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Child Prostitution

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Child Prostitution

Prostitution of children
Statue of a young 19th-century prostituted child
Areas practiced Worldwide
Number affected Up to 10 million[1]
Legal status Illegal under international law

Prostitution of children or child prostitution is the commercial sexual exploitation of children in which a child performs the services of prostitution. The term normally refers to prostitution of a minor, or person under the legal age of maturity. In many countries, there are specific laws against the prostitution of children, which may include people who are older than the legal age of consent.

Prostitution of children usually manifests in the form of sex trafficking, in which a child is kidnapped or duped into becoming involved in the sex trade, or "survival sex", in which the child engages in sexual activities to procure basic essentials such as food and shelter. Prostitution of children is commonly associated with child pornography, and they often overlap. Child sex tourism occurs when people travel to foreign countries to avoid child prostitution laws. Research suggests that there may be as many as 10 million children involved in prostitution worldwide.[1] The problem is most severe in South America and Asia, but prostitution of children exists globally,[2] in undeveloped countries as well as developed.[3]

The United Nations has declared the prostitution of children to be illegal under international law, and various campaigns and organizations have been created to protest its existence.


Several definitions have been proposed for prostitution of children. The United Nations defines it as "the act of engaging or offering the services of a child to perform sexual acts for money or other consideration with that person or any other person".[4] The Convention on the Rights of the Child's Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography defines the practice as "the act of obtaining, procuring or offering the services of a child or inducing a child to perform sexual acts for any form of compensation or reward". Both emphasize that the child is a victim of exploitation, even if apparent consent is given.[5] The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999, (Convention No 182) of the International Labour Organization (ILO) describes it as the "use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution".[6]

According to the International Labour Office in Geneva, prostitution of children and child pornography are two primary forms of child sexual exploitation, which often overlap.[2] The former is sometimes used to describe the wider concept of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). It excludes other identifiable manifestations of CSEC, such as commercial sexual exploitation through child marriage, domestic child labor, and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes.[7]

The terminology applied to the practice is a subject of dispute. The United States Department of Justice states, "The term itself implies the idea of choice, when in fact that is not the case."[8] Groups that oppose the practice believe that the terms "child prostitution" and "child prostitute" carry problematic connotations because children are generally not expected to be able to make informed decisions about prostitution. As an alternative, they use the terms "prostituted children" and "the commercial sexual exploitation of children".[9] Other groups use the term "child sex worker" to imply that the children are not always "passive victims".[9]

Causes and types

Children are often forced by social structures and individual agents into situations in which adults take advantage of their vulnerability and sexually exploit and abuse them. Structure and agency commonly combine to force a child into commercial sex: for example, the prostitution of a child frequently follows from prior sexual abuse, often in the child's home.[10] Many believe that the majority of prostituted children are from Southeast Asia and the majority of their clients are Western sex tourists, but sociologist Louise Brown argues that "while western sex tourists have played a vital part in the growth of the industry, the primary customers of Asia's indentured sex workers and of its child prostitutes are overwhelmingly Asians".[11]

Prostitution of children usually occurs in environments such as brothels, bars and clubs, homes, or particular streets and areas (usually in socially run down places). According to one study, only about 10% of prostituted children have a pimp and over 45% entered the business through friends.[12] Maureen Jaffe and Sonia Rosen from the International Child Labor Study Office write that cases vary widely: "Some victims are runaways from home or State institutions, others are sold by their parents or forced or tricked into prostitution, and others are street children. Some are amateurs and others professionals. Although one tends to think first and foremost of young girls in the trade, there is an increase in the number of young boys involved in prostitution. The most disquieting cases are those children who are forced into the trade and then incarcerated. These children run the possible further risk of torture and subsequent death."[3]

Human trafficking

Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as "the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation".[13] The UNODC approximates the number of victims worldwide to be around 2.5 million.[13] UNICEF reports that since 1982 about 30 million children have been trafficked.[14] Sexual slavery is the most common form of trafficking, accounting for 79% percent of cases. The majority of victims are female, of which an estimated 20% are children, though women are often perpetrators as well.[15]

One of the defining factors of sex trafficking is that the victims do not consent to involvement. In some cases, they are kidnapped by strangers, either by force or by being "duped into consenting through the use of false promises".[16] In other cases, "the children end up funneled into the system by their own families because of extreme poverty."[17] In cases where they are taken out of the country, traffickers often prey on the fact that the children are often unable to understand the language of their new location and are unaware of their legal rights.[16]

Research indicates that traffickers have a preference for females age 12 and under because young children are more easily molded into the role assigned to them and because they are assumed to be virgins, which is valuable to consumers. The girls are then made to appear older, and documents are forged as protection against law enforcement.[16] Victims tend to share similar backgrounds, often coming from communities with high crime rates and lack of access to education. However, victimology is not limited to this, and males and females coming from various backgrounds have become involved in sex trafficking.[16]

Psychotherapist Mary De Chesnay identifies five stages in the process of sex trafficking: vulnerability, recruitment, transportation, exploitation, and liberation.[18] The final stage, De Chesnay writes, is rarely completed. Murder and accidental death rates are high, as are suicides, and very few trafficking victims are rescued or escape.[19]

Survival sex

The other primary form of prostitution of children is described as "survival sex". The US Department of Justice states:

"Survival sex" occurs when a child engages in sex acts in order to obtain money, food, shelter, clothing, or other items needed in order to survive. In these situations, the transaction typically only involves the child and the customer; children engaged in survival sex are usually not controlled or directed by pimps, madams, or other traffickers. Any individual who pays for sex with a child, whether the child is controlled by a pimp or is engaged in survival sex, can be prosecuted.[20]

A study commissioned by UNICEF and Save the Children and headed by sociologist Annjanette Rosga conducted research on prostitution of children in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rosga reported that poverty was a strong contributing factor. She stated, in part, "The global sex trade is as much a product of everyday people struggling to survive in dire economic straits as it is an organized crime problem. Attacking the crime and not the poverty is treating the symptom but not the disease...It's not uncommon for girls to know what they're entering into, and to enter voluntarily to some degree. Maybe they think they'll be different and able to escape, or maybe they'd rather take the risk than feel powerless staying at home in poverty."[17] However, Jaffe and Rosen disagree and write that poverty alone does not often force children into prostitution, as it does not exist in a large scale in several impoverished societies. Rather, a number of external influences, such as poor family situations and domestic violence, factor into the problem.[21]

Prostitution of children in the form of survival sex occurs in both undeveloped and developed countries. In Asia, underage girls sometimes work in brothels to support their families, while in Sri Lanka parents will more often have their sons prostitute themselves rather than their daughters, as the society places more weight on sexual purity among females than males.[22] Prostitution of children in North America often results from "economic considerations, domestic violence and abuse, family disintegration and drug addiction".[23] In Canada, Stephen Charlie was convicted of charges relating to the prostitution of a child online in 2012; Charlie had encouraged her to prostitute herself as a means of making money, kept all of her earnings, and then threatened her with violence if she did not continue.[24]


Treatment of prostituted children

Prostituted children are often forced to work in hazardous environments without proper hygiene.[25] They face threats of violence and are sometimes subjected to rapes and beatings. In general, they "suffer a great deal of abuse, unhappiness, and poor health".[26] For example, female sex trafficking victims from Nepal are reportedly "'broken in' through a process of rapes and beatings, and then rented out up to thirty-five times per night for one to two dollars per man".[27] Another sex trade involved mostly Nepalese boys who were lured to India and sold to brothels in Mumbai, Hyderabad, New Delhi, Lucknow, and Gorakhpur. One victim was lured from Nepal at the age of 14, sold into slavery, locked up, beaten, starved, and forcibly circumcised. He reported that he was held in a brothel with 40 to 50 other boys, many of whom were castrated, before eventually escaping and making his way back to Nepal.[28]

Criminologist Ronald Flowers writes that prostitution of children and child pornography are closely linked; up to one in three prostituted children have been involved in pornography, often through films or literature. Runaway teenagers, he states, are frequently used for "porn flicks" and photographs.[29] In addition to pornography, Flowers writes that, "Children caught up in this dual world of sexual exploitation are often victims of sexual assaults, sexual perversions, sexually transmitted diseases, and inescapable memories of sexual misuse and bodies that have been compromised, brutalized, and left forever tarnished."[30]

Physical and psychological effects

According to Humanium, an NGO that opposes the prostitution of children, the practice causes various forms of physical damage such as "vaginal tearing, physical after-effects of torture, pain, infection, or unwanted pregnancy".[31] As clients seldom take precautions against the spread of HIV,[31] prostituted children face a high risk of contracting the condition, and the majority of them in certain locations have already contracted it. Other sexually transmitted diseases pose a threat as well, such as syphilis and herpes. High levels of tuberculosis have also been found among prostituted children.[26] These conditions frequently result in the death of the affected child.[1]

Former prostituted children often deal with psychological trauma, including depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[26] Other psychological effects include anger, insomnia, sexual and personality confusion, inability to trust adults, and loss of confidence.[31]


Prostitution of children is illegal under international law, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 34, states, "the State shall protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse, including prostitution and involvement in pornography."[33] The convention was first held in 1989 and has been ratified by 193 countries. In 1990, the United Nations appointed a Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.[34] While the legality of adult prostitution varies between different parts of the world, the prostitution of minors is illegal in most countries, and all countries have some form of restrictions against it.[3]

However, there is a dispute surrounding what constitutes a prostituted child. International law defines a child as any individual below the age of 18,[35] but a number of countries legally recognize lower ages of consent and adulthood, usually ranging from 13 to 17 years of age.[3] Thus, law enforcement officers are sometimes hesitant to investigate the case in depth due to the differences in age of consent.[3] The laws of some countries do, however, distinguish between prostituted teenagers and prostituted children. For example, the Japanese government defines the category as referring to minors between 13 and 18.[36]

Consequences for offenders vary from country to country. In the People's Republic of China, all forms of prostitution are illegal, but having sexual contact with anyone under the age of 14, regardless of consent, will be charged with a more serious crime than raping an adult.[37] In the United States, the legal penalty for participating in prostitution of children includes five to 20 years in prison.[38] The FBI established "Innocence Lost", a new department working to free children from prostitution, in response to the strong public reaction across the country to the news of Operation Stormy Nights, in which 23 minors were released from forced prostitution.[39]


Prostitution of children exists in every country, though the problem is most severe in South America and Asia.[21] However, the number of prostituted children is rising in other parts of the world, including North America, Africa, and Europe.[21] Exact statistics are difficult to obtain,[40] but it is estimated that there are around 10 million children involved in prostitution worldwide.[1]

Note: this is a list of examples; it does not cover every country where child prostitution exists.
Country/location Number of children involved in prostitution Notes Ref(s)
Worldwide Up to 10,000,000 [1]
Australia 4,000 [41]
Bangladesh 10,000-29,000 [42]
Brazil 250,000-2,000,000 Brazil is considered to have the worst levels of child sex trafficking after Thailand. [43]
Cambodia ~30,000 It has been estimated that about a third of all people in prostitution in Cambodia are under 18. [44][45]
Canada 200,000 [46]
Chile 3,700 The number of children involved in prostitution is believed to be on the decline. [47]
Colombia 35,000 Between 5,000 and 10,000 are on the streets of Bogotá. [48]
Dominican Republic 30,000 [49]
Ecuador 5,200 [50]
Estonia 1,200 [51]
Greece 2,900 Over 200 are believed to be below the age of 12. [52]
Hungary 500 [53]
India 1,200,000 In India, prostituted children account for 40% of people engaged in prostitution. [54]
Indonesia 40,000-70,000 UNICEF states that 30% of the females in prostitution are below 18. [55][56]
Malaysia 43,000-142,000 [57]
Mexico 16,000-20,000 Out of Mexico City’s 13,000 street children, 95% have already had at least one sexual encounter with an adult (many of them through prostitution). [58][59][60]
Nepal 200,000 According to research conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) on 440 people in prostitution from Kathmandu, approximately 30% of people engaged in prostitution are children. [27][61]
New Zealand 210 [62]
Peru 500,000 [63][64]
Philippines 60,000-100,000 [65]
Sri Lanka 40,000 UNICEF states that 30% of the females in prostitution are below 18. [66]
Thailand 200,000-800,000 [57]
United States 100,000 [67]
Vietnam 20,000 [68]
Zambia 70,000 [69]

By 1999, it was reported that in Argentina prostitution of children was increasing at an alarming rate and that the average age was decreasing. The CATW fact book says Argentina is one of the favored destinations of pedophile sex tourists from Europe and the United States.[70] The Criminal Code criminalizes the prostitution of minors of eighteen years of age or younger,[71] but it only sanctions those who "promote or facilitate" prostitution, and not the client who exploits the minor.[72]

Views on prostitution of children

Public perception

Anthropologist Heather Montgomery writes that society has a largely negative perception of prostitution of children, in part because the children are often viewed as having been abandoned or sold by their parents and families.[73] The International Labour Organization includes the prostitution of children in its list of the "worst forms of child labour",[74] and in 1996, during the World Congress Against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, it was called "a crime against humanity", "torture", and "slavery".[75] Virginia Kendall, a district judge and expert on child exploitation and human trafficking, and T. Markus Funk, an attorney and law professor, write that the subject is an emotional one and that there are various perspectives about what should be done to prevent it:

The topic of proscribing and punishing child exploitation triggers intense emotions. While there is general consensus that child sexual exploitation, whether through the Internet, forced prostitution, the international or domestic trafficking of children for sex, or molestation, is on the rise, observers in the United States and elsewhere find little common ground on the questions of how serious such conduct is, or what, if anything, must be done to address it.[76]

Investigative journalist Julian Sher states that widespread stereotypes about the prostitution of children continued into the 1990s, when the first organized opposition arose and police officers began working to dispel common misconceptions.[77] Criminologist Roger Matthews writes that concerns over pedophilia and child sexual abuse, as well as shifting perceptions of youth, led the public to see a sharp difference between prostitution of children and adult prostitution. While the latter is generally frowned upon, the former is seen as intolerable.[78] Additionally, he states, children are increasingly viewed as "innocent" and "pure", and their prostitution as paramount to slavery.[78] Through the shift in attitude, the public began to see minors involved in the sex trade as victims rather than as perpetrators of a crime, needing rehabilitation rather than punishment.[79]


Though campaigns against the practice originated in the 1800s,[80] the first mass protests against prostitution of children occurred in the 1990s in the United States, led largely by ECPAT (End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism). The group, which Historian Junius P. Rodriguez describes as "the most significant of the campaigning groups against child prostitution", originally focused on the issue of children being exploited in Southeast Asia by Western tourists.[81] Women's rights groups and anti-tourism groups joined to protest the practice of sex tourism in Bangkok, Thailand. The opposition to sex tourism was spurred on by an image of a Thai youth in prostitution, published in Time magazine and by the publication of a dictionary in the United Kingdom describing Bangkok as "a place where there are a lot of prostitutes".[82] Though they were unable to inhibit sex tourism and rates of prostitution of children continued to rise, the groups "galvanized public opinion nationally and internationally" and succeeded getting the media to cover the topic extensively for the first time.[82] ECPAT later expanded its focus to protest child prostitution globally.[81]

The late 1990s and early 2000s also saw the creation of a number of shelters and rehabilitation programs for prostituted children, and the police began to actively investigate the issue.[77] The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) was later established by the Polaris Project as a national, toll-free hotline, available to answer calls from anywhere in the United States, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year. Operated by Polaris Project,[83] the hotline was designed to allow callers to report tips and receive information on human trafficking.[84]

The opposition to prostitution of children and sexual slavery spread to Europe and elsewhere, and organizations pushed for prostituted children to be recognized as victims rather than offenders.[78] The issue remained prominent in the following years, and various campaigns and organizations continued into the 2000s and 2010s.[78] They include the international organization Childhope Asia Philippines,[85] the Canadian grassroots campaign Buying Sex is Not a Sport,[86] and the international organization Stop Child Trafficking Now.[87] Individuals who have vocally opposed prostitution of children and trafficking include Tara Teng, Don Brewster, Vednita Carter, Natasha Falle, Benjamin Nolot, Rachel Lloyd, Stephen Waldschmidt, and Andrew Kooman.


Prostitution of children dates back to antiquity. Prepubescent boys were commonly prostituted in brothels in ancient Greece and Rome.[88] Chinese and Indian children were commonly sold by their parents into prostitution while the "most beautiful and highest born Egyptian maidens were forced into prostitution...and they continued as prostitutes until their first menstruation."[89] In Europe, the practice "flourished" until the late 1800s,[89] when a scandal caused governments to raise the legal age of consent.[90]

The specifics of each case were widely variable. For example, parents in India sometimes dedicated their female children to the Hindu temples, where they became "devadasis". Traditionally a high status in society, the role of a devadasi included the daily service to the Hindu deity to which they were assigned (usually the goddess Renuka) and learning skills such as music and dancing. The girls, who were "dedicated" before puberty, were also required to prostitute themselves. The practice has since been outlawed but still exists.[91] In 19th century Britain, panic arose when W. T. Stead published a sensationalized account of an extensive underground sex trafficking ring which reportedly sold children to pedophiles. As a result, the term "white slavery" came to be used throughout Europe and the United States to describe prostituted children.[89][92]

See also



External links

  • "NOW on PBS: Fighting Child Prostitution"


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