NZ's underbelly of forced sex trade involves Kiwis as young as 12, researcher says
Girls aged 12 or under are being forced into sex work in New Zealand, according to a Wellington-based researcher.
Natalie Thorburn spoken to dozens of teenaged sex workers for her masters degree in social work at the University of Auckland, and said they told her of their lives on the streets selling sex when they were aged between 12 and 16.
"It was very difficult to hear their stories," said Thorburn, who is working for Women's Refuge while completing a PhD.
The rise of sex trafficking had seen teenagers, and in some cases children, become exploited, she said.
"There is a rising demand for the young, developing adolescent as the ultimate sex object.
"But it's not like there was one club of men going around recruiting girls. It happens in all sorts of situations."
Commonly, victims fell prey to groomers who positioned themselves as a boyfriend, in a situation Thorburn described as the "love illusion".
"They try to get kids onside early, and then slowly exploit them until they are in a position of such force and violence that they felt like they had no choice but to continue.
"So they chose to [continue to have sex] because, if they didn't, they would be beaten or pack raped.
"I mean it's more common than people think because people don't think it happens at all."
In other examples, she said families often endorsed an adult and teenaged sexual relationship to gain a better standing in life.
"Their futures were so bleak, their positions were so hopeless that to meet an older man willing to, I guess, pimp them out but to look after them was deemed as a positive attribute.
"The thought of parents enforcing an adult/child sexual relationship [between] a 13-year-old and 28-year-old was just really kind of mind-boggling."
Thorburn believes there is lack of awareness surrounding labels like forced sex work or sex trafficking.
This leads to an absence of reported incidences, victims not being encouraged to come forward, or investigations by police or state departments.
"And so it really is no wonder it's not getting reported because, when people do go forward, it's classified as something different - family violence or sexual violence.
"I don't have a problem with our legislation, it's solid. Our problem is that we are just not applying it."
Thorburn hopes to see improvements in social work practice, in the health sector, and other agencies of sexual violence that come across victims.
"We need to be asking the right questions and getting the right information."