Youth Involvement in Prostitution: A Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography

Executive Summary

Since the early 1980s, there has been a growing concern about youth involvement in prostitution. The discovery of youth prostitution as a social problem inspired an unprecedented quantity of research and program initiatives aimed at better understanding and addressing the youth sex trade.[1] 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, in particular the research on childhood physical, sexual and emotional abuse and their role in precipitating youth involvement in prostitution.

Based on a general overview of the literature, this report 1) reviews the legislative history of prostitution from the mid-1800s to present, as well as several policy responses, including government reports and related programs and initiatives; and 2) provides an overview of the main findings and debates in the social science literature, which includes: antecedents of youth involvement in prostitution, young males involved in prostitution, psychological issues, homeless or runaway issues, violence against prostitutes, research on customers/clients, HIV-related issues, exiting prostitution, aboriginal youth involvement in prostitution, trafficking of women for the purpose of prostitution, and miscellaneous international issues.[2]

Legislative History and Policy Response

Social Sciences Literature: An Overview of the Findings and Debates

There is a debate in the social science literature with respect to the association between childhood physical and sexual abuse and subsequent involvement in prostitution. An overview of the literature reveals the following:

Other areas of concern found within the social science literature include the unacceptable levels of violence against women involved in prostitution, the lack of research on customers/clients, the need to understand the process of exiting the sex trade, and the paucity of research specifically focused on Aboriginal youth involvement in prostitution.


Overall, this literature review raises important questions for how researchers and policymakers understand and respond to youth involvement in prostitution. For instance, the report reveals limited youth-centered social science prostitution research and limited efforts to use the experiences of youth involved (or who have been involved) in prostitution to inform prostitution-related policy development. The literature clearly reveals a disjuncture between the lived realities of youth involved in prostitution and current approaches adopted in many recent policy initiatives. Efforts to reduce or combat the youth sex trade will take 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 for some youth.