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Saturday, November 22, 2008

World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse was last week. Do you know where your neighbourhood drug dealer is? Neither do I, but it might not matter

Is the drug war putting children and young people at risk of sexual abuse? That’s the case I was trying to make as the international community gathered in Brazil last week to fight the problem of child and youth sexual exploitation. The story came to my attention through an email from the Canadian Red Cross. The organization was urging Canadians to mark the occasion of World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse by increasing their knowledge and awareness of the abuse and exploitation of young people in our own communities.

“The sexual exploitation of young people is both a global and a local issue that concerns us all,” said Sylvia Hawkins, RespectED violence and abuse prevention coordinator for the Canadian Red Cross.

“Children and youth should never be for sale. No child, in [Alberta] or anywhere else in the world, should have to pay for shelter, food or transportation with sex, or be forced to engage in sexual activity against their will – whether through physical force or through manipulation. But it happens every day in our communities,” said Hawkins. “Young people need to know that they have a right to control their own bodies, that abuse is always wrong and never their fault, and that there are ways they can ask for help.”

The Red Cross is doing important work in this area, and no doubt so are the professionals from across the globe who attended the event in Brazil. It’s hard to conceive of a crime more vile than child sexual abuse. But as a libertarian, I’m always on the lookout for public policy failures that make serious social problems worse. In that vein I asked myself: Are the professionals committed to eliminating child and youth sexual exploitation giving short thrift to a policy failure that might be putting children and youth at risk – the war on drugs?

The Canadian Red Cross fact sheet on sexual exploitation only hints at the relationship between elicit drugs and child and youth exploitation:

In most cases, sexually exploited youth end up trapped, with no economic choices. Once you start selling sex for money, drugs or anything else, it’s very difficult to get free of that lifestyle – especially because those who are benefiting from your exploitation won’t want to release you.  As time goes on, you will have fewer choices, and could be exposed to increased levels of violence. Affection and understanding could turn to threats and control. 

Selling sex for drugs? As a critic of the drug war, this got my attention. Here's my initial reaction:

If drug prohibition increases the cost of drugs beyond the financial reach of most law-abiding young people, which it does, young addicts will likely turn to crime to pay for their addictions, which they do. (It’s hard to pay for a serious drug habit with an after-school job at McDonald's after all.) Young men turn to property crime and young women turn to prostitution, I posited. This situation would presumably make it profitable for an enterprising pimp to provide drugs to young girls at no cost with the hopes that they might become addicted and then vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Hence, drug prohibition puts young people, particularly young women, at risk.

With this powerful conclusion in mind, I contacted drug policy reformers whom I thought would quickly confirm my worst fears. But it didn’t happen.

Peter Christ with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition didn’t think the connection between youth sexual exploitation and the drug war was clear enough from his 20 years of law enforcement experience. We spoke for almost an hour about his career and his passion for drug policy reform, but in the end I didn’t get the quote I was looking for.

I went next to the people with the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy. The people I contacted got back to me quickly and did their best to help with the story, but ultimately nothing came of it. Professor Bruce Alexander, for example, thought the connection I was making between drug prohibition and sexual exploitation was essentially correct, but that since he wasn’t familiar with the relevant literature he’d pass on the interview. He instead recommended Dr. Susan Boyd at the University of Victoria.

Professor Boyd is a serious drug policy researcher, but even she was not prepared to confirm the connection I was trying to make as she hadn’t seen any research in the area.

By this time, I was discouraged. I had already written the final paragraph of my story in anticipation of on-the-record, third party confirmations of my premise:

“For the sake of the children” is a mantra of big government advocates everywhere and used in almost every instance of interventionism, and no more prevalent is this sentiment than in the hearts and minds of those who advocate a perpetual, violent civil war in Canadian neighbourhoods to eradicate prohibited drugs. Little do these well-meaning armchair drug warriors know that their war is creating the conditions for exploitation of the children they profess to love.

But rather then abandon this story and move on, I thought I could salvage it with some thoughts about what I’ve learned from this experience.

First, the relationship between the sexual exploitation of young people and drug prohibition may not be as strong as I thought. Or at the very least, there appears to be little supporting research for my intuition.

Second, it’s not good practice to head into a story with preconceived notions or an agenda. While the Western Standard doesn’t hide from its libertarian bias, not all social problems can be blamed on the state, it would seem, even if the state is almost always to blame for making things worse.

Third, good academics are often reluctant to talk about things they don’t know much about. Media-types don't feel the same compunction.

Fourth and finally, even if you don’t get your story, you can always turn your work into a blog post.

Posted by Matthew Johnston

Posted by westernstandard on November 22, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Thanks for the article Matthew. I find it quite amazing how many people don't want to comment on the the issues of child abuse. Am I crazy to think that maybe this issue should be top priority for Governments across the world?

Posted by: glen | 2008-11-23 10:22:51 AM

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