Stepping Stone to start supporting younger teens who sell sex — or want to stop

Stepping Stone says it's against the sex trafficking of youth, but it needs to support teens who are sex workers and looking for help.

Non-profit group that supports sex workers lowering age of people it serves to 16 from 18

Wanda Taylor, executive director of Stepping Stone, says the program will help the teens build self-esteem, learn about consent and safety in sex work, and how to identify if someone is trying to lure them into prostitution. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Stepping Stone, Halifax's non-profit group that supports sex workers, is now helping teens as young as 16 who are at risk of being exploited into the sex industry — or are already selling sex.

Wanda Taylor, the group's executive director, said lowering the age of people it can serve to 16 from 18 became necessary after a growing number of phone calls from families and teens seeking help but finding nowhere to turn.

"There's no place for them to land when they're trying to figure out how they're going to exit," she said. 

Teaching teens to spot grooming

Starting in early June, a group of 12 girls and boys will be meeting for a new program called Step Forward. It will help the teens build self-esteem, learn about consent and safety in sex work and how to identify if someone is trying to lure them into prostitution, a practice known as grooming.

The topics came out of focus groups with teenagers that were held over the past few months. The teens who will be participating were referred to Stepping Stone by other non-profit organizations and a high school guidance counsellor.

Step Forward received more than $10,000 from the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services.

Some teens willingly work in the sex trade

Sex workers under the age of 18 are considered sex trafficking victims, but Taylor said the reality is some youth are "willingly" working because they believe it is glamorous or because their friends are doing it.

Supporting teens involved in sex work is controversial, so the group is bracing for backlash from some who may have a misperception that Stepping Stone condones youth sexual exploitation.

"We can be against trafficking and still recognize that youth need our help and need our support," said Taylor.

The goal is to provide the teens with tools and education to keep them safe.

It's unknown how many teens are sex workers in Nova Scotia, as there's no data tracking that.

'Help them wherever they are'

Taylor said providing resources without judgment fills a void.

"We want to be the ears that listen, the eyes that see what's going on, and just be able to help them wherever they are," she said.

Stepping Stone, which began operating in 1987, will formally announce its change in mandate at a crime prevention week event aimed at youth on May 29 at the Halifax Central Library.

About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu

Reporter

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter with CBC Nova Scotia and host of Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.