Identifying Research Gaps in the Prostitution Literature

Research on Prostitution in Canada

Research on Prostitution in Canada

This paper describes the main trends and issues in contemporary research on prostitution, prostitution law and social service policy in Canada with an eye to identifying immediate research priorities. The review describes research on male, female and transgendered prostitution and the legal and social response to it. The review is based on the research listed in the bibliography on prostitution in Canada (Appendix B). Also, where relevant, I identify ongoing research I am aware of. The paper discusses research on the players involved in prostitution -- sex sellers, the managers/owners of prostitution enterprises, and sex buyers -- and on the social, legal and political reaction to prostitution, including the criminal justice and welfare system responses.

For the purposes of this discussion, "prostitution" refers to exchange of direct contact sexual services for money or other considerations.

Trends in Public and Political Rhetoric on Prostitution

During the social purity crusades that swept Britain and North America in the early 1900s, and particularly from 1903-1917 in Canada, the "social evil" of prostitution was a core issue for social reformers. Through their efforts, the "white slave trade" was regular fair for local and national newspapers, and the subject of international conventions and agreements. But like most debates about social issues at the time, talk about prostitution proceeded without the benefit of social-scientific research as we know it today.

An on-going study of news content of the Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun and Province from 1900 to the present indicates that, after the flurry of interest in prostitution at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was more than sixty years before prostitution became a national issue again. By 1920, prostitution was no longer the object of any broadly based social reform movement. From 1920 to 1975, the three newspapers in question contained few items on prostitution, apart from stories about intermittent moral crusades by local politicians or their opponents to close down what appears to be a flourishing indoor trade. But after 1975, the number of news reports increased dramatically, and today prostitution continues to generate news as a prominent "social problem."

Main Trends in Research

Apart from a few isolated studies on its health implications (e.g. Williams, 1941) and its history (e.g. Gray 1970, Rotenberg, 1974), very little research of any kind was conducted on prostitution in Canada prior to 1970. During the 1970s, as social scientific research blossomed in all fields, the first Canadian survey research with prostitutes was conducted (Layton, 1975) and in 1980, the first ethnography of Canadian prostitution (Prus and Irini, 1980) was published.

After 1984 what had been a trickle of studies turned into a flood. Much of the impetus for this renewed interest in prostitution came from what news media portrayed as an altogether new "problem," the expansion of street prostitution after police closed off-street prostitution venues in Vancouver (cf. Lowman, 1986a) and Toronto (cf. Brock, 1998) during the mid 1970s. Under pressure to do something about the "street prostitution problem," the federal government of the day included prostitution in the mandate of two special committees ‑‑ the Committee on Sexual Offences Against Children and Youth (the Badgley Committee), and the Special Committee on Prostitution and Pornography (the Fraser Committee). Research performed for these two Committees provided the first relatively comprehensive information about prostitution in Canada, and helped provide the stimulus for what is now a substantial research literature. Indeed, we have probably reached the point where street prostitutes have provided more research interviews than any other category of law-breaker in Canada.

Research with Prostitutes

In 1982, the Badgley Committee was mandated to review sexual offences against persons under 18. Its research included the first national survey of prostitutes in Canada, and included interviews with 145 females and 84 males under the age of 20 years (Committee on Sexual Offences Against Children and Youth, 1984). The Committee's report marks a decisive point in the Canadian literature because it helped introduce the idea that although the Canadian age of consent is 14, prostitution involving 14 to 17 year-olds is a form of sexual abuse.

In 1984, as background research for the Fraser Committee, the Department of Justice Canada conducted further research on prostitution, including five regionally-based interview surveys (Crook 1984, Gemme et al 1984, Fleischman 1984, Lautt 1984, Lowman 1984, Sansfaçon 1985). Three years later, the Department of Justice funded a second round of surveys (Fleischman 1989, Brannigan et al, Gemme et al 1989, Graves 1989, Lowman 1989, Moyer and Carrington 1989) as part of the Federal evaluation of Criminal Code s.213, the communicating law.

At about the same time that the Badgley and Fraser Committees were initiating the first national research on prostitution, academic researchers began conducting local and regional surveys of prostitutes (e.g. Biesenthal 1993, Edney 1990, Kohlmeyer 1982, Mathews 1986, McIntyre 1995, Shaver 1996) and a new generation of researchers (e.g. Benoit, Lewis, Maticka-Tyndale and others) are continuing that tradition. Independent research conducted by or through social service agencies (e.g. Meiklem 1989, Michaud 1988, Street Outreach Services 1987) also contributed to the first generation of social science research on prostitution. More recently, Health Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council have funded several prostitution studies.

As well as an extensive literature on female prostitution, there is an important literature on male prostitution. Many general prostitution surveys (e.g. Badgley 1984, Capital Regional District 1997) have included both males and females in their samples. Other studies have focussed exclusively on male prostitution (see e.g. Allman 1999 and Visano 1987).

Research Findings

The various surveys of street prostitutes through the 1980s consistently reported that approximately 70% of adult males and females working the street began their involvement in prostitution prior to their eighteenth birthday. This finding has spawned a lengthy debate about the causes and consequences of youth involvement in prostitution. The debate about "causes" of female youth prostitution centres around the role of "sexual abuse" and other familial factors that may contribute to a girl's running away from or being thrown out of home, and external factors such as recruitment by "pimps." Research on male prostitution suggests similarities to and differences from their female counterparts: males who become involved in prostitution also leave home at a relatively early age, but the problems leading to their dislocation from home include other factors. In the case of boys, the decision to leave home may involve conflicts about their homosexuality or gender identity. In the case of girls, sexual abuse is thought to be a key factor. In both cases, youths become involved in prostitution after they flee home conditions they feel they cannot cope with, or after they are kicked out. State raised youth appear disproportionately in the ranks of both male and female street prostitutes.

Generally, the survey literature indicates that there are two sets of factors involved in a youth's drift into prostitution. The first set of factors "push" a youth from home -- be it their parents' home, a foster home or group home -- while another set of factors "pulls" them to the street (cf. Lautt 1984; Mathews 1986, 1987; Visano 1987). While there are many pull factors, one of the most important is the need for money to survive, which is why youth involvement in street prostitution is sometimes referred to as "survival sex." With little education and few job skills, one obvious survival strategy for a young female is prostitution. Because of the convergence of illicit drug networks and the street prostitution scene, she may then become involved in addictive drug use and entrenched in a lifestyle where prostitution is used to finance that drug use. A subculture of pimping revolves around recruiting girls into the prostitution trade and or controlling those who already are involved.

One effect of the research portrait of the circumstances leading up to a youth's decision to prostitute has been a shift in discourse about prostitution. The main concern of political activists driving prostitution law reform in the 1980s was public nuisance. Street prostitution was the break down of law and order, and most of the talk was about how to restore order. But through the 1980s and on into the 90s, what began as a secondary concern has become the primary concern: the sexual exploitation of children and youth.

Through the 1990s there were numerous municipal task forces on the sexual exploitation of youth (e.g. in Alberta and BC see: Burnaby 1998, Calgary Task Force on Children Involved in Prostitution 1997, Capital Regional District 1997) and various provincial initiatives and inter-provincial initiatives that either explicitly focus on youth involvement in prostitution (see e.g. the Alberta Task Force on Juvenile Prostitution 1997; British Columbia Ministry of Attorney General 1996; Manitoba Child and Youth Secretariat 1996) or include it as one of their primary mandates (Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group on Prostitution 1995a, 1995b, 1998). More recently, the organization Save the Children has become active in research designed to highlight the plight of "sexually exploited youths" (Bramly et al 1998, Kingsley 1997, Kingsley and Mark 2000, Rabinowitch 2000, Save the Children 2000). In 1999, Alberta was the first province to introduce legislation treating prostitution of persons between the ages of 14 and 17 years as "sexual abuse" and has introduced varying degrees of "secure care" (i.e. custody) as a way of radically intervening in the lives of youths involved in prostitution. Other provinces, including British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia are now considering similar legislation.

Prostitution Among First Nations Peoples

In cities in British Columbia and across the Prairies, aboriginal women appear in disproportionate numbers in the ranks of street prostitutes. Research on youth involvement in prostitution has emphasised that aboriginal youth tend to become involved in prostitution at an earlier age than others, and a larger proportion are involved in use of illicit hard drugs, including heroin and crack cocaine. They tend to experience higher rates of criminal victimisation while working the street than their non-native counterparts.

Research on the Social Reaction to Prostitution

Alongside the burgeoning literature on the players involved in prostitution, there have been numerous studies of the history of prostitution law (e.g. Backhouse 1985, Cassels 1985, Larsen 1992, McLaren 1986, Nilsen 1980, Rotenberg 1974, Russell 1982) and the politics of prostitution (see generally Brock, Larsen, Lowman and Shaver). The five Department of Justice Canada funded studies conducted as part of parliament's evaluation of the communicating law provide one of the few detailed portraits of contemporary prostitution law enforcement (Brannigan et. al. 1989; Gemme et al 1989; Graves et. al 1989, Lowman 1989; Moyer and Carrington 1989). Also, Statistics Canada has devoted two issues of Juristat to prostitution offences (Wolff and Geisel 1993, Duchesne 1997).

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