Youth Involvement in Prostitution: A Focus on Intrafamilial Violence - A Literature Review

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

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

An overview of the literature reveals several important issues surrounding the impact of youth participation in prostitution. This chapter reviews the key findings and debates that appear in the literature.

4.1 Antecedents of Youth Involvement in Prostitution: Intrafamilial Violence and Subsequent Involvement in the Sex Trade

In an attempt to understand why some youth become involved in prostitution, researchers have examined the family background and history of young prostitutes, including their socioeconomic status, their educational and work-related experiences and psychological factors. A salient research topic is the relationship between family dysfunction (i.e., intrafamilial substance abuse and 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 made some youth vulnerable to entering the sex trade.

Silbert and Pines (1981, 1982 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 were victims of childhood sexual exploitation, and everyone 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 were victims of intrafamilial childhood physical and sexual abuse. Further, many young males and females ran away from abusive environments, and once on the streets they were exposed to a variety of conditions that influenced their decision to prostitute.

4.2 Canadian Research on the Antecedents of Youth Prostitution

In Canada, concern with the relationship between sexual abuse and involvement in prostitution emerged with the Badlgey Report (1984). The Badlgey Report produced substantial debate about the prevalence and nature of the link between childhood sexual abuse and subsequent involvement in prostitution (see section 3.0 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) attempted to replicate 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 and sexual abuse. Former prostitutes were more likely to have attempted suicide, and they exhibited 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 commentators have questioned the nature and prevalence of the association between childhood sexual abuse and involvement in prostitution.  Van Brunschot and Brannigan (1992 - Unpublished paper) conducted in-depth interviews with 18 adult female prostitutes, and they 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.

Brannigan and Fleischman (1989) challenged the therapeutic view that characterized youth prostitutes as victims of childhood sexual abuse. The authors reviewed national prosecution data to argue 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.  A review of two studies on runaways in Canada (Fisher, 1989 and Kufeldt and Nimmo, 1987) downplay the link between child abuse, leaving home at an early age, and becoming involved in prostitution. Lowman (1989) challenged Brannigan and Fleischmans’ position by reminding us that a majority of prostitutes entered the sex trade before the age of 18. Further, an alternative interpretation of the data revealed that prostitutes experienced more intrafamilial physical and sexual abuse during their childhood than non-prostitutes.

Brannigan and Van Brunschot (1997) agreed that some young prostitutes ran away from physically and sexually abusive home situations. However they argued with prevalence and nature of the link between childhood sexual abuse and prostitution; the “evidence is inconsistent and contradictory.” The authors suggested it is more important to address the delinquent situations a youth encounters after running away from home than searching for “unobservable traumas and psychiatric disturbances.” Finally, Nandon, Koverola and Schluderman (1998) conducted interviews (based on Silbert’s sexual assault experiences questionnaire) with 45 adolescent female prostitutes and 37 adolescent non-prostitutes. Their results echo previous studies that report “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 nonprostitute 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).

4.3 Young Males Involved in Prostitution

Researchers have noted 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 ran away from physically and sexually abusive home environments (Janus, Burgess and McCormack, 1987; Tremble, 1993; Earls and David, 1989 and 1990). Tremble’s research on gay street youth revealed that a majority of the respondents came from abusive home environments or “placement families.” Earls and David (1989 and 1990) found that in comparison to control groups, male prostitutes experienced more physical and sexual abuse while growing up, and they 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 experienced more sexual and physical abuse than “randomly sampled 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, 1989; Price, Scanlon and Janus, 1984). In general, it appears that many young males involved in prostitution ran away from home because of anti-homosexual/homophobic sentiments in mainstream society (i.e., family, friends, school, etc.) (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” [society beyond prostitution] propelled some young males to the street where situational factors contributed to their decision to prostitute.

4.4 Psychological Issues

Some of the literature focuses on the psychological development and the psychological impact of youth involved in prostitution. Coleman (1989) found that disruptions in the psychosexual and psychological development of young males may contribute to their participation in “destructive and non-ego enhancing prostitution activities.” Dorais (1996) suggested that some male victims of childhood sexual abuse may become involved in “aggressive prostitution” as a means of diverting revenge against the true aggressor. Bartek, Krebs and Taylor (1993) conducted interviews with 20 juvenile delinquents involved in prostitution, 20 non-prostitute juvenile delinquents and 20 control subject. Respondents were asked questions based on the Moral Judgment Interview (MJI) and Joffe and Naditch’s coping and defending test. Delinquents characterized as “low coping” made “lower level moral judgments on the prostitution dilemma than on the less personally relevant MJI dilemmas,” revealing a relationship between moral reasoning and moral judgment.

The psychology literature provides important information on the short- and long-term impact of youth involvement in prostitution. However, psychological studies risk marginalizing important structural variables that help propel the youth sex trade. To avoid this weakness, some researchers have combined psychological and sociological variables to examine youth prostitution. Edney (1988 and 1990) argued that young prostitutes who were sexually abused during childhood experienced a severe loss of self-esteem, and they exhibited poor physical and mental condition. The author describes the process of becoming involved in prostitution by exploring the impact of the social structure (i.e., cultural factors, gender stereotypes, family schools, employment structures, etc.) on individual “lives, behaviours and choices.” For Edney, “...sexual abuse and the victims’ responses to sexual abuse prepared and trained the young girls for prostitution.”

4.5 Homeless or Runaway Youth Involved in Prostitution

Factors associated with childhood physical and sexual abuse, psychological issues, and sexual orientation does not fully describe how some youth become involved in prostitution. Indeed, the homeless and runaway literature has also helped us understand youth involvement in the sex trade. There are several situational variables associated with running away and being homeless that propel some youth to enter prostitution.

Some youth who runaway from home (as noted above, often from physically and sexually abusive home environments) are drawn to the streets by a sense of excitement and a desire for money and independence (Michaud, 1988). However, once on the streets some youth turn to prostitution as a means of subsistence. Weisberg (1985) found that many youth lacked the education and employment skills necessary to subsist, thereby contributing to their decision to prostitute. Sullivan (1986), echoed this conclusion and noted that situational difficulties associated with the street makes prostitution a viable option for some youth, i.e., prostitution for money, shelter and drugs. Michaud (1988) noted that problems associated with homelessness (such as youth unemployment) provides the impetus for some youth to enter prostitution as a source of income.

Webber (1991) conducted in-depth interviews with both street people and ex-street people in various Canadian cities. Her analysis revealed that many youths ran away from an abusive home life, ended up on the streets, and subsequently became involved in prostitution as a means of survival.  The author criticized the criminal justice system for ignoring the living conditions of homeless youth; meanwhile, underfunded service agencies struggle to provide essential service to street youth -- a process that unfolds in an era of “growing poverty and a shrinking social safety net.”

John Hagan and Bill McCarthy have co-authored several studies that examine the relationship between living on the streets and participation in criminal activities (see Hagan and McCarthy, 1992 and 1997; McCarthy and Hagan, 1991, 1992 and 1995; McCarthy, 1990 and 1995). The authors agree that negative home life experiences contribute to a youth’s decision to runaway from home; however, they emphasize that situational difficulties/conditions  associated with the street is a salient variable that precipitates youth involvement in crime and delinquency. Three main themes emerge from Hagan and McCarthy’s research: 1) Disruptive family conditions encourage some youth to runaway from home. 2) Once on the streets, conditions associated with homelessness propels involvement in crime, i.e., hunger is related to theft of food, problems of youth unemployment and lack of shelter is related to involvement in prostitution. 3) The street culture produces criminal networks - street youth become involved in tutelage (student-teacher) relationships which increases their participation in crime and delinquency.

Factors associated with youth homelessness and poverty provides us with further understanding of how some youth become involved in prostitution.  However, the runaway/homeless literature  should not detract from the importance of social structural variables that help to generate the youth sex trade. Indeed, youth prostitution “arises form a genderedbased power structure” that contributes to the situational poverty of youth involved in prostitution, and fuels the male demand for sexual services (Lowman, 1992). In this respect, prostitution must be transformed from its current form by challenging the social conditions that makes prostitution a favorable choice for some young people (Brock, 1998; Sullivan, 1992).

4.6 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 describe how adolescent involvement in prostitution in Brazil is associated with a depressed economic situation. Inciardi (1989 and 1991) examined the phenomenon of trading sex for “crack” cocaine in U.S. cities. Finally, some studies critically examine responses to youth prostitution; 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.

4.7 Research on Customers/Clients

There are relatively few studies on the client/customer. The paucity of research on men who go to prostitutes has been attributed to inadequate records providing information on the demand aspect of the trade (i.e., police have traditionally focused on the activities of prostitutes, and their institutional records reflect this practice), and a general perception that “clients are unwilling to consent to interviews, and unlikely to respond to questionnaire surveys” (Lowman, Atchison and Fraser, 1996: 4).

Some of the customer studies reveal that men who purchase sex from prostitutes are interested in a “brief uncomplicated sexual encounter” (Geme et al, 1984, as quoted in Lowman, Atchison and Fraser, 1996; also, see McLeod, 1982) or they are searching for special sexual acts and they want to keep the “transactional nature of the interaction” secret (McKeganey and Barnard, 1996). Recent Canadian research conducted by Lowman, Atchison and Fraser (1996) indicates that the average age of clients sampled was 34 years, a majority were Canadian citizens and Caucasian, and most worked in blue collar occupations. In general, information on the (male) demand aspect of the sex trade remains a conspicuous gap in the social science literature.

4.8 HIV-Related Issues

Another focus of the extant 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, Siquera, Antunes, Parker, Greco and Halsey, 1993; Sullivan, 1996). Jackson and Highcrest (1996, and Jackson, Highcrest and Coats, 1992) found that HIV infection among non-drug using prostitutes was “absent or low.” Nevertheless, the authors argue 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) criticized images that scapegoat prostitutes as being responsible for spreading HIV. The author argued 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.

4.9 Discursive and Conceptual Issues

In section 1.1 this report highlighted the debates about the definition and meaning of youth involvement in prostitution. However, several articles transcend definition concerns to review the discursive and conceptual issues that influence how we understand youth involvement in the sex trade.

Sullivan (1992) asked the question: “who benefits from law reforms centered on the sexual abuse of adolescents?” The author argues that our response to child sexual abuse (including prostitution) is conceptualized within the “professional liberal welfare state.” Discourse produced by the Badgley Report, and upheld by legislative reform, have paved the way for “the regulation of sexual behaviour in adolescents and families within the context of professionalization of social and family relations, and the social reproduction of families to consume the service commodities produced by helping professional in the post-industrial economy.”

Brock (1998) critically examines the construction of prostitution as a social problem; the work of the Badgley Committee helped redefine youth prostitution as child sexual abuse. In the process the Badgley report propelled the demand for the expansion of “criminal law and social services, despite the questionable adequacy of these measures in meeting the needs of young prostitutes.” Brock cautions that more legislation to control prostitution only service to punish people involved in the sex trade. Instead, we must challenge the social conditions that make prostitution a favorable choice for some women and young people.  Bittle (1999) echoes Brock’s point that youth prostitution has been redefined as child sexual abuse. The author conducted 32 qualitative interviews with various criminal justice personnel, social service professionals and government representatives in British Columbia to examine claimsmaking activities associated with section 212(4) of the Criminal Code (legislation prohibiting purchasing, or attempting to purchase, the sexual services of a youth). The findings indicate that reform efforts to encourage the enforcement of section 212(4) were expedited by a rhetorical system that conceptualized youth prostitution as sexual exploitation. This discursive framework confirmed state and social services ownership of the sexual procurement of youth issue.

Pheterson (1996) argues that social and legal strategies used to intervene in the lives of street involved youth have perpetuated the treatment of this population as “outlaw non-citizens” who are “dispensable, unworthy and lesser beings.” Pheterson 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.” As Biesenthal (1993) argues, our ability to understand female youth prostitution is limited by theory biased toward youth involved in the sex trade, and by the inability to allow young women to express their experience as “subject rather than object of study.”

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