Study reveals the sad secret world of underage sex work

19 June 2015
Natalie Thorburn
Natalie Thorburn

A study into the hidden world of Auckland’s underage sex workers has revealed the unsafe and extreme lives these teenagers are living.

Natalie Thorburn carried out interviews with 10 teenaged sex workers for her Masters of Social Work (MSW) at the University of Auckland.

The participants, aged between 16 and 20, told her of their lives on Auckland’s back streets selling sex when they were aged between 12 and 16. Many of them were the victims of sexual abuse. None of them were protected by the Prostitution Law Reform Act and often worked in unsafe circumstances.

“My usual stance on sex work is from a women’s rights and prostitutes’ rights point of view – but that doesn’t really apply to someone who is 12, powerless, and in a state of desperation and fear. These girls were participating in prostitution after childhoods where their bodies had been hired out for sex or been used by adults for sexual purposes,” Natalie says.

She arranged to interview the 10 teenagers with the help of Auckland social service agencies. They distributed flyers seeking volunteers to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity and the promise of $40. They were given a cellphone number to text Natalie on and arrange a meeting.

She met the nine girls and one boy in diverse locations. One interview was at a central McDonalds, another in her car, a local park and once in the participant’s flat. The teenage participants remained anonymous and chose a name they could be referred by.

During the interviews and research Natalie found a sad set of reccurring themes in her subjects.

“For a lot of them they attended school while they were 12 to 15 but were also going out all night to sell sex and take methamphetamine on the streets of Auckland,” Natalie says.

“The norm for these participants was having a background of significant deprivation and quite chaotic family structures.

“But there was one who had quite a ‘normal’ life, was attending a decile 10 school and was achieving really highly, but was going out all night to do sex work and then coming home and putting on her school uniform.”

There were even a couple whose families knew, but didn’t intervene.

Natalie says it’s not always realistic for the parents and family to fix these issues themselves, as they are often battling mental health and drug addictions themselves, as well as severe ecomonic deprivation. Some of her participants have parents that have been suicidal or mentally ill.

“It makes me angry on their behalf, angry that they didn't have a better community.

“It’s not that the families didn’t care, it’s that they actually didn’t have the capacity to care for these kids. And the communities were turning a blind eye, so the schools didn’t notice.

“It made me wonder how someone can go to school every day while coming down off methamphetamine, having been out doing sex work the night before - and never have that picked up by anyone at the school?”

Some of the participants told Natalie they were abused by the very organisations set up to assist them, including claims of sexual exploitation and sexual assault. Such instances forced the teenagers to return to the street and shun any future assistance.

The research has a sad twist for Natalie. As a researcher bound by ethical constraints, she is unable to maintain contact with her participants, and has no way of finding out if their circumstances have improved. Natalie was assisted through her MSW with the help of her supervisors, Dr Irene De Haan and Dr Christa Fouche.

But she also came into the study with her own experiences. At 16 she left home and was expelled from Long Bay College. She lived with friends and in youth hostels and took to stripping to make ends meet. She became involved with drugs before turning her life around and starting university.

At 20 she was working at Child, Youth and Family while she studied for a Bachelor in Social Work.

Now 25, she’s an ACC registered social worker for sexual abuse cases. She also works with the Ecpat Child Alert organisation. Standing for “Ending Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Child Trafficking for Sexual Purposes”, Ecapt is the only organisation in New Zealand whose sole focus is to address the sexual exploitation of children.

Natalie is now enrolled in her PhD and is interested in pursuing research into trafficking at a later stage.


Anna Kellett, Media Relations Adviser