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)

3.7 HIV-Related Issues

An on-going concern within the literature is the relationship between prostitution-related activities and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). Several international studies indicate high-risk HIV-related activities (i.e., unprotected sex, multiple sexual partners, intravenous drug use) among inner-city street youth, and they encourage education and prevention programs to reduce rates of infection (Inciardi, Pottieger, Forney, Chitwood and McBride, 1991; Pennbridge, Freese and MacKenzie, 1992; Pleak and Meyer-Bahlburg, 1990; Raffaelli, Campos, Merrit, Siquiera, Antunes, Parker, Greco, Greco and Halsey, 1993; Sullivan, 1992).

Belk, Ostergaard and Groves (1998) examined the spread of AIDS through prostitution in Thailand. The authors interviewed 25 Chiang Mai University students, 6 foreign male tourists and several service providers. The findings suggest that beliefs and attitudes toward sexuality and prostitute patronage result in higher risk taking behaviour among males (men are traditionally expected to have more than one woman to satisfy their needs, whereas women are expected to remain pure until marriage). Despite increased knowledge about AIDS, sexual practices appear unaffected in Thailand – men continue to engage in unsafe sex. There has been an increased demand for child prostitutes because of the perception that they are not infected with the disease. The authors argue, “if ‘illogical’ risk-taking continues to occur among informed college students, it is even more likely to occur among the less informed majority of the Thai population.”

In Canada, Jackson and Highcrest (1996, and Jackson, Highcrest and Coats, 1992) found that HIV infection among non-drug using prostitutes was “absent or low.” The authors suggest it is important to provide prostitutes with HIV-related intervention and prevention programs that differentiate between the needs of street prostitutes and those working in off-street locales. Brock (1989) criticizes images that scapegoat prostitutes as being responsible for spreading HIV. The author argues that few prostitutes have been found HIV positive and that most prostitutes (except for young women and men who recently entered the sex trade) practice safe sex. Allman (1999) echoes a similar message through his review of the literature on AIDS and male prostitution (see previous section on male prostitution for more details). The author argues that, “viewed holistically, the evidence does much to refute the label of male sex workers as AIDS vectors” (1999: 72).

3.7.1 Summary of Findings

  • Research refutes 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” (Allman, 1999: 72).
  • Several international studies indicate high-risk HIV-related activities (i.e., unprotected sex, multiple sexual partners, intravenous drug use) among inner-city street youth.

3.8 Exiting Prostitution

There is very little research on if, why, and how prostitutes choose to leave the sex trade. Boyer (1986) examined youth in the care of the Seattle Youth and Community Services (SYCS) to “identify factors and attributes precipitating a youth’s decision to seed or sever links with services and continue or discontinue prostitution and ‘street’ behavior.” SYCS provides services to help youth leave the sex trade and related ‘street’ lifestyles. “The youth who successfully exited ‘street’ lifestyles compared to those who have not exited had experienced less child abuse prior to street involvement, had spent more time with parents or parental figures, and had become involved in street life at a later age.”

Mansson and Hedin’s (1999) research included interviews with 23 women between the age of 20 and 58 who had left the sex trade in Sweden.[13] The authors suggest the decision to enter prostitution is influenced by a difficult childhood (e.g. physical, sexual and emotional abuse), accompanied by low self-esteem. “Many of the women were labeled as ‘whores’ early, often long before their actual entry into prostitution. Given such a perspective, the woman’s debut into prostitution is often rather undramatic, even if the context in which it takes place can be quite chaotic” (1999: 71). Some women in the study exited prostitution following an important event or “turning point” (e.g., an eye opening experience, a traumatic or positive life experience). For others, the breakaway developed over time, often in a way that was “unconscious” to the individual. Almost all of the respondents described the “period after their break with prostitution as a very difficult time” (e.g., difficulty understanding their life in prostitution, living in marginal situations, problems with intimate and close relationships). The authors suggest an individual’s commitment to change plays an important role in the process of exiting, a process encouraged by a variety of interpsychological and interpersonal factors. “However, at the end of the day, it is important not to end up in too individualistic explanations. A person’s creative and innovative capacities definitely depend on reliable social relations and institutions in her environment” (1999: 76).

In Canada, Sue McIntyre is currently analyzing the results from her research on the process of exiting prostitution. In 1991, McIntyre interviewed 50 youth involved in prostitution in Calgary, Alberta. The results of this research provided important information on the background characteristics and street experiences of youth involved in prostitution. Following this research, McIntyre identified two significant gaps in the prostitution literature: 1) No data or written material of a retrospective nature on youth involved in prostitution. 2) A paucity of research on the process of leaving prostitution. As a result, in 1999, McIntyre developed a research project to examine the process of exiting prostitution by interviewing and accounting for as many of the original 50 subjects from her 1991 research as possible. The author conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with 38 youth with a history in the sex trade (28 from the original sample and 10 additional subjects). The Research and Statistics Division at the Department of Justice Canada will publish McIntyre’s research results in spring 2002.

3.8.1 Summary of Findings

  • There is very little research on if, why and how prostitutes choose to leave the sex trade.
  • The available information suggests that women leave the sex trade under a variety of conditions (e.g. after a traumatic or positive event or following a lengthy decision-making process) and the period after exiting prostitution is a difficult time (e.g. difficulty making sense of a life in prostitution, living in marginal situations, problems with intimate relationships).

3.9 Aboriginal Youth Involved in Prostitution

Despite widespread acknowledgement of the over-representation of Aboriginal youth in prostitution (see, for example, Fraser, 1985; Lowman, 1987; Webber, 1991; F/P/T Working Group on Prostitution, 1998; Committee for Sexually Exploited Youth in the CRD, 1997; Schissell and Fedec, 1999), there is very little research that specifically focuses on this issue.

Save the Children Canada (2000) recently released their findings from consultations with 150 commercially sexually exploited Aboriginal children and youth across Canada. The purpose of the report is to better understand Aboriginal youth involvement in prostitution and to allow youth to “express their ideas and concerns regarding the issue of abuse, exploitation, prevention, healing, exiting, crisis intervention, harm reduction, public attitudes and youth participation.” In discussing the overrepresentation of Aboriginal youth in prostitution, the authors note “the negative impact of European colonialism on Native peoples and their cultures has been a decisive factor in creating and maintaining barriers of social, economic and political inequality” (2000: 8). The report reveals that all of the Aboriginal youth who participated in the consultation process “spoke of the physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse they experienced in their home lives, as parents, relatives, care givers, and neighbours continued to suffer from the legacy of cultural fragmentation” (2000: 13). The report also outlines how prostitution became a choice for many Aboriginal youth who had left troubled home and community situations and ended up on the streets with few educational and job skills/opportunities.

3.9.1 Summary of Findings

  • There is a paucity of research that specifically examines the issues related to Aboriginal youth involvement in prostitution (despite the fact this population is over-represented in the youth prostitution population).
  • Prostitution was a choice for many Aboriginal youth who had left troubled home and community situations and ended up on the streets with few educational and job skills/opportunities.

3.10 Trafficking Women for the Purpose of Prostitution

A burgeoning area of concern in the prostitution literature surrounds the international trafficking of young women for the purpose of prostitution. Jiwani and Brown (1999) examine the sexual exploitation of young women and girls within an international context. The authors noted that the “Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) defines trafficking as”:

All acts and attempted acts involved in the recruitment, transportation within or across borders, purchase, sale, transfer, receipt or harbouring of a person involving the use of deception, coercion (including the use of threat or force or the abuse of authority) or debt bondage for the purpose of placing or holding such person, whether for pay or not, in involuntary servitude (domestic, sexual or reproductive) in forced or bonded labour, or in slavery-like conditions, in a community other than the one in which such persons lived at the time of the original deception, coercion or debt bondage (GAATW, 1999: 1, as quoted in Jiwani and Brown, 1999: 1-2).

Jiwani and Brown (1999) outlined several factors that contribute to the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual exploitation and abuse, including poverty, violence, and the devaluation of women and girls. The Canadian literature highlights three categories of trafficking: trafficking within the “national and international sex trade”; migrant workers who are sexually exploited; and the “the importation of girls and women as mail order brides” (1999: 9). Many youth who are sexually exploited and trafficked are runaways or “throwaways who turn to street prostitution as a way of survival.”

McDonald, Moore and Timoshinka (2000) conducted interviews with 20 sex trade workers, 15 service providers and 15 key informants (e.g. police, massage parlour owners, and immigration officials) to examine the trafficking of women from Central and Eastern Europe to Canada. Trafficking in women is defined as “all acts involved in the recruitment and transportation of a woman within and across national borders for work or services by means of violence, or threat of violence, abuse of authority or dominate position, debt bondage, deception or other forms of coercion” (2000: 8). The sex trade workers who were consulted for the study design objected to the term ‘trafficking’; they argued it was inappropriate as not all sex trade workers were “…helpless victims who did not choose their work or to migrate to Canada” (2000: 10). The authors reveal that political and economic changes in the former Soviet Union and the transition to a market economy in Central and Eastern Europe have contributed to a “feminization of poverty,” making some women vulnerable to exploitation through trafficking. “Conditions of recruitment, migration and employment were, in many cases, deplorable and characterized by exploitation, control and illegal activity” (2000: vi).

Overall, the literature on the trafficking of women for the purpose of prostitution is still developing and therefore cannot provide a good understanding of this phenomenon as it relates to the Canadian context. More research is therefore needed to develop clearer picture of the nature and extent of the international trafficking of women for prostitution.

3.10.1 Summary of Findings

  • Factors that contribute to the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual exploitation and abuse include poverty, violence, and the devaluation of women.
  • Sex trade workers appear to object to the term ‘trafficking’ indicating that not all sex trade workers were “…helpless victims who did not choose their work or to migrate to Canada.”
  • Political and economic changes may contribute to a “feminization of poverty,” making some women vulnerable to exploitation through trafficking.
  • Overall, this body of literature is developing. It is too soon to provide a good understanding of this phenomenon as it relates to the Canadian context. More research is therefore needed.

3.11 Miscellaneous International Issues

International research highlights a variety of youth prostitution-related issues. There are studies that examine the antecedents of youth involvement in prostitution in various countries and cultures (for example, see Adedoyin and Adegoke, 1995; Damgaard, 1995; Hwang, 1995; Udegbe and Fajimolu, 1992). Other studies explore the conditions youth prostitutes face in large inner-city/urban settings. Firme, Grinder and Barreto (1991) describe how adolescent involvement in prostitution in Brazil is associated with a depressed economic situation. Inciardi (1989) examined the phenomenon of trading sex for “crack” cocaine in U.S. cities. Pawar (1991) notes how legislation introduced to prevent the sexual exploitation of children and females in India has failed to stop the proliferation of the sex trade.

Child sex tourism represents a growing issue of concern within the international literature. For instance, David (2000) reviews the Australian Crimes (Child Sex Tourism) Amendments Act 1994, including an examination of several cases that have been prosecuted under this legislation. (Child sex tourism is defined as seeking sexual services of children in developing countries.) The Act makes it an offence to engage or participate in sexual intercourse/conduct with a child under the age of 18 while traveling outside of Australia or induce a child to engage in sexual intercourse “with a third person outside of Australia”. The author also outlines several barriers to prosecution (e.g. problems securing overseas evidence, difficulties dealing with child witnesses, and the number of unreported cases). (See, also Opperman, 1999 for a review of the sex tourism literature).


[13] Although this research includes adult subjects, it is still helpful in understanding the process of leaving prostitution (e.g., it might shed light on potential strategies for helping young women and men who want to leave the sex trade).

Date modified: