Gender, rights and responsibilities: The need for a global analysis of the sexual exploitation of boys

Gender, rights and responsibilities: The need for a global analysis of the sexual exploitation of boys

Gender, rights and responsibilities: The need for a global analysis of the sexual exploitation of boys


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child confirmed child and youth rights globally. Their right to participation is a critical driver for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Youth prioritize the need to end violence against them, charging adults with safeguarding, and identify gender inequality as an underlying cause of child sexual exploitation (CSE). SDG 5 includes targets for ending sexual exploitation of girls; however, it is critical to review whether we are supporting both boys and girls adequately. Based on recent research, it is clear that male victims of CSE are prevalent, yet they have been relatively excluded in policy, research, and interventions. The aim is not to minimize the importance of understanding and eliminating CSE of girls, but to acknowledge that vulnerable sub-groups of boys exist in community (street-connected boys, refugees, sexual minorities) and service systems (justice, child welfare, humanitarian aid). Gender-based challenges persist in protection, disclosure, help-seeking, professional recognition, programming and prevention. In this discussion article, we outline responsibilities in human rights law to understand and address boys’ CSE and overview key literature on its impact on boys. It is argued that gender-, trauma-, and violence-informed approaches are expanded to address the contribution of harmful gender norms, and to target prevention in the adolescent years for sexually transmitted infections, mental health, and substance abuse and violence problems. This discussion advances a pressing need for a global analysis of CSE among boys.


Major progress has been seen in achieving children’s rights since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC; UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989) was developed, and has been almost universally ratified. The UNCRC represents an international treaty, and momentum, for the best interests of the child. The United Nations’ Secretary-General Guterres, notes that 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the UNCRC; further, he personalizes the promise to maltreated children: “I have been haunted by my many encounters with children scarred by unspeakable acts of violence, enduring traumatic experiences of neglect, sexual abuse and exploitation, and often stigmatized by their own communities” (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children, 2019, p. 7).

A childhood free from violence, especially sexual violence, is in the best interests of infants, children and adolescents. Sexual violence victimization of children and adolescent minors is not only sexual and physical exploitation, but also exploitation of their environmental instability, dependency status, developing cognition and emotionality, and relational immaturity. The UNCRC has developed a foundational legal framework concerning child sexual exploitation (CSE), which was completed with the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (2000), ratified by 176 State Parties United Nations Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General, United Nations, New York (ST/LEG/SER.E) (2019). Particularly, Article 34 of the UNCRC requires that State Parties protect children from “all forms of sexual exploitation” (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989). It explicitly outlines that State Parties must prevent: 1) the coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity; 2) the exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices; and 3) the exploitative use of children in pornography. Similarly, Article 19 provides that State Parties must undertake legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of violence including exploitation and sexual abuse. It adds that they must set up effective procedures to establish social programs ensuring the support, prevention, identification, reporting, investigation, treatment and follow-up of violence against children. Additionally, under Article 39, it provides that State Parties have the duty to enable the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of victims of CSE in an environment fostering their health, self-respect and dignity. Although the UNCRC uses a gender-neutral language, Article 2 stipulates that children should not experience discrimination based on their ‘sex’.

Currently, there is no consistently utilized definition of CSE and some commonly used terminology is problematic. The term “child prostitution” does not centralize the child or adolescent as a victim by failing to capture the child’s incapability to exercise agency in engaging in remunerated sexual activities (Interagency Working Group on Sexual Exploitation of Children, 2016). Similarly, the term “child pornography”, which depicts a recognized form of CSE, is troublesome because “pornography” primarily refers to sexualized materials involving consenting adults which often are disseminated legally. Therefore, use of the term “can be misleading and insinuate that a child could consent to such practices” (OPSC, 2019, p.3). However, these terms are gradually being replaced. “CSE/CSA materials”, are terms that emphasize the exploitative and illegal character of sexualized materials representing children. Recently, the Guidelines regarding the implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (2019) explicitly recommended that states avoid the use of the terms “child prostitution” and “child pornography”.

CSE is carefully defined in the Terminology Guidelines for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (Interagency Working Group on Sexual Exploitation of Children, 2016). The sexual exploitation of children is defined in terms of a minor taking part in a sexual activity in exchange for something from a perpetrator or third party (e.g., gain or benefit, the promise of such, or simply the avoidance of harm). For example, youth may be exploited by recruiters or find themselves in exploitative contexts for survival where no or few options exist. It is important to note that CSE occurs even when the victim appears to ‘consent’. However, the link between power in relation to sexual abuse, and consent should be taken into account, in order to understand that a child’s submission to sexual exploitation is not an indication of willingness (Buchhandler-Raphael, 2010). Indeed, consent requires that there are other meaningful choices, the capacity to make a choice, and that the child is not under other influences, or fearful of what might happen if they do not comply. CSE cannot be considered as consensual because the perpetrator takes advantage of existing imbalances of power to prompt the child’s acquiescence to their sexual demands. Thus, if the child is not able to refuse to engage in sexual activities, due to their economic, social or psychological situation, or even simply age difference, this increases the perpetrator’s ability to exploit the child. Abuse of power includes manipulation to accept tangibles (money, mobile phone, food, shelter, substances, treats) and intangibles (protection from other harms to self or others, perceived receipt of attention or affection; Interagency Working Group on Sexual Exploitation of Children, 2016). Child sexual abuse (CSA) is an umbrella term covering the involvement of a child in contact or non-contact sexual activities that he or she has been coerced into, does not fully comprehend and is unable to give consent to (Interagency Working Group on Sexual Exploitation of Children, 2016; World Health Organization, 2006). The distinction between CSA and CSE lies in the underlying notion of exchange that is central to CSE but is not present in all forms of CSA. Yet there is a close relationship between the two concepts. For instance, CSA is the most common risk factor for CSE (Ahrens, Katon, McCarty, Richardson, & Courtney, 2012). For the purposes of this article, we will focus on CSE research, and reference CSA work where boys’ CSE research is lacking, as well as note when the CSA definition has also included CSE.

While the humanistic cost to children is expansive, as a public health crisis, a recent costing study also points to the problem’s sizeable socioeconomic drain. Including CSE in their definition of CSA, Letourneau, Brown, Fang, Hassan, and Mercy (2018) derived costs from lost productivity, violence/crime, suicidality, and service systems, and estimated the U.S. lifetime economic impact at about $11 billion annually. Hankivsky and Draker (2003) placed the annual cost in Canada at about $3.7 billion. Beyond Western countries, sexual violence against children contributes significantly to the global health burden, and more keenly so in low- and middle-income countries (Moynihan et al., 2018; World Health Organization, 2009). This could be playing out in particular ways with boys. For example, with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa, global rates of new HIV infection are higher in males (World Health Organization, 2019). Maltreated males, as compared to their female counterparts, may have greater sexual health risk, as they are younger at first consensual intercourse, younger at first pregnancy involvement, and have a higher number of lifetime sexual partners (Negriff, Schneiderman, & Trickett, 2015). Adolescent males reporting CSA experiences have been shown to also be more likely to have sex for peer and partner approval, as well as for coping with negative affect, as compared to their maltreated, but non-CSA, male counterparts (Wekerle, Goldstein, Tanaka, & Tonmyr, 2017). As CSA is predictive of CSE, there may be a cascade in poor sexual health outcomes owing from a variety of factors.

Since the release of the 2006 World Report on Violence Against Children (Pinheiro, 2006), the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children was launched in 2016 to accelerate progress on the 2030 SDGs for ending violence (16.2), putting a spotlight on institutional responses and responsible adult actors. Also, inter-relatedness of the SDGs (gender inequity, violence, youth participation, education, health and wellbeing) asks us to consider gender equity alongside ending violence, and to be inclusive of diverse youth voices and systems of service. The 2030 SDGs target 5.2, addressing sexual exploitation, applies a gender lens, but only for females, even though there is a pledge that no child will be left behind (United Nations, 2015).

While international agreements such as the UNCRC, the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (2007), and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) have addressed CSE through a gender-neutral perspective, sexual exploitation of girls tends to be the dominant focus (Greenbaum, Crawford-Jakubiak, & Committee on Child Abuse & Neglect, 2015; Ricardo & Barker, 2008). While girls are victimized at higher rates in many contexts (e.g., child marriage), boy victims are also present in these contexts (Gastón, Misunas, & Cappa, 2019). Boys may be as or more vulnerable than girls in some contexts, as a recent study on urban boys has suggested (Boyer et al., 2017). Boys and girls are clearly victimized within communities (homeless, sports, faith-based organizations), service systems (justice, child welfare, alternative care settings), and humanitarian contexts (conflict, refugees). Unfortunately, gender-based violence initiatives with a special focus on the sexual exploitation of boys are rarely advanced, in spite of the limited available evidence suggesting that boys are more widely impacted than previously understood (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children, 2019). Despite some signs of growing awareness, the impact on boys continues to be seriously under-researched, unrecognized in relevant legislation and policy and, thereby, potentially undetected and unaddressed (Greenbaum et al., 2015; Moynihan et al., 2018; Wekerle et al., 2017).

The aim of this discussion article is not to minimize the importance of examining the sexual exploitation of girls, but rather, it seeks to complement that work with a specific agenda addressing gaps in our understanding of boys’ CSE. The published literature on boy’s CSE has been scant given the scope of the issue. This article builds upon Pitcher and colleagues’ 2017 systematic review of the peer-reviewed literature on the CSE of boys. Our exploration began by focusing on the following search terms: “sexual exploitation”, “sexual violence”, “sexual abuse”, “transactional sex”, “survival sex”, “boys”, “male”, “child”, “gender norms” and expanded to utilize a broad research base of systematic reviews, government and organizational reports, literature searches and citation searches, focusing on the CSE of boys through a gendered- and rights-based lens. Thus, this article explores three elements essential in understanding the scope and nature of the CSE of boys. Firstly, it presents emerging research indicating the prevalence of boys’ CSE, supporting the assertion that this is far more frequent than commonly recognized. Secondly, it grounds this within dominant gender norms that may be masking the problem, by limiting societal cognizance, contributing to professionals’ gaze aversion, and influencing boys’ own perceptions of their CSE as a crime and exploitation. Thirdly, we consider the potential gender insensitivity of services and institutions dealing with boys who are vulnerable to CSE. Finally, we consider commonalities in limitations in global literature exploring the CSE of boys, by considering specific contexts of high concern for male victims (child welfare, alternative care, justice and humanitarian settings). Taken together, there is a clear argument in support of conducting a global analysis of boys’ CSE that addresses the critical need for research, evidence-based policy and programming.

Section snippets

The prevalence of boys’ experiences of CSE

CSE is a public health concern and a foundational issue in safeguarding children and youth (Greenbaum, Yun, & Todres, 2018; Pitcher, Ferguson, Moynihan, Mitchell, & Saewyc, 2017; Public Health England, 2019; Spencer-Hughes, Syred, Allison, Holdsworth, & Baraitser, 2017). In surveys, youth prioritize the need to end violence against them. In Latin America, 24 % of youth surveyed placed sexual violence as their top concern and in Nigeria, one in four girls, and one in 10 boys experience sexual…

Gender norms and the CSE of boys

Socialization processes across lifespan development contribute to categorical expectations of males and females (Jackson, 2006). Scholars have differentiated the concept of biological sex from socially constructed gender norms. Therefore, this section explores the link between the social construction of gender norms and the concealment of male sexual victimization. Thereafter, it explores the impact of socially-constructed masculinity norms on boys’ experience of CSE…

The gender (in)sensitivity of services and institutions

Awareness of the role that service providers working with vulnerable children play in identifying and assisting boy victims of sexual exploitation has started to receive greater attention, with the literature producing a number of developed country examples, particularly from the UK. A 2014 study of 50 frontline professionals working with CSE victims assessed the state of practitioners’ knowledge concerning the specific support experiences and needs of boy victims (McNaughton, Harvey, &…


There is undeniable evidence on the long-lasting, reverberating, and widespread costs of violence against children. Its global economic cost is estimated at U.S. $3.6 trillion (Hoeffler & Fearon, 2014). These may be significant under-estimates, especially given the lack of representation of boy victims in statistics and the lack of understanding of how gender norms affect how boys cope with CSE. Thus, in line with the structure of this article, we will discuss the need to generate more data on…


This project was supported in part by the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR; TE3-138302) Team Grant for Principal Investigator C. Wekerle (re: Understanding health risks and promoting resilience in male youth with sexual violence experience)…