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

5. Conclusions

5. Conclusions

In Canada, youth involvement in prostitution has evoked considerable concern and debate about the meaning of the youth sex trade and the best way to bring about its demise. The Badgley Committee (1984), the Fraser (1985) Committee and the F/P/T working group on prostitution (1998) offered numerous findings and conclusions with respect to the youth sex trade. Further, numerous youth-prostitution related reports, committees, task forces and initiatives have been launched by provincial and municipal governments across Canada. Finally, the social science literature includes a variety of issues and debates concerning youth prostitution. This literature review revealed many of the key issues surrounding the impact of youth involvement in prostitution, and it raised important questions about how we understand and respond to the youth sex trade

Overall, the literature revealed that most prostitutes enter the sex trade at a young age (most before the age of 18, and many before 16), and once on the streets most prostitutes experience violence at the hands of their customers and pimps. A broad overview of the literature revealed many of the key issues surrounding the impact of youth involvement in prostitution. Two themes emerged from the literature: 1) There has been a shift in philosophy from treating youth involved in prostitution as criminals to identifying them as victims in need of protection. Censuring the actions of men who sexually procure youth is a corollary of this recent shift in emphasis. 2) There is some disagreement in the social science literature about the factors contributing to a youth’s decision to prostitute. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify a general process of entry into prostitution.

The legislative history and development literature revealed that female prostitutes have been subjected to discriminatory legislation and unequal law enforcement, regardless of age. 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 are signs of change. There are indications in the 1990s that discussions and efforts to suppress youth prostitution are shifting towards men who sexually procure youths. Youth involved in prostitution are not being charged with s.213 (the communicating law) offences as frequently as they have in the past. Service providers and community members in several Canadian jurisdictions have questioned the virtual immunity from the law enjoyed by men who purchase the sexual services of youth, and they have lobbied for the protection of youth involved in the sex trade. Further, the federal government amended s.212(4) of the Criminal Code (prohibiting purchasing, or attempting to purchase the sexual services of a youth) to make it easier for police to arrest men who buy, or attempt to buy, sex from a youth.

An overview of the various federal, provincial and municipal government sponsored reports and recommendations also indicated a shift in the philosophical approach towards youth involvement in prostitution. Since the mid-1990s there has been a growing consensus that youth involved in prostitution are victims of sexual exploitation and/or abuse, and distinct from being treated as offenders. In many Canadian jurisdictions there are new initiatives aimed at protecting

 sexually exploited youth involved in prostitution, and in some instances there are attempts to amend provincial child welfare legislation so as to (re)define youth prostitution as child abuse. Part of these efforts include attempts to censure the actions of men who sexually procure youths.

There is some debate in the social science literature with respect to the association between childhood physical and sexual abuse and subsequent involvement in prostitution. Beginning with the Badlgey Report (1984) there have been several questions raised about the nature and the prevalence of the antecedents of youth involvement in the sex trade. For some researchers there is evidence that prostitutes experienced more intrafamilial physical and sexual abuse while growing up than non-prostitutes. Other researchers question the link between abuse and prostitution.

Despite disagreement, it is possible to identify a general process of how some youth become involved in prostitution: 1) It appears that many young prostitutes ran away, or were “thrown away” at an early age from home environments that they described as intolerable, including  frequent cases of violence and physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Many males involved in prostitution ran away to escape discrimination based on their sexual orientation. In this respect, intrafamilial family violence and dysfunction provides the impetus (or the “push”) for some youth to leave home. 2) Following the decision to runaway, many prostitutes were “pulled” to the street life by a desire for autonomy and the need for money. However, once on the streets the situational poverty of street involved youth (i.e., below average education, marginal employment skills, youth unemployment, and inadequate services for street involved youth) and a steady (male) demand for sexual services, makes prostitution a viable alternative for some youths. 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); however, the evidence suggests an association (not a direct causal link) between childhood physical and sexual abuse, running away from home and subsequent involvement in prostitution.

Finally, several questions have been raised with respect to discursive and conceptual factors that influence how we understand and respond to youth prostitution. First, discussions of antecedents to youth involvement in prostitution, and initiatives to combat the youth sex trade should not ignore the broader structural factors that help to generate this phenomenon, i.e., male sexual socialization, youth oppression, youth employment structures, and gender, race and class issues. Second, several articles caution that attempts to “help” or “protect” youth involved in prostitution can be interpreted by the youth as a form of control. As Gail Pheterson notes, “...control is clothed in language of “protection,” “prevention,” “re-habilitation” and “reinsertion” of “victims” but the message is consistently a prohibition of self-determination.” In this respect there is a need to develop “reflective and strategic” (cf. Shaw and Butler, 1998) responses to youth involvement in prostitution.  

5.1 Recommendations for Future Research

Knowledge gaps that emerged from the literature provide several ideas for future research. First, research should evaluate legislative amendments and law enforcement practices with respect to men who sexually procure youth and men who purchase the sexual services of a youth, i.e., how does the enforcement (or lack thereof) of these laws impact upon youth involvement in prostitution. Second, the literature points to a growing concern with the actions of men who purchase the sexual services of a youth. However, little research has focused on understanding the (male) demand aspect of the youth sex trade; more research is needed to understand why men purchase sex from youths, and the effectiveness of current policies used to confront male customers. Third, considering the disagreement about the antecedents of youth involvement in prostitution, researchers must continue to examine the factors that precede youth entry into the sex trade, i.e., the association between intrafamilial abuse, running away and involvement in prostitution. Fourth, a conspicuous gap in the literature is research that incorporates the perspectives of youth involved in prostitution. Future research should ask young prostitutes what role, if any, the law and social services should play in addressing the youth sex trade, and whether youths believe they need “protection,” and if so, what measures should be adopted. Finally, research concerning youth involvement in prostitution should use an integrated approach that examines the broader social and political context (i.e., male sexual socialization, youth oppression and employment structures) that gives rise to the youth sex trade. Research that considers the broader social context is necessary to help develop strategies that address existing power relations that makes prostitution a viable option for some youths. 

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