East Kootenay teens are trading sex for drugs and alcohol, a study has found.
A 2009 survey of 2,360 East Kootenay students in Grades 7 to 12 found that around three per cent answered 'yes' to the question: have you ever used sex or sexual activity in exchange for or to pay for alcohol or drugs?
That rate makes it more prevalent than some mental illnesses teens are educated about in school, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Dean Nicholson, who co-authored the research paper with Professor Elizabeth Saewyc from UBC's School of Nursing, said it's important to note the issue isn't specific to the East Kootenay.
"Nobody has really been asking this, especially in rural settings. So we could probably assume this behaviour is happening everywhere and needs more investigation," said Nicholson, executive director of East Kootenay Addiction Services Society (EKASS) in Cranbrook.
Similar studies in Quebec, the U.S. and Norway have found similar prevalence of sexual exchange in teens - anywhere from 1.5 to 4 per cent, Nicholson said.
The difference is that those studies randomly selected schools and grades for the study. The East Kootenay survey polled all teenaged students in the region.
"I don't think anybody would consider the East Kootenay to be a high risk marginalised area. It's a great place to raise a family," said Nicholson. "So just within a pretty normal place, some kids are reporting this."
The research found that boys are just as likely to report trading sex for drugs as girls are, and 98 per cent of those children who answered 'yes' to the question live at home with family.
"We are not dealing with an identified risk group. We are not dealing with street involved kids or homeless kids or kids already in the sex trade. We are just looking at a group of ordinary kids," said Nicholson.
Teens who reported sexual exchange do use substances more than other teens, and in riskier ways. They also scored higher in impulsivity, and were more likely to have experienced unwanted or unplanned sexual activity.
Every two years, students in the three East Kootenay school districts are asked to complete an anonymous, voluntary survey put together by EKASS.
The society presents its research to School Districts 5, 6 and 8 with breakdowns for each individual school.
The question about trading sex for drugs has been asked in three surveys now, Nicholson said, and consistently gives about a three percent positive response.
What the survey doesn't reveal is context for the exchange.
"Does that mean that the girlfriend is willing to do something for her boyfriend in order to share a beer, or does that mean you've got a 14 year old who is having to do explicit sexual behaviour with a 20 year old for cocaine? That we don't know," said Nicholson.
What's most concerning is that the question was purposely phrased to depict the definition of sexual exploitation in the United Nations' Declaration of Rights for a Child.
"We can say this is sexual exploitation. Whether the youth are perceiving it that way we don't know," said Nicholson.
"At the very least, one of the concerns we have is the suggestion that they are seeing sex as something they can commodify," he added. "Rather than having an intense emotional connection with somebody, it becomes something that you can trade."
That brings up further concerns that teens are vulnerable to further sexual exploitation, unwanted sexual behaviour and unprotected sexual behaviour.
"By getting this information published, we are hoping to raise the consciousness of it," said Nicholson.
"Maybe it needs to be included in school health curriculum. Just as they are talking about substance use, condom use and STDS, maybe this is another issue that needs to be put in there."