Child Prostitution

Social problems that are difficult to deal with are in fact often not dealt with effectively and remain submerged beneath a reluctance to recognize the distasteful underside to society. Moral issues are perhaps the most subject to this. The involvement of children and young people in commercial sex exposes many sensitive areas of the culture, in particular its ideals regarding childhood, the family, and SEXUALITY. The unequal power relations that tend to make children and young people vulnerable to adult influence and control have enabled their prostitution from both inside and outside of the family. ECPAT, which became prominent in the late twentieth century for its work toward the elimination of child prostitution, CHILD PORNOGRAPHY, and trafficking of children for sexual purposes, defines child prostitution as "the use of a child in sexual activities for remuneration or any other consideration."

The Mythology of the "White Slave Trade"

Unfortunately, obtaining historical or indeed contemporary evidence about the phenomenon of child prostitution is difficult. Historically, what is available must usually be filtered through the ideologies and perceptions of both the many who had heard of it only in its most dramatized form as the "white slave trade" and the few who both encountered it and recorded its existence. Thus even where evidence is available, it is fragmented, sporadic, and often encased in the language of morality. The voices of the children and young people themselves are very rarely discernible above the clamor of adult judgment and rhetoric. Historically, little has been published on the subject and information is particularly scarce before the late nineteenth century. In the late twentieth century, research in this area expanded considerably.

Until the end of the twentieth century, discussion about the prostitution of those under the AGE OF CONSENT was largely restricted to medical or political circles or to volunteer organizations. However, the involvement of young people in commercial sex also emerged in a dramatized version, distanced from connections with recognizable daily existence. The story dramatized as the white slave trade in Britain, Europe, and the United States was of the forced ABDUCTION of innocent young white girls and women, usually by foreigners, to work in brothels overseas. While this story says a great deal about racism and social fears regarding the increased freedoms enjoyed by women, changing sexual mores, migration, and new locations of leisure activity, it tells us little about the prostitution of children and young people. Indeed, in the early twenty-first century, when Western governments are becoming increasingly concerned about human trafficking and the supply of girls and women by this means, the mythology of the white slave trade often serves to obscure the real experiences behind the sex trade.

The terminology of trafficking and of slavery remains a part of the debates on child prostitution, but the imperialist and racist emphasis upon the victims being white has largely been dropped. After the mid-twentieth century, trafficking became defined in terms of movement and exploitation rather than color. The movement of children for the purposes of prostitution has historically tended to reflect the economic disparities between rural and urban areas and between richer and poorer regions and countries. However, other factors, including gender, age, and market factors are clearly important in that they exacerbate the vulnerability of the young especially. Thus, in the late twentieth century, social and economic instability and war in EASTERN EUROPE increased the flow of both women and children into the commercial sex industries of the European Union. However, child prostitution can also be influenced by a perception, supported by global mass marketing and commercialization, that more can be obtained elsewhere.

One of the first and possibly the most notorious of national media exposés of child prostitution was in July 1885 in the London newspaper the Pall Mall Gazette. This series of articles claimed to have uncovered a trade in young girls for brothels in London. The sensational and salacious "Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon" stories, which contained subheadings like "Buying Girls at the East-End" and "Strapping Girls Down," excited one of the first national moral panics on the subject of child prostitution. This kind of account entrenched for the next century or more the depiction of children and young people involved in commercial sex as abducted and betrayed innocents. These "Maiden Tribute" articles and the events surrounding them provided the crucial force in Britain to ensure the final passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which increased the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen and augmented police powers to deal with vice. The balance between control and protection was to become an enduring feature of the debates on child prostitution and on the subject of youthful DELINQUENCY in general. The "Maiden Tribute" furor did at least help to highlight that the commercial sex market was no respecter of age.

The late nineteenth century panics in both Britain and America concerning the abuse of children resulted in the establishment of numerous charitable organizations, which thereafter continued to highlight the plight of poor and exploited children. Indeed, one of the best sources of evidence on child prostitution is the archives of children's charities. The work of such charities operated to define and separate "delinquent" from "normal" children and associated concepts of dirt, independence, and in particular sexual knowledge and experience with the former. Children who were believed to have sexual experience, even as a result of abuse, were in some cases taken from their families and placed in institutions for children with "knowledge of evil." Paradoxically, once a girl had crossed the line into being sexually experienced, many contemporaries perceived her to be tainted and blameworthy. In Britain, it was not until the period between World Wars I and II that many feminist and child welfare organizations consistently sought to explain sexual precociousness in young girls as an outcome of sexual abuse, in opposition to the narrow portrayal of immoral girls inviting and seducing older men.

Trafficking in Children and Young People

Historically, the international traffic in children and young people has attracted the most official action. Following several conferences in the early twentieth century and an international agreement of 1904 for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic, the League of Nations in 1919 set up a committee to gather information regarding the trafficking in prostitutes. In 1921 a League of Nations conference was held at Geneva on the Traffic in Women and Children. The work of this committee was taken over by the United Nations in 1946. In 1953 the United Nations amended the League of Nations Slavery Convention of 1926, which highlighted the human rights issues of slavery and "slavery-like practices," including the slave trade, sale of children, child prostitution, and the exploitation of CHILD LABOR.

Trafficking can occur within a country, often from rural to urban areas, or across national borders. During the twentieth century, agencies working to combat the exploitation of women and children in its many forms multiplied and the problem of child prostitution became part of the work of INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the International Labour Organization, as well as various nongovernmental organizations. Article 34 of the 1989 UN CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD calls for appropriate action to prevent the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in unlawful sexual activity. In the late twentieth century, extraterritorial legislation sought to enable countries to prosecute their citizens for sexually abusing children while overseas. This was enacted in the wake of increased CHILD ABUSE carried on through a commercial sex trade catering to tourists. This was a major theme of the 1996 First Congress against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, which was organized by ECPAT, UNICEF, and the nongovernmental Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

One consequence of the continued sensitivity of the subject of children and young people involved in commercial sexual activity has been that the meaning of child prostitution has historically been created from a series of negative beliefs. Child prostitutes have been perceived as not being asexual, dependent, and moral, and therefore as not being real children, but also as not being adults. This tendency for negative abstraction has led to assumptions about what child prostitutes are, so that they have been seen as sexually assertive, independent, and immoral–as representing a distorted or perverse form of childhood, of something "other." Hence over the twentieth century, as discourses about child sexual abuse were being constructed, those relating to child prostitution took a distinct journey, one likely to lead to condemnation of the child and even to criminalization. These negatives were not seriously challenged until the late twentieth century, when child prostitution increasingly was placed within the realm of child abuse and the clients came to be considered child abusers and pedophiles who should be subject to child protection legislation.

See also: Incest; Pedophilia.


Barrett, D. 2000. Youth Prostitution in the New Europe: The Growth in Sex Work. Lyme Regis, UK: Russell House.

Brown, A., and D. Barrett. 2002. Knowledge of Evil: Child Prostitution and Child Sexual Abuse in Twentieth Century England. Cullompton, Devon, UK: Willan.

Ennew, J. 1986. The Sexual Exploitation of Children. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

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Gorham, D. 1978. "The 'Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon' Re-Examined. Child Prostitution and the Idea of Childhood in Late-Victorian England." Victorian Studies 21: 353–79.

Smart, C. 2000. "Reconsidering the Recent History of Child Sexual Abuse, 1919–1960." Journal of Social Policy 29, no. 1: 55–71.


ECPAT International. Available from