Youth Involvement in Prostitution: A Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography

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

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

An overview of the social science literature reveals several issues and themes surrounding the impact of youth involvement in prostitution. This chapter reviews these themes and highlights key findings and debates within the literature.

3.1 Antecedents of Youth Involvement in Prostitution

To understand why some youth become involved in prostitution, many researchers have examined the family background and history of young prostitutes, including their socioeconomic status, educational and work-related experiences, and psychological factors. Within this literature, a salient research topic is the relationship between childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse and subsequent involvement in prostitution. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, several studies in the United States examined the childhood sexual experiences of “juvenile prostitutes.” James and Meyerding’s (1977; see also, Vitaliano, James and Boyer, 1981) comparison of prostitutes with non-prostitutes revealed that many prostitutes were victims of childhood sexual abuse, resulting in an “abusive sexual identity” that led some youth to enter the sex trade.

Silbert and Pines (1981, 1982a, 1982b and 1983) produced several articles that asserted a positive relationship between early childhood sexual victimization and the subsequent decision to prostitute. The authors invited 200 current and former female prostitutes in the San Francisco Bay area to complete a Sexual Assault Experiences Questionnaire. The data indicated that 60% of the respondents had been victims of childhood sexual exploitation. Every respondent experienced physical and emotional abuse. Many (2/3) of the respondents had been sexually abused by father figures, and most stated their early sexual exploitation influenced their decision to become involved in prostitution.

In her research on male and female adolescent prostitution, Weisberg (1985) found that many prostitutes had been victims of intrafamilial childhood physical and sexual abuse. Furthermore, many young males and females in her research had run away from abusive environments. Once on the streets, these youth were exposed to a variety of conditions that influenced their decision to prostitute.

In Canada, concern over the relationship between sexual abuse and involvement in prostitution emerged with the work of the Badgley Committee (1984). As outlined in the previous chapter, the work undertaken by the Badgley Committee was the most extensive research completed on youth involvement in prostitution in Canada. The Committee argued “…youths who later became juvenile prostitutes were no more at risk when they were growing up than other Canadian children and youths of having been victims of sexual offences” (1984: 978). This finding propelled substantial debate about the prevalence and nature of the link between childhood sexual abuse and subsequent involvement in prostitution (see previous chapter for details).

Contrary to the Badgley Committee, several Canadian studies report high levels of childhood sexual abuse among street prostitutes (see, for example, Gemme et al, 1984; Lowman, 1984; Bagley and Young, 1987; Earls and David, 1990). Bagley and Young (1987) replicated Silbert and Pines’ research on the association between childhood sexual abuse and subsequent involvement in prostitution. The authors compared interviews with 45 former prostitutes and results from a group of non-prostitutes who participated in a mental health study (including a second comparison group of 40 women from the mental health study who reported childhood sexual abuse). Bagley and Young concluded that former prostitutes were more likely to have experienced a home life that included family-related alcohol issues, physical and emotional abuse, as well as sexual abuse. Former prostitutes were more likely to attempt suicide, and to exhibit poor mental health and devastated self-esteem.

Earls and David (1990) conducted interviews with male and female “prostitutes” and “non-prostitutes” to compare early family and sexual experiences. Their results suggested a relationship between “sexual interaction with a family member” and becoming involved in prostitution. “Based on our results, it would thus seem that the probability of entering prostitution may be closely related to leaving home at an early age, having a history of sexual abuse, and, in the case of males, having homosexual preferences” (Earls and David, 1990: 10).

Some researchers questioned the nature and prevalence of the association between childhood sexual abuse and involvement in prostitution. Brannigan and Fleischman (1989) challenged the therapeutic view that characterizes youth prostitutes as victims of childhood sexual abuse. The authors reviewed national prosecution data and argued that young prostitutes comprise only a minority of the total number of individuals involved in prostitution. Further, they suggested that research on the association between childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse, and subsequent involvement in prostitution is guilty of methodological and ideological inconsistencies. To support their claim, Brannigan and Fleischman reviewed two studies on runaways in Canada (Fisher, 1989 and Kufeldt and Nimmo, 1987), which downplay the link between child abuse, leaving home at an early age, and becoming involved in prostitution.

Lowman (1989) challenged Brannigan and Fleischman (1989) for uncritically accepting the “estimated incidence of ‘physical abuse’ in different studies, or the way it is conceptualized as being distinct from or linked to ‘sexual abuse’.” Lowman (1989) argued that variance in the estimates was the result of the different definitions of abuse, with high figures coming from studies that examine incidents involving non-family and family members and “mid-range” figures including “family members only.” Further, many of the low estimates cited by Brannigan and Fleischman (1989) came from studies that included male and female prostitutes (males being less likely to have experienced childhood sexual victimization). Overall, Lowman expressed considerable doubt over Brannigan and Fleischamn’s argument and suggested their analysis should not be used as a basis to challenge the association between childhood sexual victimization, running away from home at an early age and entering prostitution.

Brannigan and Van Brunschot (1997) agreed that some young prostitutes ran away from physically and sexually abusive home situations. However, they argued that in terms of the prevalence and nature of the link between childhood sexual abuse and prostitution “evidence is inconsistent and contradictory.” The authors stated that it is more important to address the delinquent situations a youth encounters after running away from home rather than searching for “unobservable traumas and psychiatric disturbances.”[10]

Nandon, Koverola and Schludermann (1998) conducted interviews (based on Silbert’s sexual assault experiences questionnaire) with 45 adolescent female prostitutes and 37 adolescent non-prostitutes. Their results echoed previous studies that reported “childhood physical and sexual abuse, intrafamilial violence, substance abuse problems, and poor self-esteem among prostitutes.” However, “these factors...failed to discriminate the prostitutes and the non-prostitute groups.” The authors also found that prostitutes ran away from home more frequently than non-prostitutes (suggesting a process of entering prostitution, not a causal link).

More recently, McClanahan, McClelland, Abram and Teplin (1999) suggested that previous research on precursors to prostitution was hindered by small sample sizes, less than ideal comparison groups, and a failure to examine the interrelationship among involvement in prostitution and childhood sexual victimization, running away and drug abuse. McClanahan et al interviewed 1,142 female detainees at the Cook County Department of Corrections, focusing on history of involvement in prostitution, and experiences of childhood sexual abuse, running away and drug abuse. Despite several limitations (e.g. bias sample of jail detainees, limited opportunity for respondents to discuss experiences), the authors confirmed previous studies, which suggest that childhood sexual abuse and running away are “powerful” risk factors for entry into prostitution. As the authors noted:

“…childhood sexual victimization has a lifelong effect on entry into prostitution, doubling or nearly doubling the odds of entry into the sex trade. Having run away, by contrast, affected entry into routine prostitution only in the early adolescent years, increasing the odds of entry into prostitution during that period by more than 40 times” (1999: 1611).

Finally, McIntyre (1999) interviewed 50 sex trade workers (41 female) in Calgary, Alberta. Using grounded theory and a feminist approach to data interpretation, McIntyre asked respondents a broad range of “social and demographic questions.” Among the findings, McIntyre noted that eighty-two percent of the sample had been “sexually violated” prior to their involvement with the sex trade, while three-quarters had a history of physical abuse.

3.1.1 Summary of Findings

  • The extant research on the antecedents of youth involvement in prostitution suggest that childhood sexual and physical abuse is an important background experience for many youth involved in the sex trade.
  • However, based on the research findings, there does not appear to be a direct causal link between these childhood experiences and becoming involved in prostitution (i.e., 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). On the contrary, the decision to prostitute must be understood as a process of “defamilialization” (i.e. childhood physical and sexual abuse, running away from home, and homelessness) (e.g., see Lowman, 1991b, McIntyre, 1999).[11]

To further examine the process of entering the sex trade, the discussion now turns to the prostitution-related literature on male prostitution, psychological issues and homelessness.

3.2 Young Males Involved in Prostitution

The literature on male prostitution is limited in comparison to the information on the background characteristics and experiences of young female prostitutes. Notwithstanding, some research notes important dynamics associated with young males involved in prostitution.

As with research on female prostitution, the literature suggests that young males involved in the sex trade had run away from physically and sexually abusive home environments (Janus, Burgess and McCormack, 1987; Tremble, 1993; Earls and David, 1989a and 1990). Tremble’s research on gay street youth revealed that a majority of respondents had come from abusive home environments or “placement families.” Earls and David (1989a and 1990) found that in comparison to control groups, male prostitutes had experienced more physical and sexual abuse while growing up, and had witnessed more violence between parents, more drug and alcohol use among family members, and were more likely to identify male partners as their first sexual experience. Janus, Burgess and McCormack (1987) found that male runaways had experienced more sexual and physical abuse than “randomly sampled [male] populations.”

The literature also reveals several characteristics that are unique to the male sex trade. Weisberg (1985) noted that many adolescent males involved in prostitution exhibited homosexual preferences (also see Earls and David, 1989a; Price, Scanlon and Janus, 1984). Several items suggest that many young males involved in prostitution had run away from home because of anti-homosexual/homophobic sentiments in mainstream society (e.g., family, friends, school) (See, Kruks, 1991 and Visano, 1987) – in essence, they were ridiculed and ostracized for their homosexual preferences (Badgley, 1984). In this respect, discriminatory attitudes in “square society” propelled some young males to the street where situational factors contributed to their decision to prostitute.

Dan Allman (1999) reviews the literature on male sex work and AIDS in Canada. The objective of the report is to “focus health discussions about male sex work in relation to HIV and AIDS,” contribute to a better understanding of male sex work in Canada, and “inform the very pressing legal, ethical and policy debates on the roles and rights of sex workers in Canadian society.” Allman (1999) notes the paucity of research on male sex workers, and suggests that most literature fails to recognize that males enter the sex trade for different reasons than females. Available demographic information suggests that male prostitutes are typically younger than female prostitutes and that “troubled home environments” contribute to a young male’s entry into the sex trade (1999: 18-20). Allman (1999) focuses on the HIV and AIDS literature, which he characterizes as lacking consistency with respect to “measurements used or of populations sampled.” However, viewed holistically, Allman argues “…the evidence does much to refute the label of male sex workers as AIDS vectors…Instead, it suggests that increasingly, male sex workers in Canada are protecting themselves, their clients and their sexual partners from STD and HIV infection and transmission” (1999: 72).

3.2.1 Summary of Findings

  • Many young males involved in prostitution had run away from physically and sexually abusive home environments.
  • Some research suggests that young males involved in prostitution had run away from home because of anti-homosexual/homophobic sentiments in mainstream society.

  • [10] In another study, Van Brunschot and Brannigan (1992 - Unpublished paper) conducted in-depth interviews with 18 adult female prostitutes, and administered questionnaires to a control group of 95 introductory level junior college and university students. The authors failed to find a significant difference between the two groups with respect to sexual abuse experienced during childhood. The strongest coefficients were criminal records, running away, having children, physical abuse, and non-traditional family arrangements.
  • [11] Recent research on off-street prostitution suggests the experiences of women involved in this aspect of the sex trade differs substantially from that of women involved in the street trade (Lowman, 2001). For instance, Vanwesenbeeck’s (1997) research from the Netherlands suggests that women working in off-street locales had not experience the same levels of childhood physical and sexual abuse as their street level counterparts. (from: Vanwesenbeeck, I. "Levels of Victimization and Well-Being in Female Sex Workers." Paper presented at Caring for Victims. 9th International Symposium on Victimization, Amsterdam, 1997).
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