Sexual exploitation: abusing a position of vulnerability

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik’s blog, published on the ALNAP website earlier in May where she presents her opinion on safeguarding, raises the concerns that many in the sector have for PSEA – such as being ‘Western-centric’ (reflecting the ‘whiteness’ of the sector more broadly) and the vagueness of definitions. However, the proposal that prohibiting transactional sex implies a position on abolishing prostitution is far from the intent of the sector.

Sexual exploitation_abusing a position of vulnerability

Photo credit: European Union/ Mariama Mary Fall

Nor do we wish for our decision to have any negative consequences for people in the sex industry, a view asserted by Sandvik in relation to the Nordic model of prostitution. Instead, caution needs to be exercised in the distinction between paying for sex and exploiting someone for sex if our sector is really going to ‘do no harm’.

In CARE, we believe our staff should not pay or exchange anything for sex, and this decision outweighs our challenges around it as a difficult process. We see this expectation of our staff as one component of a comprehensive range of efforts to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA). This is not a new struggle in the humanitarian space as Sandvik has recently written. The principle of not exchanging money, employment, goods or services for sex was formally introduced by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Working Group in 2002 and is an issue that has quite rightly received reignited attention in the last 18 months.

Defining Exploitation

The UN definition of sexual exploitation, which is used by CARE and many other NGOs, rests on the idea of abusing a position of vulnerability (or differential power or trust) for sexual purposes. It does not base sexual exploitation on consent because true consent is hard to establish, particularly in contexts with significant power differentials. Instead, sexual exploitation is about whether someone took advantage of someone else’s position of vulnerability for their own sexual gratification.

We know that in the contexts in which we work, such as in developing countries and during humanitarian disasters, the sex industry is overrepresented with women and children experiencing multiple vulnerabilities – poverty, hunger, lack of education/employment opportunities, age of minority, displacement, human trafficking etc. Due to the overrepresentation of vulnerability, there is also a significant risk of sexual exploitation. This risk is considered too great to be tolerable and, hence, CARE makes clear to staff that exchanging money, goods or services for sex is not acceptable for CARE employees.

Transforming Gender Norms

In the face of poverty, across both developing and developed countries, gender and social norms shape the opportunities and obstacles available to men and women. Humanitarian crises have particular impacts on different genders and social groups, including the vulnerabilities and protection risks that they face, and the coping strategies that they may employ.

Sexual exploitation_ abusing a position of vulnerability

Photo credit: U.S. Army/ SPC. Anthony Murray Jr

At the heart of our programming is an aim to transform gender norms and relations that sustain gender and other power inequalities, and to not reinforce gender norms that cast only certain opportunities for women and girls. Consistent with these approaches are our concerted efforts that we do not contribute to gender-based violence or any other harm experienced by people in the sex industry. In a number of places throughout the world we seek to improve the lives of sex workers through health programmes that provide support and education, and reduce the effects of HIV/AIDs. We believe that having our staff pay for sex in the communities with which we work would not contribute to transforming gender norms and relations, and is not aligned with our programming efforts.

How vulnerable is ‘too vulnerable’?

In her blog, Sandvik asserts there is a usefulness in maintaining a strong conceptual distinction between transactional sex and sexual exploitation. In practice, however, this is much more complicated. If a complaint were to be lodged, how would we assess whether the act was ‘transactional’ or ‘exploitative’? How ‘vulnerable’ does the person need to be before we consider the act to be exploitative? Is a certain level of hunger/need/poverty ‘acceptable’ so that transactional sex can occur? We believe that this would create assessments that are against the spirit of preventing sexual exploitation.

Furthermore, how is a staff member supposed to make this assessment before engaging in transactional sex? Is the mistaken belief that the person before them was not in ‘too much’ need at the time a sufficient defence? Permitting transactional sex in contexts of high vulnerability creates pragmatic, logistical and safety issues for NGOs already operating in stressful environments.

Embodying our Values

Our decision to prohibit staff paying or exchanging anything for sex is not intended to contribute towards an implied criminalisation of prostitution, as Sandvik proposes. It is also not an assertion that all sex work is exploitative. Instead, we wish to attract people to work for CARE who uphold certain values and behaviours to ‘do no harm’ and to promote gender transformative programming.

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Photo credit: European Union/ Barbara Minishi

In many places in which we work, our staff are part of, or live within or near communities with whom our programming efforts are focused.

The sector has had an essential shake-up over the extent to which it is fulfilling its long-standing principles and commitments to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse. The scandals that have come to light have been a painful lesson on the ways in which the sector has failed to uphold the values that we espouse. Nonetheless, it’s important we continue to be challenged and to be open to questioning ourselves, so we can improve our efforts and our accountability to affected people.