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Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

The commercial sexual exploitation of children consists of criminal practices that demean, degrade and threaten the physical and psychosocial integrity of children. There are three primary and interrelated forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children: prostitution, pornography and trafficking for sexual purposes. Other forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children include child sex tourism, child marriages and forced marriages.

The commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is a fundamental violation of human rights and children’s rights. The key element is that this violation of children and their rights arises through a commercial transaction of some sort. That is, there is an exchange in which one or more parties gain a benefit – cash, goods or kind – from the exploitation for sexual purposes of someone aged below 18. The significance of defining in-kind transactions as commercial in nature should not be underestimated, not only because they are very common, but also because there is a tendency to view some such transactions as entailing ‘consent’ on the part of a child. This includes cases where sexual exploitation occurs in exchange for protection, a place to sleep, or access to higher grades and/or promotion. The sexual exploitation of the child may profit a much wider range of people than the immediate beneficiary of the transaction.

The remuneration factor distinguishes CSEC from the sexual abuse of a child where commercial gain is apparently absent, although sexual exploitation is also abuse. At the same time, it must be noted that there is a clear link between non-commercial sexual abuse of a child and the increased vulnerability of an abused child to commercial sexual exploitation.

The definition and understanding of CSEC, and its many forms, have evolved in recent years in accordance with greater analysis and newly acquired knowledge. Commercial sexual exploitation is increasingly seen to apply to many situations, such as child marriage, where there may have been a failure in the past to focus analysis on the contractual or commercial exchange that allows for sexual exploitation. In line with this, the concept of the exploiter has also been sharpened, highlighting the wide variety of people who contribute to the exploitation of a child: parents and other family members, friends, peers and teachers, as well as procurers, brothel managers, traffickers and those who engage in sex with a child.

CSEC is complex and attempts to define it by reducing the term down to the phenomenon’s core attributes must not result in minimising the focus on all specifics and the significant factors at play. For example, the descriptive term ‘commercial sexual exploitation’ does not always bring to mind quickly the violence inflicted in its practice. As well, the term’s focus on children as victims of exploitation may inadvertently shift attention from the perpetrators. As such, it is critical that use of the term ‘commercial sexual exploitation of children’ always be explained and expanded upon, in any context.