Youth Involvement in Prostitution: A Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography

Executive Summary

Since the early 1980s, there has been a growing concern about youth involvement in prostitution. The discovery of youth prostitution as a social problem inspired an unprecedented quantity of research and program initiatives aimed at better understanding and addressing the youth sex trade.[1] This report is a comprehensive literature review on youth involved in prostitution, with a focus on legal and extra-legal responses to the youth sex trade and the main findings and debates in the social science literature, in particular the research on childhood physical, sexual and emotional abuse and their role in precipitating youth involvement in prostitution.

Based on a general overview of the literature, this report 1) reviews the legislative history of prostitution from the mid-1800s to present, as well as several policy responses, including government reports and related programs and initiatives; and 2) provides an overview of the main findings and debates in the social science literature, which includes: antecedents of youth involvement in prostitution, young males involved in prostitution, psychological issues, homeless or runaway issues, violence against prostitutes, research on customers/clients, HIV-related issues, exiting prostitution, aboriginal youth involvement in prostitution, trafficking of women for the purpose of prostitution, and miscellaneous international issues.[2]

Legislative History and Policy Response

  • The legislative history and policy development literature reveals that over time female prostitutes have been subjected to discriminatory legislation and unequal law enforcement, regardless of age (for example, see Sullivan, 1986, Lowman, 1997).
  • In contrast to female prostitutes, men associated with the demand aspect of the sex trade have enjoyed relative immunity from the law.
  • Despite a history of discriminatory prostitution-related legislation and law enforcement, there have been some signs of policy changes pertaining to youth prostitution.
  • Since the 1990s, discussions and efforts to suppress and control the youth sex trade have shifted away from the youth prostitute to the men who purchase, or attempt to purchase their sexual services.
  • During this time, an overview of various federal, provincial and municipal government sponsored reports and initiatives reveal a shift in the philosophical approach to youth involvement in prostitution toward a growing consensus that young prostitutes are victims of sexual exploitation, rather than offenders. In many Canadian jurisdictions there are examples of new initiatives aimed at protecting young prostitutes, including several attempts to amend child welfare legislation so as to (re)define youth prostitution as child sexual abuse.
  • Regardless of the strategies to protect youth involved in prostitution from the men who sexually procure them, there is a perception in the literature that young prostitutes are still punished under the guise of protection. In 1999, for example, the Alberta government introduced the Protection of Children Involved in Prostitution Act, which permits authorities (e.g., police or social workers) to detain a young prostitute in secure custody to receive emergency care and treatment. Other jurisdictions (e.g., British Columbia and Nova Scotia) have considered similar legislation.
  • Such response is not without its critics. For instance, several articles reviewed for this paper caution that attempts to “help” or “protect” young prostitutes may be interpreted by youth involved in prostitution as another form of control (i.e., protection as a euphemism for control). In this respect, recent strategies to protect youth involved in prostitution harkens back to the early 1900s when reformers emphasized the need to protect youth, but the practice resulted in the further punishment of young prostitutes – all under the guise of protection.

Social Sciences Literature: An Overview of the Findings and Debates

There is a debate in the social science literature with respect to the association between childhood physical and sexual abuse and subsequent involvement in prostitution. An overview of the literature reveals the following:

  • Many young prostitutes ran away or were forced out – or ‘thrown away’ (see, for example, Lowman, 1987) – at an early age from home environments they described as intolerable, including frequent cases of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
  • Many males involved in prostitution may have run away to escape discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
  • In many respects, intrafamilial family violence and dysfunction often provides the impetus to leave home.
  • Following their decision to run away, many prostitutes were attracted (“pulled”) to street-life by a desire for autonomy and money.
  • Once on the streets the situational poverty of street involved youth (i.e., below average education, limited employment skills, youth unemployment and inadequate services) and a steady (male) demand for sexual services, make prostitution a viable alternative for some youths.

Other areas of concern found within the social science literature include the unacceptable levels of violence against women involved in prostitution, the lack of research on customers/clients, the need to understand the process of exiting the sex trade, and the paucity of research specifically focused on Aboriginal youth involvement in prostitution.

Conclusion

Overall, this literature review raises important questions for how researchers and policymakers understand and respond to youth involvement in prostitution. For instance, the report reveals limited youth-centered social science prostitution research and limited efforts to use the experiences of youth involved (or who have been involved) in prostitution to inform prostitution-related policy development. The literature clearly reveals a disjuncture between the lived realities of youth involved in prostitution and current approaches adopted in many recent policy initiatives. Efforts to reduce or combat the youth sex trade will take further research to increase our understanding of this phenomenon, a general willingness to listen to the needs of youth involved in prostitution, and a desire to address the conditions that make prostitution a favorable option for some youth.


  • [1] For the purpose of this report, youth involved in prostitution, youth prostitution and youth sex trade will be used interchangeably.
  • [2] This report updates the information from a previous Department of Justice, Research and Statistics Division literature review (see, Bittle, 1999).
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