youth to extricating youth who are entrenched in a life of sexual exploitation, to prosecuting traffickers and bolstering comprehensive aftercare supports for survivors, the book provides practical solutions for governments, law enforcement, and frontline service providers working to address this issue. Importantly, Chrismas does this by highlighting the narratives and insights of his research participants to offer a data storytelling approach to the practical solutions offered throughout.
Chrismas’ introduction positions child and youth sex trafficking in the larger sphere of various interrelated social and justice issues, including child maltreatment, child sexual abuse, social disparity, marginalization, prostitution, organized crime, and basic human rights. This is important as child and sex trafficking is a complex issue that has roots in all these issues. The author provides an in-depth discussion about the vulnerability of children that are victims of child abuse early in life, along with how social disparity, opportunistic exploiters, legislative shortcomings, and ongoing debates about victimization and agency in the sex industry continue to perpetuate opportunities for children and youth to be sexually exploited in Canada.
Leveraging these points, Chrismas’ book spans several important topics on youth sex trafficking in Canada, including the unique vulnerabilities and experiences of Indigenous women and girls, the strengths and weaknesses of Canada’s anti-trafficking legislation, escaping the grip of entrenchment in the lifestyle of youth sexual exploitation, and recommendations for next steps at the government and community levels to effectively prevent youth exploitation, protect survivors, prosecute exploiters, and remove barriers to service through strategic interagency partnerships. These themes already comprise a sizable portion of the larger body of human trafficking discourse, however, Sex Industry
Slavery can provide a fresh, Canadian-centered, problem-solving perspective that is often missing from academic research on youth sexual exploitation. For example, much of the American literature on youth sex trafficking addresses the ongoing criminalization of young victims across the country. Many local and state government bodies, child protection ministries, and law enforcement agencies have only recently shifted their perspective on youth sexual exploitation away from the view that these youth are ‘juvenile prostitutes’ that should be criminalized, toward the understanding that sexually exploited youth are victims of abuse. Consequently, systems have been slow to respond to youth sexual exploitation. In Canada, however, child and youth sexual exploitation has been treated as a form of child abuse for nearly two decades, and so the need to advocate for these youth as victims is unnecessary. What Canada needs – and what Chrismas argues throughout Sex Industry Slavery – is to let the voices of experts and individuals with lived experience inform the development and implementation of a well-overdue action plan.
Sex Industry Slavery contributes to the larger body of human trafficking scholarship with its emphasis on the inclusion of stories and insights from survivors and other subject matter experts. As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said: “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity” (Adichie, 2009). Through interviews with over sixty survivors of youth sex trafficking, Chrismas shares their raw and poignant stories, which serve to reiterate just how devastating and traumatizing sexual exploitation is for an individual.
These stories are critical to the discourse on youth sex trafficking as the available data both nationally and internationally on this issue does not adequately communicate the devastating impact on these youth, nor is it enough to solely serve as a catalyst for change among governments and systems. It often simply serves to inform rather than compel.
Chrismas’ research highlights the importance of telling the story behind the data to effect change. For example, a consistent underlying theme throughout Sex Industry
Slavery is that many survivors could have been protected from exploitation or saved from it much earlier if people or agencies knew what to look for and were able to respond. As Chrismas points out, “some survivors told gripping stories about how they could have been saved from trafficking and exploitation if someone in their care circle had recognized the signs and known how to intervene” (p. 124). Paying particular attention to the narratives of survivors is important, especially considering the persistent challenge of gathering accurate and reliable quantitative data that plagues research on human trafficking.
In addition to presenting survivor stories and insights to better understand and address youth sexual exploitation, Chrismas spends a considerable amount of time advocating for urgent action. He does not merely share survivor stories and insights from experts and practitioners as a way of lamenting all the challenges around addressing youth sex trafficking; instead, he compiles these perspectives into a full chapter of key findings and recommendations for responses that will lead to tangible impacts in the areas of prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership. With a focus on community-based, multidisciplinary approaches to youth sex trafficking, Chrismas provides his reader with a comprehensive roadmap for change that includes calls for increased funding, improved access to treatment and aftercare supports for survivors, increased law enforcement capacity to investigate and charge exploiters, strengthened community collaboration and partnership, and enhanced education, training, and awareness across sectors and stakeholder groups. Although Chrismas’ findings and recommendations do not deviate from much of the existing research on youth sexual exploitation, his research adds significant value to the growing – albeit slowly – body of Canadian literature.
Sex Industry Slavery is a worthwhile read for students, law enforcement officers, child protection workers, human trafficking advocates, policy makers, and any other stakeholder with an interest in understanding how to better respond to youth sexual exploitation. Anyone, regardless of their existing experience and expertise on human trafficking, can acquire new knowledge from the insights provided through Chrismas’ research.
CRYSTAL HINCKS (MA) FOURTEEN FIELDS INC. PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR (CALGARY, AB)