Youth Involvement in Prostitution: A Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography

4. Summary and Conclusions

4. Summary and Conclusions

In Canada, youth involvement in prostitution has evoked considerable concern and debate about the meaning of the youth sex trade and the best way to bring about its demise. For instance, during the early 1900s, reformers perceived that an international “white slavery trade” had developed and that young women and children were susceptible to being duped into a life of prostitution. In response, women’s groups, social purists and religious organizations lobbied the federal government to enact laws to confront prostitution and criminalize the international trade of young women (see McLaren, 1986). More recently, the Badgley Committee (1984), the Fraser (1985) Committee and the F/P/T Working Group on Prostitution (1998) offered numerous findings and conclusions with respect to the youth sex trade. Further, all levels of government (federal, provincial, municipal) have launched numerous youth-prostitution related reports, committees, task forces and programs and initiatives. At the same time, the social science literature examines a variety of issues and debates surrounding youth involvement in prostitution. This literature review revealed many of the key issues surrounding the impact of youth involvement in prostitution, and it raised important questions about how we understand and respond to the youth sex trade.

Three prominent themes emerged from the literature: 1) There has been a shift in philosophy from treating youth involved in prostitution as criminals to identifying them as victims in need of protection. 2) There is considerable debate in the social science literature about the factors contributing to a youth’s decision to prostitute. 3) Based on this literature review, there appears to be considerable disjuncture between recent policies and programs to address the youth sex trade (e.g., secure care) and key findings reported in the research literature. A number of researchers have identified a gap between the lived realities of youth involved in prostitution and what is reflected in the literature and government policies.

4.1 Legislative History and Development

The legislative history and development literature revealed that, since the late 1800s female prostitutes have been subjected to discriminatory legislation and unequal law enforcement, regardless of age. In contrast to female prostitutes, men associated with the demand aspect of the sex trade and men who sexually procure youth have enjoyed relative immunity from the law.

Despite a history of discriminatory prostitution-related legislation and law enforcement, there have been signs of change. Starting in the 1990s, discussions and efforts to suppress youth prostitution shifted attention towards men who sexually procure youths. Youth involved in prostitution were not charged with s.213 (the communicating law) offences as frequently as in the past. At the same time, service providers and community members in several Canadian jurisdictions questioned the virtual immunity from the law enjoyed by men who purchased the sexual services of youth, and they lobbied for the protection of youth involved in the sex trade.

Since the mid-1990s there has been a growing consensus that youth involved in prostitution are victims of sexual exploitation and/or abuse, and distinct from being treated as offenders. In many Canadian jurisdictions there are new initiatives aimed at protecting sexually exploited youth involved in prostitution, and in some instances there are attempts to amend provincial child welfare legislation so as to (re)define youth prostitution as child abuse. Secure care legislation in Alberta (and similarly proposed legislation in other jurisdictions) represents the most recent initiative aimed at “protecting” youth involved in the sex trade.

However, despite claims about the need to protect youth from the men who sexually procure them, it is youth who continue to be detained and punished under the guise of protection. Several researchers question the utility of the victimization framework, citing problems with denying a youth’s agency and decontextualizing the decision to prostitute. Pheterson (1996) warns that protectionist discourses are euphemisms for control: “that control is clothed in language of ‘protection,’ ‘prevention,’ ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘re-insertion’ of ‘victims’ but the message is consistently a prohibition of self-determination.” Brock (1998: 133) suggests the focus on victimization detracts from discussions about the conditions that make prostitution a choice for some young women and men (e.g. poor paying jobs for youth, a lack of educational opportunities).

4.2 The Social Science Literature

There is some debate in the social science literature with respect to the association between childhood physical and sexual abuse and subsequent involvement in prostitution. Beginning with the Badlgey Report (1984), there have been several questions raised about the nature and the prevalence of the antecedents of youth involvement in the sex trade. For some researchers there is evidence that prostitutes experienced more intrafamilial physical and sexual abuse while growing up than non-prostitutes. Other researchers question the link between childhood abuse and prostitution.

Despite disagreement, it is possible to identify a general process of entry into prostitution:

  1. Many young prostitutes ran away, or were “thrown away” at an early age from home environments they described as intolerable, including frequent cases of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
  2. Many males involved in prostitution ran away to escape discrimination based on their sexual orientation. In this respect, intrafamilial family violence and dysfunction provides the impetus (or the “push”) for some youth to leave home (cf. Lowman, 1987).
  3. Following the decision to run away, many prostitutes were “pulled” to the street life by a desire for autonomy and the need for money.
  4. Once on the streets the situational poverty of street involved youth (i.e., below average education, marginal employment skills, youth unemployment, and inadequate services for street involved youth) and a steady (male) demand for sexual services make prostitution a viable alternative for some youth.
  5. Not every youth involved in prostitution experienced physical and sexual abuse while growing up (and, conversely, not every sexually abused youth becomes involved in prostitution). However, the evidence suggests a strong link between childhood physical and sexual abuse, running away from home, situational poverty and subsequent involvement in prostitution.

Discussions of antecedents to youth involvement in prostitution cannot be understood and discussed outside the broader structural factors that help to generate the youth sex trade, i.e., male sexual socialization, youth oppression, youth employment structures, and gender, race and class issues. As Brock (1998: 141) argues, “the sex trade will continue to be a viable option for women, particularly working class women, as long as they are faced with unequal pay and poor job prospects, unfavourable educational streaming, a high cost of living, inadequate services such as child care, and the lack of reproductive freedom to determine when and how many children they will have.” Similarly, Lowman suggests that youth prostitution “arises form a gendered-based power structure” that fuels the male demand for sexual services and contributes to the situational poverty of youth involved in prostitution (Lowman, 1992). “Ultimately, the solution to juvenile prostitution will require a transformation of male sexual socialization within a diverse system of family forms, and a solution to the marginality of juveniles, particularly females, in the labour force” (Lowman, 1987: 111). In this respect, prostitution must be transformed from its current form by challenging the social conditions that make prostitution a favorable choice for some young people (Brock, 1998; Sullivan, 1992).

4.3 Levels of Disjuncture

A broad overview of the literature reveals a disjuncture between (legal and extra-legal) responses to address the youth sex trade and findings and discussions found within the research literature, between the lived realities of youth involved in prostitution and what is stated in much of the literature and the approaches adopted through recent policy initiatives.

Comparing the history of prostitution-related legislation and law enforcement (chapter 1) with the findings and debates within the social science literature (chapter 2) suggests that research findings have had little bearing on many of the policy directions adopted to address the youth sex trade. For instance, the literature did not recommend secure care as a viable policy option to protect young prostitutes or reduce the youth sex trade – except two government committees that were mandated to examine a secure care option. Interestingly, the literature challenges the victimization discourse that underpins recent secure care strategies (for example, see Pheterson, 1996; Brock, 1998, O’Neill, 2001). Other examples of disjuncture include a gap between the findings of the Fraser Committee and the introduction of the ‘communicating law’ and the research on violence against prostitutes and the policies and initiatives aimed at removing prostitution from certain locales.

Perhaps of most concern is the disjuncture involving the lack of youth-centred research and policies that give voice to those involved in the youth sex trade. Although there is a growing body of literature that gives youth a voice (for example, see O’Neill, 2001, Biesenthal, 1993; McIntyre, 1999), these pale in comparison to the amount of research that examines the characteristics of (research ‘about’) young prostitutes. In addition, there is a growing body of government reports that include ‘consultations’ with young prostitutes as part of their mandate (e.g. British Columbia, 2000; Secure Care Working Group, 1998; Task Force on Children Involved in Prostitution, 1997). However, most of these documents do not give a strong voice to youth that would allow them to truly express their needs and share ideas as to how to address the youth sex trade. As a result of this disjuncture, there are inadequate avenues for youth to inform the research and policy initiatives that impact upon their lived realities.

4.4 Recommendations for Future Research[14]

Knowledge gaps that emerged from the literature review provide several ideas for future research.

  • Research should evaluate legislative amendments and law enforcement practices aimed at men who sexually procure youth and men who purchase the sexual services of a youth, i.e., how does the enforcement (or lack thereof) of these laws impact upon youth involvement in prostitution. In particular, research should be undertaken to examine the enforcement difficulties associated with s.212(4) of the Criminal Code.
  • The literature points to a growing concern with the actions of men who purchase the sexual services of a youth. However, little research has focused on understanding the (male) demand aspect of the youth sex trade; more research is needed to understand why men purchase sex from youth, and the effectiveness of current policies used to confront male customers.
  • The need to evaluate the effectiveness of initiatives such as secure care and other recent programs for addressing the youth sex trade.
  • There is a paucity of research concerning the unique circumstances surrounding Aboriginal youth involvement in prostitution. Encouraging more research in this area is necessary to help address the over-representation of Aboriginal youth in prostitution.
  • More research is needed to understand the nature and extent of the international trafficking of young women for the purpose of prostitution.
  • Although we know a considerable amount about the factors leading to the decision to prostitute, there is a paucity of research on the process of exiting the sex trade.
  • There is little research that incorporates the perspectives of youth involved in prostitution. Future research should ask young prostitutes what role, if any, the law and social services should play in addressing the youth sex trade, and whether youths believe they need “protection,” and if so, what measures should be adopted.
  • Finally, research concerning youth involvement in prostitution should use an integrated approach that examines the broader social and political context (i.e., male sexual socialization, youth oppression and employment structures) that gives rise to the youth sex trade. Research that considers the broader social context is necessary for developing strategies that address existing power relations that make prostitution a viable option for some youth.

[14] In addition to relying on the literature reviewed for this report, the recommendations from this section come from research priorities that John Lowman and Sue McIntyre identified for the Department of Justice Canada, Research and Statistics Division (2001 – forthcoming).

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