"Stigmatised, marginalised and criminalised"
An overview of the issues relating to children and young people involved in prostitution
By Abigail Levy (December 2004)
Children and young people involved in prostitution are a group who are thoroughly disadvantaged in society. They are an extremely vulnerable group of young people, and their "decisions" to become involved in prostitution should be understood in the context of their vulnerability and exploitation.
There have been a number of important changes in policy and practice, including the recognition that children and young people involved in prostitution should be treated as "children in need" and regarded as likely to be suffering "significant harm" 1 . However, fundamental gaps still exist in our understanding, in legislation and policy, and in services and support for these young people.
The legal context
- The laws relating to adult and child prostitution do not differ and until recently legal agencies responded to children and young people involved in prostitution as if they were adult prostitutes.
- The Government's recent guidance acknowledged important distinctions in the way adult and child prostitution should be treated 2 . The law, however, still does not distinguish between them. There are also many remaining tensions and areas of ambiguity in the guidance which are yet to be resolved. In particular, that the government guidance still allows for young people involved in prostitution to be processed through the criminal justice system when they are considered to be "voluntarily and persistently" returning to prostitution 3 .
Who is involved and where it takes place
- It is estimated that up to 5,000 children and young people are involved in prostitution at any one time 4 and it is also generally believed that the problem is increasing.
- Research indicates that the age at which children and young people become involved appears to be getting younger 5 . Certainly many children and young people are becoming involved before they can legally consent to sex.
- It has been estimated that of the 5,000 young people thought to be involved in prostitution at any one time there is a female to male ratio of 4:1 6 . Little information exists on the ethnic backgrounds of children and young people involved in prostitution in the UK.
- Within the UK children and young people are involved in prostitution in a number of locations. However, most are thought to be involved in prostitution on the streets, which places them at increased risk of harm.
How children and young people become involved in prostitution
- It is now widely thought that many young people first become involved in prostitution through pimps who use sophisticated models of grooming to entrap them. Discussions of grooming and entrapment almost always only refer to men as the perpetrators. However, there is some evidence that women are also involved in procuring children and young people for prostitution.
- However, grooming can only ever offer a partial explanation for how young people become involved in prostitution. In fact, the available research on youth prostitution often emphasises pimping as irrelevant to many involved.
- Much research points to the importance of peer introduction to prostitution, and many young people are described as "drifting" into prostitution on a more "freelance" basis for survival.
Why children and young people become involved in prostitution
- It is impossible to identify a single cause for why a young person has become involved in prostitution, and involvement appears to be the result of a complex interaction of personal, psychological social and economic factors. However, certain factors appear as common "contributory problems".
- Experiences of childhood sexual and physical abuse appear as very prominent in the lives of children and young people involved in prostitution. Some researchers regard childhood abuse as directly linked to entry into prostitution, in that it produces a loss of self-worth and indifference to treatment which increases vulnerability to grooming and likelihood of viewing prostitution as a viable "solution" in times of need. Other researchers view childhood abuse as being only indirectly linked to prostitution: a factor that may set in motion a series of other events, such as running away and entry into care, which then increases vulnerability to prostitution.
- Research with children and young people involved in prostitution reveals high rates of experience of residential care. Both the problems that young people bring with them into care and the care experience itself appear to be relevant in explaining the links with entry into prostitution. Particular issues include: pimp targeting of residential care settings and the staff often feeling that they are unable to intervene effectively; greater levels of peer pressure in care settings to engage in "risky activities"; the nature of the care system in exacerbating the powerlessness and worthlessness that many young people in care feel; and inadequate levels of education and support on leaving care.
- The links between running away and entry into prostitution are strong and prostitution is a common survival strategy used by young runaways. Each year approximately 77,000 young people under the age of 16 run away from home and care institutions 7 . Running away is
usually a cry for help and a desperate last resort, but there are very few services and sources of support available for children and young people who run away.
- Many children and young people say that they became involved in prostitution out of desperation for money. In particular, we know that the current benefits system makes it very hard for young people who have left home to get financial support.
- The need for money to purchase drugs also appears as a common reason given by young people for their involvement in prostitution. However, it is not clear whether the majority of young people started using drugs before becoming involved in prostitution or only after they had become involved. Much research demonstrates that drug use is never an isolated issue for young people involved in prostitution.
- Social isolation, poor self-esteem and the demand of "clients" for children and young people should all also be regarded as "necessary conditions" for the involvement of children and young people in prostitution.
The experiences of children and young people involved in prostitution
- Young people involved in prostitution experience persistent and high levels of violence - from clients, pimps, other prostitutes, the public and even professionals. However, many of these young people do not report the violence they experience for many reasons, including fear of the police, lack of confidence that their reports will be taken seriously and fear of retaliation. Instead, many young people develop their own protection strategies against violence, or seek ways to cope with it, but these are largely seen as ineffective in the research literature.
- Drug and alcohol use appears central to the lives of many young people involved in prostitution. For many, drugs and alcohol are used to block out past and present circumstances. However, the benefits of these "coping strategies" are short-lived and most young people also experience very negative effects from drug and alcohol use.
- There is no data available on the health risks of young people involved in prostitution in the UK, but accounts of those involved reveal that many suffer from a number of health problems. Sexually transmitted diseases appear to be common, especially among young men.
- Research also reveals that many young people involved in prostitution suffer serious psychological harm, including anxiety, depression and behavioural disorders. Poor mental health often manifests in high rates of self-harm and attempted suicide. However, some young people do also experience feelings of empowerment from their involvement in prostitution.
- There is very little research which directly compares the experiences of young women and young men involved, but what we know indicates that although the factors that lead to their involvement in prostitution appear similar, their lived experiences once involved differ. Differences relate to sexual identity, feelings of thrill and excitement, and levels of coercion and choice.
- We know very little about the experiences of Black and minority ethnic children and young people involved in prostitution, but available accounts points to racism as being important in understanding their experiences.
- Children and young people face many barriers to exiting prostitution, including fear of retaliation from pimps, lack of alternative sources of income, drug addictions, and feelings of attachment and belonging to the "prostitute community".
Services and support for children and young people involved in prostitution
- Most service provision in the UK is aimed at adults involved in prostitution and is rarely resourced to cope with the additional issues raised by young people.
- Young people involved in prostitution have difficulties in accessing mainstream services and require more targeted service provision.
- Practice evidence and research reveals that outreach work or centre-based drop-in services are the most effective means of reaching young people involved in prostitution. The way in which services are provided is crucial. In particular, services need to be flexible, offer a holistic range of services and be empowering for the young person.
- Providing service delivery and support for children and young people involved in prostitution can be very challenging and demanding. Common challenges include: raising awareness of services through publicity; getting young people to use the services; the need for resources; and problems around multiagency working, confidentiality and information sharing.
Prevention and early intervention services
A range of prevention and early intervention services are needed if we are to reach those children and young people most at risk of becoming involved in prostitution.
- Ensuring children and young people have "someone to turn to" and more opportunities to discuss problems in a confidential environment.
- Providing better support for families and mediation in crisis situations.
- Extending the role of schools in identifying and responding to young people at risk, and for providing education on sexual exploitation.
- Ensuring that all children and young people who have been abused receive therapeutic services.
- Providing specialist safe accommodation and support services for young runaways and young homeless people, who are most at risk of involvement in prostitution.
- Establishing more drug and alcohol services specifically aimed at children and young people.
Policy and legislative change
Effective support and services for children and young people at risk of involvement in prostitution needs to be matched by action at a policy level, including legal change.
- Ensuring all police efforts are concentrated on those that abuse young people, and making the prosecution of abusers a police target/priority.
- Amending all legislation so that no one under the age of 18 can be cautioned, charged or convicted for offences relating to prostitution.
- Reviewing and updating the guidance for the new Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) on dealing with children and young people involved in prostitution.
- Allocating more resources for residential care institutions to ensure that staff are better enabled to deal with young people at risk of becoming involved in and those already involved in prostitution.
- Providing specialist foster placements and residential placements in therapeutic environments for young people in care who become involved in prostitution.
- Providing longer-term supported social housing tenancies for very vulnerable young people.
- Making the benefits system much easier to access for young people who have left home and who are at risk of becoming involved in prostitution.
- Providing earmarked funding from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) for LSCBs, so that they are able to address the services and support needs of children and young people involved in prostitution.
Intervention based on knowledge
The sexual exploitation of children and young people through prostitution in the UK is a particularly under-researched area and there are many gaps in our knowledge of the issues. This is problematic because it means that service and policy responses may not be adequately informed by research and accurate knowledge.
- Ensuring that all responses to the problems of children and young people's involvement in prostitution are better informed by the available research and evidence from practice.
- Commissioning further research on those issues most important for the provision of appropriate service delivery, and for policy and legal change.
1. Department of Health, Home Office, Department for Education and Employment, National Assembly for Wales (2000) Safeguarding children involved in prostitution: supplementary guidance to Working Together to Safeguard Children. London: Department of Health. p.9.
2. Department of Health et al. (2000) op cit.
3. Department of Health et al. (2000) op cit. p.13 and p.28.
4. Melrose, M., Barett, D. and Brodie, I. (1999) One way street? retrospectives on child prostitution. London: The Children's Society. p.5.
5. Brown, A. and Barrett, D. (2002) Knowledge of evil: child prostitution and child sexual abuse in twentieth century England. Cullompton: Willan Publishing. p.180.
6. Barrett, D. (1998) Young people and prostitution: perpetrators in our midst. International Review of Law, Computers and Technology, 12(3): 475-86.
7. Safe on the Streets Research Team (1999) Still running, children on the streets in the UK. London: The Children's Society.
Levy, A. (2004) Stigmatised, marginalised and criminalised: an overview of the issues relating to children and young people involved in prostitution. London: NSPCC.