Youth Involvement in Prostitution: A Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography

3. Social Science Literature: An Overview of the Findings and Debates (continued)

3. Social Science Literature: An Overview of the Findings and Debates (continued)

3.3 Psychological Issues

While focusing on the psychological development of young prostitutes and the psychological impact of being involved in the sex trade, Coleman (1989) found that disruptions in the psychosexual and psychological development of young males may contribute to their participation in “destructive and non-ego enhancing prostitution activities.” Dorais (1996) suggested that some male victims of childhood sexual abuse might become involved in “aggressive prostitution” as a means of diverting revenge against the true aggressor. Bartek, Krebs and Taylor (1993) conducted interviews with 20 juvenile delinquents involved in prostitution, 20 non-prostitute juvenile delinquents and 20 control subjects. Respondents were asked questions based on the Moral Judgment Interview (MJI) and Joffe and Naditch’s coping and defending test. Delinquents characterized as “low coping” made “lower level moral judgments on the prostitution dilemma than on the less personally relevant MJI dilemmas,” revealing a relationship between moral reasoning and moral judgment.

The psychology literature provides information on the short- and long-term impact of youth involvement in prostitution. However, most of these studies place the locus of responsibility for the decision to prostitute within the individual. In other words, it does not account for structural variables (e.g., poverty, unemployment, lack of housing) that also impact a youth’s decision to enter the sex trade. Some researchers, however, have combined psychological and sociological variables to address this critique. Edney (1988 and 1990) argued that young prostitutes who had been sexually abused during childhood experienced a severe loss of self-esteem, and they exhibited poor physical and mental condition; however, their decision to prostitute was also affected by their social structure (i.e., cultural factors, gender stereotypes, family schools, employment structures, etc.). For young female prostitutes, Edney’s (1990) research suggests that “...sexual abuse and the victims’ responses to sexual abuse prepared and trained the young girls for prostitution.”

3.3.1 Summary of Findings

  • Some research suggests the psychological impact of childhood physical and sexual abuse influences a youth’s decision to become involved in prostitution.
  • Much of the psychological literature does not account for the structural variables that also impact a youth’s decision to prostitute (e.g. poverty and homelessness). Some researchers have combined psychological and sociological variables to address this critique.

3.4 Homeless or Runaway Issues

Factors associated with childhood physical and sexual abuse and psychological issues alone cannot fully explain how some youth become involved in prostitution. The homeless and runaway literature also contributes to the understanding of youth involvement in the sex trade.

Many youth who runaway from home (as noted above, often from physically and sexually abusive home environments) may be drawn to the streets by a sense of excitement and a desire for money and independence (Michaud, 1988). However, once on the streets, the research indicates that some of these youth may turn to prostitution as a means of subsistence. Weisberg (1985) found that many youth lacked the education and employment skills necessary to subsist, thereby contributing to their decision to prostitute. Sullivan (1986) echoed this conclusion and noted that situational difficulties associated with the street make prostitution a viable option for some youth, i.e., prostitution for money, shelter and drugs. Michaud (1988) noted that problems associated with homelessness (such as youth unemployment) provide the impetus for some youth to enter prostitution as a source of income.

Webber (1991) conducted in-depth interviews with street people and ex-street people in various Canadian cities. Her research revealed that many youth had runaway from an abusive home life, ended up on the streets, and subsequently became involved in prostitution as a means of survival. The author criticized the criminal justice system for ignoring the living conditions of homeless youth; while poorly funded service agencies struggled to provide essential services to street youth – a process that unfolds in an era of “growing poverty and a shrinking social safety net.”

John Hagan and Bill McCarthy co-authored several studies examining the relationship between living on the streets and participation in criminal activities (see Hagan and McCarthy, 1992 and 1997; McCarthy and Hagan, 1991, 1992 and 1995; McCarthy, 1995). The authors argue that negative home life experiences contribute to a youth’s decision to run away; however, they emphasize that situational difficulties/conditions associated with the street are important variables that precipitate youth involvement in crime and delinquency. Three main themes emerge from Hagan and McCarthy’s research: 1) Disruptive family conditions encourage some youth to run away from home. 2) Once on the streets, conditions associated with homelessness propel involvement in crime, i.e., hunger is related to theft of food, problems of youth unemployment and lack of shelter is related to involvement in prostitution. 3) The street culture produces criminal networks – street youth become involved in tutelage (student-teacher) relationships, which increase their participation in crime and delinquency.

Gaetz, O’Grady and Vaillancourt (1999) conducted structured, semi-structured and open-ended interviews with 360 homeless youth in Toronto. Ten percent of the sample was involved in the sex trade as a way to earn money. Employing participatory action research (“those who are intended as the subject of research participate in all aspects of the research, including the design, implementation and analysis of the project”), the authors found that a majority of youth had experienced an “unbearable” home life that propelled them onto the streets. A majority of respondents experienced physical, sexual and emotional abuse before running away or being “thrown away” from home.

Greene, Ennett and Ringwalt (1999) examine the “prevalence and correlates of survival sex among runaway and homeless youth.” Results from interviews with 640 shelter youths and 528 street youths in various U.S. cities indicate that 27.5% of the street sample and 9.5% of the shelter sample had previously engaged in survival sex, defined as the selling of sex to “meet subsistence needs.” The authors also suggest that length of time away from home, childhood victimization, past criminal behaviour, suicide attempts, past or present drug use, having contracted a STD and pregnancy were positive correlates of having been involved in survival sex. The authors maintain that prostitution is an “economic survival strategy,” and suggest that childhood abuse is an important precursor of participation in survival sex.

3.4.1 Summary of Findings

  • Youth who run away from home (as noted above, often from physically and sexually abusive home environments) may be drawn to the streets by a sense of excitement and a desire for money and independence.
  • Once on the streets, the research indicates that some of these youth may turn to prostitution as a means of subsistence. In this respect, the situational poverty of street involved youth (e.g., below average education, marginal employment skills, youth unemployment, and inadequate social services) make prostitution a viable alternative for some youth.

3.5 Violence Against Prostitutes

Another area of concern in the literature focuses on the incidence of violence against prostitutes. In general, the literature demonstrates a difference between the nature and extent of violence experienced by female and male prostitutes in Canada. While it is commonplace for women involved in prostitution to experience violence at the hands of customers and pimps, male prostitutes are most likely to experience violence “by homophobic onlookers who assault and/or rob them” (Lowman, 1992, quoted in Allman, 1999; also see Brannigan, 1996).

The Badgley Committee (1984) reported that approximately two-thirds of the youth interviewed for their “Juvenile Prostitution Survey” reported physical assaults in the course of selling sexual services (cf. F/P/T, 1998). Data produced by Statistics Canada reveal that 63 prostitutes were murdered in Canada from 1991 to 1995, of which 60 were female and 7 were less than 18 years of age (see, Duchesne, 1997; Wolff and Geissel, 1993; Lowman, 1997).

Miller and Schwartz (1995) interviewed 16 street prostitutes to examine the “experience and meaning” of violence against prostitutes. Respondents indicated high levels of rape and violence while involved in prostitution-related activities. The authors argue that stereotypical rape myths “come together uniquely in the case of prostitutes to fuel both the violence and devaluation that allows society to ignore such treatment,” and that violence against street prostitutes represents a continuum of violence against women in general.

Schissel and Fedec (1999) explored the “culture of violence” experienced by young prostitutes by analyzing youth probation files in Regina and Saskatoon. In addition to uncovering high levels of childhood physical and sexual abuse among youth prostitutes, the authors find several examples of indirect and direct victimization. As the authors note: “prostitution creates a context in which those youth who are involved will run a high risk of being damaged by a predator or by themselves - whether directly through assault and self-injury or indirectly through high-risk behaviour” (Schissel and Fedec, 1999: 51).

In 1993, a coalition of Vancouver service agencies commissioned a study to examine violence against street-involved women (Currie et al, 1995). Based on in-depth interviews with 85 street-involved women, the authors found that a majority of respondents experienced violence (sexual and physical abuse) at home and after they became involved in prostitution. Further, 98% of the women experienced violence as a result of a bad date (youth involved in prostitution were identified as being particularly vulnerable to victimization).

In response to concerns that the ‘communicating’ law (section 213 of the Criminal Code) perpetuates violence against prostitutes, the Department of Justice Canada sponsored a series of regional studies to examine the incidence of violence, both before and after the introduction of this legislation (Bill C-49) (see, Lowman and Fraser 1996). Among the findings produced by the evaluations: 1) composite data from research in B.C. revealed 67 homicides of prostitutes since 1978 (60 since 1982). A newspaper analysis indicated that victims ranged from age 15 to 41, and that four youths involved in prostitution (under the age of 18) were murdered between 1974 and 1994. Lowman and Fraser (1996) concluded that, “preliminary analysis suggests that women known to have been involved in street prostitution are murdered at a rate somewhere in the region of sixty to one hundred and twenty times the rate at which non-prostitute women are murdered.” The authors asserted an indirect link between the enforcement of the communicating law and violence against women involved in prostitution (Lowman and Fraser 1996). 2) Research in Halifax reported numerous acts of violence against prostitutes by pimps and customers. However, the police, crown, defense and social agencies reported that Bill C-49 has not created a more dangerous working milieu for street prostitutes (Fleischman, 1995). 3) Research in Calgary and Winnipeg reported 20 homicides of women involved in prostitution since 1985. The author suggested that an increase in violence against prostitutes corresponds with an increase of violence against women (Brannigan, 1995).

Lowman (2000) profiles the murders of sex workers in British Columbia from 1964 to 1998. (His analysis begins with a review of various data sources from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, which reveal that 86 prostitutes have been murdered in Canada from 1992 through 1998.) Lowman argues the media accounts of the “get rid of prostitutes” activities that were initiated by politicians, police and residents during the 1980s contributed to a “sharp increase in the murders of prostitutes after 1980.” In addition to profiling murders of prostitutes in B.C. (e.g. 32 murders from 1992 to 1998, the clearance rates for murders involving prostitutes is 34%, compared to a clearance rate for non-prostitutes that ranges from 77% to 85%), Lowman examines how campaigns to remove street prostitution from certain areas of Vancouver contributed to a “social milieu in which violence against prostitutes could flourish.” During the mid-1980s, several politicians and community groups in Vancouver campaigned to have street prostitution removed from certain areas of the city, with no regard for where the trade would relocate. As a result, many prostitutes were forced to ply their trade in more dangerous and secluded areas of the city (a situation compounded by a system of quasicriminalization within the Criminal Code). Lowman argues there are two forms of violence against prostitutes: situational (violence that occurs during the “course of a transaction”) and predatory (premeditated violence). However, this violence must be understood as part of a “continuum of violence against women more generally.”[12]

3.5.1 Summary of Findings

  • It is commonplace for women involved in prostitution to experience violence at the hands of customers and pimps.
  • Male prostitutes are most likely to experience violence by “homophobic onlookers who assault and/or rob them” (Lowman, 1992).
  • Statistics Canada data reveal that 63 prostitutes were murdered in Canada from 1991 to 1995, of which 60 were female and 7 were less than 18 years of age.

3.6 Research on Customers/Clients

Information on the (male) demand aspect of the sex trade remains a conspicuous gap in the social science literature. This paucity of research on clients/customers of prostitutes has been attributed to inadequate records providing information on the demand aspect of the trade (i.e., police have traditionally focused on the activities of prostitutes and their institutional records reflect this practice), and a general perception that “clients are unwilling to consent to interviews, and unlikely to respond to questionnaire surveys” (Lowman, Atchison and Fraser, 1996: 4).

The limited research on customers reveals that men who purchase sex from prostitutes are interested in a “brief uncomplicated sexual encounter” (Gemme et al, 1984, as quoted in Lowman, Atchison and Fraser, 1996; also, see McLeod, 1982) or they are searching for special sexual acts and they want to keep the “transactional nature of the interaction” secret (McKeganey and Barnard, 1996). Recent Canadian research conducted by Lowman, Atchison and Fraser (1996) indicate that the average age of clients sampled was 34 years, a majority were Canadian citizens and Caucasian, and most worked in blue collar occupations. Lowman’s continued research on customers of prostitutes will help produce further information for understanding this often overlooked aspect of the sex trade.

Minichiello, Marino, Browne and Jamieson (1999) examined customers of male prostitutes by asking male sex workers their perceptions of the characteristics of clients. Male sex workers who advertised in newspapers, worked on the streets and in escort agencies in Sidney, Melbourne and Brisbane Australia were recruited for the study and were asked to complete a brief survey following a sexual encounter with a client. One hundred and eighty-six sex workers participated in the study, providing information on 2,088 encounters and profiles for 1,776 clients. The largest proportion of clients were in their 40s (31.7%), followed by those in their 30s (28.7%) and 16% who were in their 20s. Most clients were perceived as being “middle class.” “Rich” clients tended to use services provided by an escort agency, while “poor” clients used the services of street workers. Most clients were identified as being gay (45%) or bisexual (31.3%). Drug and alcohol use by clients before the sexual encounter was uncommon. Customer violence was reported infrequently (occurring more frequently with street clients than with other types of clients). The authors suggest that the results will help formulate policy and education strategies. However, “what is urgently required is a broader understanding of the interaction between the client and the male sex worker.”

3.6.1 Summary of Findings

  • There is a lack of social science research on the (male) demand aspect of the trade.
  • The limited research reveals that customers have varied characteristics, and a number of reasons why they purchase sex from prostitutes (e.g. the desire for a “brief uncomplicated sexual encounter,” or a special sex act).

[12] Research suggests that off-street prostitution provides a much safer alternative to the high levels of violence experienced by street prostitutes (cf. Lowman, 2001). However, more research is needed to determine the varying levels of violence experienced by female prostitutes working in different venues.

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