The current wave of interest in human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children has exposed a lack of knowledge about the vulnerabilities leading to underage entry into sex work. This knowledge is necessary for the development of effective prevention programs to identify girls who are most at-risk, especially in Latin America, a region that is believed to be a large source of persons moved across international borders for the purposes of sexual and labor exploitation. The objective of this study was to explore and increase understanding of the vulnerability factors and pathways leading to underage entry into sex work experienced by women currently engaging in sex work in two cities on the northern border of Mexico. From August 2013 to October 2014, 20 female sex workers (FSWs) with a history of entry into sex work prior to age 18 were recruited for in-depth interviews from a larger time-location sample of female sex workers (FSWs) participating in a quantitative survey in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. The median age of entry into sex work was 14 (range 10-17); 12/21 participants reported being forced into sex work and, of these, 7 were transported to another city where they began engaging in sex work. Family dysfunction (e.g., domestic violence between parents, parent drug use, neglect, etc.), sexual and physical abuse, and teen pregnancy were among the key themes that emerged as vulnerabilities to underage entry into sex work. Women’s narratives clearly illustrated that the vulnerabilities and pathways leading to underage entry are manifold, complex, and often intersect with each other. Our findings begin to lay the groundwork for understanding the potential vulnerabilities and pathways leading to underage entry into sex, and may have relevance to Latin America in general. This study also provides a foundation for further research to explore what may mitigate these vulnerabilities as well as creating evidence-based interventions to prevent commercial sexual exploitation of minors in the region.
Key Take Away Points
- This study aimed to explore and understand the vulnerability factors and pathways leading to entry to sex work experienced by women who entered sex work underage in two Mexican - U.S border cities.
- Women entered sex work at a very young age (median: 14 years of age; range 11-17) and over half of the participants (12/20) reported being forced or coerced into sex work. Family dysfunction (i.e., domestic violence among parents, parent drug use, and neglect), physical and sexual abuse, and teen pregnancy were among the key emerging themes found to perpetuate vulnerability to underage entry in these two U.S.-Mexico border cities. Some of these findings complement prior work conducted in other regions, indicating experiences young exposure to sexual and physical abuse and running away as an adolescent are primary risks for the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
- However, women’s narratives also illustrate that the vulnerabilities and pathways leading to underage entry are manifold, complex, and often intersect with each other. The combination or junction of vulnerabilities creates a risk that develops into a pathway to underage entry. For example, among our participants, teen pregnancy lead to abandonment by their family or partner, resulting in homelessness, lacking social and economic support, leading the pathway to their subsequent entry.
- This study lays the foundation for a wide array of further research to explore these and additional vulnerabilities and pathways leading to underage entry, as well as efforts to provide services to better understand the needs of this vulnerable population throughout Latin America and other developing countries
Argentina E. Servin, MD, MPH is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Division of Global Public Health (GPH) in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). She is a bilingual clinician-researcher who has focused her research on sex-trafficking, HIV prevention and reproductive health needs among vulnerable underserved women in the US - Mexico border region. Kimberly C. Brouwer, PhD is an Associate Professor at the Division of GPH at UCSD. Her research is focused on exploring the social and environmental factors affecting HIV disease transmission and risk behaviors in Mexico. Leah Gordon, MPH is a bilingual Project Coordinator with the Center on Gender Equity and Health (GEH) at UCSD. She has worked on various domestic and international research projects on sex-trafficking, gender-based violence and HIV risk among vulnerable populations in Latin America. Teresita Rocha-Jimenez, MA is a PhD student in Global Public Health at UCSD. She has worked in various research projects focused on HIV prevention with underserved marginalized populations such as migrants, FSWs, and people who inject drugs (PWID) throughout Latin America. Hugo Staines, MD is the Director of the Municipal Health Services of Ciudad Juarez. Over the past decade he has conducted research focused on HIV prevention among vulnerable underserved populations including FSW’s and PWID in Mexico. Ricardo B. Vera-Monroy, BA is a bilingual border project outreach assistant with the GEH at UCSD, where he has worked in various research projects focused on HIV prevention with underserved marginalized populations such as youth-at-risk and FSWs. Steffanie A. Strathdee, PhD is the Associate Dean of Global Health Sciences, Harold Simon Professor and Chief of the Division of GPH in the School of Medicine at UCSD. She has spent the last two decades focusing on HIV prevention in underserved, marginalized populations in developed and developing countries, including PWID, FSW’s and men having sex with men (MSM). Jay G. Silverman, PhD, is Director of Research for the GEH at UCSD. He is a leading global researcher on understanding and preventing gender-based violence against adolescent and adult women. He has lead groundbreaking studies of sex trafficking in South and Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
The authors would like to extend a special gratitude to the women in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico who participated in this study for their trust and sincerity in making this work possible. The authors also gratefully acknowledge the entire multidisciplinary binational research team involved in this project as well as the contributions of the staff members at Prevencasita A.C., Federación Mexicana de Asociaciones Privadas (FEMAP) and Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juarez (UACJ) for assistance with data collection.
Servin, Argentina E.; Kimberly C. Brouwer; Leah Gordon; Teresita Rocha-Jimenez; Hugo Staines; Ricardo B. Vera-Monroy; Steffanie A. Strathdee; and Jay G. Silverman
"Vulnerability Factors and Pathways Leading to Underage Entry into Sex Work in two Mexican-US Border Cities,"
Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk: Vol. 6:
1, Article 3.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.library.tmc.edu/childrenatrisk/vol6/iss1/3