Youth Involvement in Prostitution: A Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography

1. Introduction

1. Introduction

Since the early 1980s, there has been a growing concern among government officials and academics with the involvement of children and youth in prostitution. The identification of youth prostitution as a social problem inspired an unprecedented quantity of research and government reports aimed at better understanding and addressing the youth sex trade.

1.1 Purpose of the Report

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. There is a special emphasis on the research on childhood physical, sexual and emotional abuse and their role in precipitating youth involvement in prostitution. In an effort to better inform future policy decisions, this report will provide researchers and policymakers with a better understanding of the many contradictory issues that surround youth involvement in prostitution. Efforts to reduce or combat the youth sex trade will require 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 to some youth.

This review includes a general overview of the literature and a comprehensive annotated bibliography (see appendix A). Information for this report was gathered through library sources, selected Internet sites, and requests for prostitution-related information made to representatives of the Federal-Provincial-Territorial (F-P-T) Working Group on Prostitution which was established in 1992 to examine legislation, policy and practices concerning prostitution-related activities – including a special emphasis on youth involvement in prostitution.

1.2 Definitional Issues

There are various debates in the literature about the definition, characteristics and age of young prostitutes. For example, although youth prostitution is commonly discussed in the context of young women involved in the sex trade, research in this area also highlights male involvement (see Committee on Sexual Offences Against Children and Youth, 1984 [hereafter referred to as Badgley or Badgely Committee]; Earls and David, 1989; Visano, 1987) and the over-representation of Aboriginal youth (see Currie et al, 1995; Lowman, 1987).

A further debate in the literature surrounds the meaning of youth involvement in prostitution. For some researchers it constitutes the direct sexual exploitation of youth, while others consider it the exchange of sexual services to subsist (i.e., for food or shelter) or for monetary purposes (i.e., money to purchase drugs). This is most evident in that recent discussions about youth involvement in prostitution are dominated by a sexual victimization and exploitation framework (British Columbia, 1996; Halldorson Jackson, 1998; Manitoba Child and Youth Secretariat, 1996). For instance, several government reports (municipal, provincial and federal) base their work upon the conceptualization that youth prostitution represents a form of child sexual abuse (for example, see Lines, 1998, Task Force on Children Involved in Prostitution, 1997) and that the youth involved in prostitution is considered a victim rather than an offender.

The age debate in the literature focuses on determining: a) the average age of youth upon entry into prostitution, and b) the age used to define young prostitutes. First, the research identifies a range of entry ages. The Badgley Committee (1984) reported that almost half of their respondents entered prostitution before the age of 15. Lowman and Fraser (1996) found the average age of entry was 16.3 years for females and 15.6 years for males. Research conducted in Victoria, British Columbia revealed 15.5 years as the average age for entering into prostitution (Report of the Sexually Exploited Youth Committee of the Capital Regional District, 1997). In general, the literature indicates that most prostitutes entered the sex trade before the age of 18, many before the age of 16. Second, researchers have also used different ages to define a youth prostitute. The Badgley Committee (1984) identified “juvenile prostitutes” as being under the age of 20; while the Fraser Committee used up to age 18. More recently, the F/P/T Prostitution Working Group used age 18 and under to define youth involved in prostitution, citing that the Young Offenders Act identifies a “young person” as being under 18, and that s.212(4) of the Criminal Code prohibits purchasing, or attempting to purchase, the sexual services of someone under the age of 18. Notwithstanding, most of the literature defines young prostitutes as being under 18 years of age.[3]

1.3 Overview of the Issues

A broad overview of the extant literature reveals many key issues surrounding the impact of youth involvement in the sex trade. The first section of the report discusses the history and development of prostitution-related legislation and law enforcement. Following this, the document reviews several findings and debates in the social science literature. The report concludes with a review of the findings, recommends future research, and an annotated bibliography of references used in the analysis.


[3] Some social service agencies define “youths” as those under the age of 24 years; this provides agencies with more clients, and enables them to qualify for other government funding (Data collected in Vancouver, B.C. by Bittle, 1999).

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