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Rescue is for Kittens: Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about “Rescues” of Youth in the Sex Trade

Date: September 20, 2013

In preparation for the International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work Conference at University of Toledo next week, I created a new handout! Please feel free to share this page, or download the PDF version for distribution.

Also, please take a look at my other handout on the topic, Understanding the Complexities of Sex Trafficking and Sex Work/Trade: Ten Observations from a Sex Worker Activist/Survivor/Feminist, which is also available as a PDF file.

Instruction for printing the PDF file: print both pages back to back in “calendar style.” Cut the paper horizontally to make two copies from one sheet of paper.

Rescue is for Kittens: Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about “Rescues” of Youth in the Sex Trade

written by emi koyama (
version 1.0 (last updated 09/20/2013)

1. Most “rescued” youth are 16-17 year old. While media and politicians often sensationalize very young victims who are 13 year old or younger, they are outliers. The misperception of unrealistically low average age is harmful because it misdirects necessary policy responses.

2. “Rescue” actually means arrest and involuntary detainment of minor “victims” by the police in many cases. Some jurisdictions have passed “safe harbor” laws that abolished prostitution charges against minors, but young people are still being arrested under some other criminal charge, and are then sent to detention, child welfare system, or back to home.

3. Many “rescued” youth have experienced child welfare system before starting to trade sex. Many have ran away from foster family or group home, and do not feel that going back to the system that have failed them already is a solution to problems in their lives. When they are forcibly returned to these institutions, many run away again as soon as they can.

4. There are “push” and “pull” factors that contribute to the presence of youth sex trade. “Push” factors are things that make young people vulnerable, such as poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia/transphobia, family violence, failure of child welfare system, and the breakdown of families due to incarceration and deportation; “pull” factors are things that lure youth into the sex trade, such as the existence of the commercial sex market itself and its facilitators (buyers, online classified sites, etc.). Anti-trafficking policies such as “rescues” place exclusive focus on the “pull” side of the equation while neglecting to address the vulnerabilities created by the “push” side.

5. Without policies that truly address the “push” factors, any reduction in the “pull” side, such as lower demand for commercial sex due to more policing, or closure of online classified sites, only functions to impoverish youth further, making them more vulnerable overall rather than less. Street youth still need to survive, and thus still have to find different ways to do so, most likely doing things that are also criminalized.

6. Street youth are routinely harassed and mistreated by the law enforcement, and do not view the police as their protector. Social service agencies that work closely with the law enforcement’s campaign to “rescue” youth lose the trust of the people who need to access the services. Any public response to youth sex trade must start from the acknowledgment that the law enforcement is one of the primary sources of violence in the lives of street youth, and cannot be relied upon to provide the solution.

7. Youth in the sex trade eventually become adults. Because the society focuses on “rescues” instead of providing resources and opportunities that would improve their long-term well-being, many youth are left unable to pursue economic opportunities outside of the underground economy, and will be treated simply as criminals once they are 18.

8. “Rescue” operations result in the mass arrest and criminalization of adult women in the sex trade, many of whom would have been identified as underage “victims” several years earlier but are now treated as criminals. Many adult women (as well as teen girls) arrested during “rescue” operations are mothers, and their children may be taken away and placed in the child welfare system as a consequence of their arrest.

9. Individuals arrested as “pimps” during “rescue” operations are not necessarily abusers, traffickers, or exploiters; in fact, many are friends, family members, partners, etc. who happen to provide room, transportation, mentoring, security, and other assistance to people in the sex trade, or are financially supported by them, even though they are not abusing, coercing, exploiting, or otherwise hurting that person. Sometimes, women are arrested as “pimps” for working in pairs to increase their safety. Indiscriminate arrests of friends and others as “pimps” when they are not abusers, traffickers, or exploiters lead to further isolation of people who trade sex, putting them at greater risks.

10. Street youth need housing, jobs, education, healthcare, and other resources and opportunities. Being thrown in jail or detention does not provide them, nor does being sent back to families or institutions that they had run away from in the first place. Youth in the sex trade deserve our support, and must be given a voice in determining how the society can best support them!

Please send your feedback to!

h/t Claudine O’Leary, founder of Young Women’s Empowerment Project, for the phrase “rescue is for kittens.”

Rescue is for Kittens cover


  1. So, totally agree about the points regarding police. Nevertheless, efforts to address HT almost inevitably end up having some kind of run-in with law enforcement. I was just curious about your outlook on building bridges with law enforcement with the intention to introduce them to the way of thinking you described above? Appreciate your insight emi.

    Comment by Salvador Armendariz — September 27, 2013 @ 10:20 am

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  3. @Salvador

    We would definitely need lines of communication with certain law enforcement officers in certain positions, but I don’t feel that it’s realistic to get the law enforcement agencies to align with street youth through trainings, etc. We need to work with them, but we need to keep a critical distance from them and build a movement to hold them accountable to their duties.

    When I worked at a social service agency working with people with developmental disabilities, I got to know individual officers who specialized in investigating abuse against our clients. I had a good relationship with them, and they seemed like genuinely interested in addressing violence and abuse experienced by people with developmental disabilities. But there is still a law enforcement culture that is difficult to break through–for example, when I tried to talk to them about police shootings of innocent people who have developmental disabilities.

    Comment by emigrl — September 29, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

  4. I’m a former ‘underage’ sex worker lived independently from age 14. I’m now 35 – happy, healthy, with a family of my own and still a sex worker. Just want to thank you for your reasonable, open minded examination this topic, it was a relief to read.

    Comment by Beth — October 1, 2013 @ 5:37 am

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  10. Bravo for intelligent, incisive analysis where so badly needed. One of the modes by which the state achieves unlimited powers of surveillance and destruction of individuals is by conjuring and then exploiting ‘null subjects’: persons deemed utterly without will or volition, whose beings can be totally defined by opportunistic state actors and associated moral entrepreneurs. This project is totalitarian because of the total powers the state wins and the absoluteness by which individuals (‘victims’ as much as ‘perpetrators’) are erased and filled-in by state-decreed narratives. The contribution of sexual-identity movements to what feels like the present totalitarian endgame of US governance is a story that someday will be told.

    Comment by GWIlliard — October 25, 2015 @ 8:24 pm

  11. […] Please use this as an opportunity to truly help victims and to study practical strategies please be aware of what on-the-ground front lines reality is for sex workers. Learn about what FOSTA actually is doing. We dont want or need saviors, we need people who actually listen. people who seek to understand the complexities of what we face. I understand the overall reality of trafficking is horrifying and provokes a strong emotional response. but once that emotion subsides theres hard, complex work to do. Theres no simple solution. You cant always fix the problem by calling a hotline or a cop, thats just what abolitionists want yo… […]

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