Libby Alder


Youth prostitution is more multidimensional than I think most of us are prone to admit. This essay is designed to raise the profile of some of its less prominent aspects—aspects which are not unknown exactly, but which are underrecognized and generally ignored in the context of legal analysis. The phenomenon of youth prostitution involves some thorny, sometimes confusing, issues, but those issues are eclipsed by an ideology that fails to grapple with the complexity of youth agency and the consequent position of youth in law. The result is that some kids are left inadequately served and others are utterly unknowable. My principal aim in this essay is to illuminate some gaps in the prevailing conception of youth prostitution. I hope merely to light the subject from a slightly different angle rather than perform a thoroughgoing analysis. This essay draws on the empirical research of others to introduce youth prostitutes in the United States, discusses who the youth are and under what conditions they sell their labor, and briefly summarizes the laws on the books and what reform-minded professionals are saying. This essay then identifies two principal shortcomings in the prevailing conception of youth prostitution: the low profile of its private law dimension and a conflicted ideology about youth agency that forces us to privilege an image of an exploited innocent because the only other option appears to be one of a fully formed, autonomous sexual bargain-seeker. This essay concludes by advocating a braver and more compound view of youth and, consequently, of youth prostitution.

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