Jenni Whitehead discusses the issue of young people at risk of abuse through prostitution.

The sad events in Ipswich, at the end of 2006, brought the issue of sexual abuse through prostitution into sharp focus. The press photographs of the five murdered young women, all reported to be selling their bodies for sex, tell little of their lives.

How old were they when this began? Were they still of school age? It would be much easier for us to think that they were adults who made a considered choice to enter prostitution, that perhaps they, ‘just liked sex so much that they could happily make a living out of it’ (this was actually said to me recently by a professional person!). Probably the kindest phrase used by the press to describe these young women was ‘working girls’ suggesting some kind of career choice, however many press articles used the seedier terminology: ‘hooker’, ‘prostitute’ and ‘tart’. Right across the country there are small teams of professionals working with young people, male and female, who are at risk of being abused through prostitution. All these teams of people will have read about the murders and will have thought, ‘that could have been one of our service users’, and perhaps some of us have thought, ‘that could have been one of our pupils.’

In my own area we have three projects, two that work with young girls and young women and one that works with boys and young men, all three projects have worked with children as young as 12 and one of the projects has worked with an 11-year-old girl. There seems to be two main ways by which children and young people become entrapped in prostitution and both involve older young people and/or adults.

Entrapment through vulnerability

Youth and inexperience is of course a vulnerability in itself. However, some children are made more vulnerable by adults who abuse them. Child abuse causes vulnerability. The abused child may develop an understanding of themselves and others that suits the purposes of perpetrators.

They may be taught that they in some way deserve to be abused and therefore are responsible for it. They may also discover that the survival technique they used to survive abuse, ie disassociation, allows them to ignore what is happening to their bodies.

A common route into prostitution is the development of a relationship with an older young person or adult, as a boyfriend or girlfriend or more experienced friend. The older person will shower the young person with all the things they have been searching for and particularly a sense of belonging, of being special.

Slowly the perpetrator will begin to break down any connections between the young person and their family and friends, ‘You don’t need them anymore, you have got me.’ The perpetrator may use violence to secure total compliance but by this time the young person may feel so dependent on them that any violence will be interpreted as a form of protection, ‘It was for my own good’ or even as a way of showing how much they are wanted, ‘He only hit me ’cos he loves me.’

Once the ties with the young person’s past are broken the perpetrator may introduce the idea that they need a favour – the favour being the young person having sex with someone to get the perpetrator off the hook. Throughout this process the young person is introduced to drugs and alcohol. By this time it is difficult for them to turn back – they may have burnt their bridges in such a way that family and friends will not accept them back. The perpetrator has manipulated the young person into the belief that only he can help them. Prostitution feeds a habit and he acts as ‘protector’.

Of course in truth the perpetrator controls all – he takes all the money and gives back only enough to supply the habit and may well also act as supplier of the drugs, another form of control.

Entrapment through drugs and peer pressure

Most young people want to be part of a group, a gang, and many young people will experiment with risky behaviours. Many young people will go through their rebellious youth years and come through the other end unscathed. However, some young people will find themselves in a group where there are others who introduce them to increasingly risky behaviours. Mostly these young people will be looking for friendship and excitement and perpetrators will be there to help them find it. Our local services have heard from their service users how a close friend introduced them to a group who were older and more daring and exiting to be with. Relationships develop within the group and again the idea of boyfriends is described as a key element. There may be a kind of competitiveness to be going out with the person seen as the leader of the gang, the most daring, the most risky. Drug use is common place within the group. Young people are passed around the group and eventually are introduced to older men through group members. Violence or threat of violence is used to keep young people silenced to stop them seeking help and before they realise what has happened the young person is entrapped through drug dependency, violence and the fear of repercussions of speaking out.

How can we help?

First and foremost, by recognising that by their age and understanding all young people are vulnerable to becoming at risk, we will understand the need for all schools to include teaching about understanding and recognising potentially abusive relationships as part of the normal curriculum.

Secondly, by making ourselves aware of signs and indicators that a young person may be becoming subjected to manipulation and coercion by an older young person or adult and by ensuring all staff know how to operate locally agreed child protection procedures.

Where appropriate involve parents early on, tell them your concerns and encourage them to seek help.

You may have a specialist service in your area that is able and willing to come into school to meet staff and some services are able to run sessions with young people.

We may not be able to prevent all young people from becoming entrapped in drug use, abuse and prostitution but by seeing it as an issue that should form part of a young person’s learning we may offer some young people the chance to pull back from this very dangerous road.

Working Together to Safeguard Children: A Guide to Interagency Working to Safeguard and Promote the Welfare of Children 2006


Children abused through prostitution Children involved in prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation should be treated primarily as the victims of abuse, and their needs require careful assessment. They are likely to be in need of welfare services and, in many cases, protection under the Children Act 1989

(see for further guidance).

Safeguarding Children Involved in Prostitution (Supplementary Guidance DOH 2000)


Teachers and other staff in schools are in close and regular contact with children who may be at risk of becoming involved in prostitution. They should be aware of the risk that children may be drawn into prostitution, and be alert to changes in patterns of behaviour such as truancy. Any concerns about a child’s involvement in prostitution should be raised with the school’s designated teacher for child protection who should deal with these in line with the school’s child protection policy (which should reflect LEA and ACPC procedures).

B.3 The national framework for Personal, Social and Health Education provides clear opportunities for teachers to discuss personal, social and moral issues and to assist children develop personal and social skills. Teachers will be able to raise awareness of children involved in prostitution as part of this important area of the curriculum.

B.4 Where children have been involved in prostitution and are being reintegrated back into school, school staff should be alert to the potential for the child to be threatened by coercers or be drawn back into prostitution.