4th European Feminist Research Conference: Bologna September 2000

Conference theme: Ties that bind: Law, economics and the labour market



Ties that Bind –Young people[1] and the prostitution labour market in Britain [2]

Margaret Melrose[3]



This paper draws on a recently completed, qualitative and retrospective, study of juvenile prostitution in Britain (Melrose et. al. 1999). It locates the growth of child prostitution in Britain within the context of ‘patriarchy’, ‘senarchy’ and ‘globalisation’ and argues that it is these ties that bind many disadvantaged young people into prostitution (Melrose 2000). The paper argues that globalisation is based on a particular manipulation of the racial and sexual division of labour and begins from the premise that globalisation is best understood as an economic process that is essentially gendered, racialised and aged (Robinson 1996). The paper explores the legal status of prostitution and examines new government guidelines in relation to young people who are sexually exploited through their involvement in prostitution. It argues that in their attempts to circumnavigate the constraints placed on them by recent social and economic policies, vulnerable young people are propelled into a lifestyle that further entrenches their vulnerability and disadvantage. The paper concludes that while recommending measures to respond more effectively to child prostitution (Home Office/Department of Health 1998), the Government has done little to tackle its causes.


The Ties that Bind: Patriarchy, senarchy and globalisation

‘Patriarchy’ refers to a system of male dominance that results in economic, social and political inequalities between men and women. Patriarchy creates inequalities in all spheres of life although this paper will be primarily concerned with inequalities experienced by young people that result in their participation in the informal labour market of child prostitution. ‘Senarchy’ refers to the globally institutionalised inequalities of status and power that exist between adults and children (Hearn 1988). Although class and ethnicity internally differentiate the categories ‘men’, ‘women’, and ‘children’, across the world men have more economic, political and social power than women and children.


‘Globalisation’ refers to economic processes that have allowed ‘capital to free itself from labour while holding labour captive’ (Sivanandan 1989). It is a process that signals a transition from ‘capitalist economy to capitalist society’ in which ‘capitalist relations penetrate every sphere of life’ (Robinson 1996). Because of its articulation with structures of patriarchy, senarchy and racism, globalisation produces ‘new structures of deprivation and hardship’ (Hewitt 1994) by ‘locking out’ certain groups: particularly, women, young people and those from ethnic minority groups (Robinson 1996). These processes have created a hyper-casualised labour market in which the position of women and young people has been transformed. At the same time, they have ‘officially disarticulated citizenship from the values of post-war welfarism’ and rearticulated it to ‘the values of popular capitalism and individualism’ (France 1996). The consequence is a restructuring of the ways in which the state discharges its responsibilities to its citizens. These structural changes have generated ‘serious economic exclusion amongst sections of the young population’ (MacDonald 1997).


Young people and the labour market

As a result of neo-conservative economic policies and recession in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, many women and young people have been expelled from the labour market (Pitts 1997). Since the 1980s, the youth labour market in Britain has effectively collapsed and unemployment has been a permanent feature in the lives of many young people (Maguire and Maguire 1997). By the 1990s, the economic activity rate of young people had fallen drastically (Dean 1997). Young people experience twice the average rate of unemployment and throughout the 1980s the unemployment levels amongst 16-19 year olds stood at 20% (France 1996). Young people who do find work are five times more likely than older employees to be paid below half of male average earnings (Dean 1997, Coles and Craig 1999). In 1992, for example, 16 and 17-year-olds working full time received just one third of the wages of full-time adult, male workers (Dean 1997). Under minimum wage legislation introduced by the New Labour Government, young people, aged under 21, are paid less than those over 21. When women and young people do work in the formal labour market, they are overwhelmingly concentrated in poorly paid occupational groups and in insecure, temporary, low skilled and low paid employment.


Young people and social policy

The difficulties with which women and young people are confronted in the labour market have been exacerbated by welfare retrenchment and changing entitlements to welfare benefits (Melrose et. al. 1999, Dean 1997, Pitts 1997, Green et. al. 1997, Adams et. al. 1997). Rights to receive welfare support have been seriously eroded by a heap of neo-conservative changes to social security regulations that have adversely affected women and young people (France 1996, Dean 1997, Pitts 1997, Green et. al. 1997, Coles and Craig 1999).


The 1988 Social Security Act, for example, removed the right to benefit for 16 and 17 year olds and reduced the levels of benefit to which those aged 18-25 were entitled. This legislation also required young people to undertake compulsory job training if they were not in education or employment (Dean 1997). Even though there were not enough of training schemes to cater for all those who required them, benefit penalties were introduced for those who refused them (Williamson 1997). As a result of these developments, in 1992, the number of young people who were unemployed and without an income rose from 70,000 to 97,000 (Dean 1997) and by 1994, over three-quarters of 16 and 17 year olds who were registered as unemployed were without and income (France 1996).


These limitations on entitlement were continued with the introduction of the Job Seeker’s Allowance in 1996 and by the ‘New Deal’ arrangements introduced by the New Labour government in 1997 (Theodore and Peck 1999, Holden 1999). In addition to these changes, the government also altered the way that hostel payments were made to prevent those who were unemployed from living away from home (Dean 1997). Age related housing benefits were introduced and the rights of single people under 25 to receive such benefits have been curtailed (Dean 1997, Green et. al. 1997, Coles and Craig 1999). After these changes were introduced, youth workers in Nottingham noticed an increase in the numbers of young women becoming involved in prostitution (Green 1992, Green et. al. 1997 ).


Changes in entitlement to housing benefits have coincided with changes in the housing market. Here, as a result of a decline in public sector housing, young people’s ability to access affordable housing has been reduced and their potential to afford rents in the private sector has been diminished (Coles and Craig 1999, Green et. al. 1997). This, accompanied by increasingly ‘brittle’ family structures, which have led to an increase in family breakdown and single-parent families (Coles and Craig 1999, Pitts 1997), has led to rising levels of homelessness amongst the young (Green et. al. 1997, Coles and Craig 1999).


As well as changes in the labour market and to entitlements to welfare benefits, educational grants have been replaced by student loans. The introduction of student loans and tuition fees means that young people aged 17-21 now average educational debts of more than £1500 (France 1996). We have also seen the introduction of the Child Support Agency (CSA). This has been criticised on a number of counts; for ‘targeting working class families’ whose resources are already limited; for ‘penalising or threatening women with reduction of benefits’ if they do not name the father of their child/children; and ‘for ‘forcing’ women to stay in contact with violent partners/fathers’ (Green et. al. 1997). In addition to new restrictions on benefits, their value as a proportion of average income has been greatly reduced (Oppenheim and Lister 1996).


These social and economic policies have ‘reduced the capacity of the social security system, voluntary and statutory social service agencies and the education and youth services to respond to young people when they find themselves in difficulty’ (Pitts 1997:140). Unsurprisingly, the proportion of women and young people amongst the poor has risen markedly in recent years and a substantial proportion of women now live in poverty – especially women who are heads of households and women who have responsibility for young children. Using 50% of average income as a measure, it is estimated that 33% of all children in Britain now live in poverty (Oppenheim and Lister 1996).


Trapped in a vice – between international capital and the welfare state

The cumulative effect of all these changes is that young people are now much more likely to engage in a range of legitimate and/or illegitimate informal economic activities provided by ‘alternative opportunity structures’ (Craine 1997). These range from illegal or casual employment at one end to activities such as drug dealing, begging and prostitution at the other (Bourgois 1996, Jordan 1996, Dean and Melrose 1996, Dean 1997, Adams et. al. 1997, Dean and Melrose 1999, Melrose et. al. 1999). For young women, such alternative opportunities are often provided by the sex industry. It has been argued, indeed, that the prostitution labour market in Britain ‘relies on those two groups for whom welfare benefits are wholly inadequate or completely absent – single parent mothers and children of both sexes’ (O’Connell-Davidson 1998).


Caught in this pincer movement between the demands of international capital on one hand, and welfare retrenchment on the other (Melrose 2000) increasing numbers of women have taken to the streets and the age at which they have done so has become younger (Matthews 1986 cited in Pitts 1997, Melrose et. al. 1999).


Young women who become involved in prostitution are invariably poor (O’Neill 1995, Adams et. al. 1997, Green et. al. 1997, Pitts 1997, Melrose et. al. 1999) and it has been acknowledged that ‘poverty is the twin sibling of prostitution’ (Sangera 1997). Not only are they poor, but these young women have often been sexually, emotionally and physically abused or neglected. Many have experienced family breakdown, residential care and homelessness (O’Neill et. al. 1995, Green et. al. 1997, Pitts 1997, Melrose et. al. 1999). In becoming involved in prostitution, it could be argued that these young women are attempting to respond creatively, although self-destructively, to the ties of class, patriarchy and senarchy. However, their attempts to escape these ties merely serve to further entrench their social and economic marginalisation (Melrose 2000). 


Although there are no national data available, and the extent of the problem of child prostitution in Britain is unclear (Shaw and Butler 1998, Barrett 1998, Ayre and Barrett 1999), estimates have suggested that up to 5,000 young people may be involved at any one time (Crosby and Barrett 1999). Over recent years, youth workers and others have witnessed an increase in the number of girls and young women entering prostitution (Green et. al. 1997, Adams et. al. 1997). Additionally, evidence produced by the police suggests that the problem is both more widespread and complex than had previously been imagined (Brain et. al. 1998).


Defining Prostitution

In the study being reported here, prostitution was the means by which vulnerable and disadvantaged young women generated the incomes they required. Prostitution was regarded as preferable to other forms of informal economic activity, such as begging or shoplifting, primarily because the young women were aware that they could not be sent to prison for it (Melrose et. al. 1999). This is because, in Britain, one cannot be imprisoned for prostitution per se, but one can be sent to prison for not paying the fines that may accrue as a result of being charged with ‘loitering’ or ‘soliciting’ – the activities that constitute prostitution. Before discussing the legal status of prostitution, however, it will be useful to define what it is we mean by ‘prostitution’.


‘Prostitution’ is an institution that relies on a very particular set of social relations and refers to ‘a range of activities that are performed under different terms and conditions’ (O’Connell-Davidson 1995). The phenomenon of prostitution cannot be separated from the political, social, economic, legal and historical context which gives rise to it (O’Neill 1997). Fundamentally, prostitution is underpinned by ‘men’s access to money for the purchase of commodities in the capitalist labour market and women’s lack of access to it’ (Scambler and Scambler 1997:xiv).


Prostitution should also be understood in terms of unequal sexual relations between men and women (Pateman 1983) and within the context of male violence towards women (O’Neill 1994) and children (Hearn 1988). It is ‘His Majesty the Economy’ (Althusser 1971) in articulation with the majesty of patriarchy that sets the conditions for women’s entry into prostitution (Melrose 2000). Likewise, it is ‘His Majesty the economy’ in articulation with patriarchy and senarchy – the rule of adults, that set the conditions for children’s involvement in prostitution (Melrose 2000). So, while we see that economic compulsion propels many women and young people into prostitution we can also recognise that economic compulsion is not the only condition of its existence.


When we are talking about prostitution, we are referring to

            the provision of sexual services in exchange for some form of payment such as

money, drink, drugs and other consumer goods or even a bed and a roof over one’s head for the night’ (Green 1992).

At the core of the phenomenon of prostitution is ‘the treatment of the body as an asset, as a means to seek subsistence’ (Sangera 1997). In prostitution, the body itself becomes a commodity, which reduces the human subject, socially and psychologically, to an object to be exchanged.


When we are talking about children and young people involved in prostitution, it is now widely accepted that we are talking about sexual abuse and exploitation of children by adults (Lee and O’Brien 1995, Barrett 1997, Pitts 1997 Department of Health/Home Office 1998, Melrose et. al. 1999). It is also recognised that the inequalities of power between young people involved in prostitution and their clients have several structural bases. Given their ‘total economic dependence and powerlessness in relation to adults, young people who are involved in prostitution are necessarily more vulnerable’ than adults who may be similarly involved (O’Connell-Davidson 1998).


Child prostitution and the law

The laws in relation to prostitution are, to say the least, ambiguous. ‘Prostitution’ itself is not strictly a crime but the activities that constitute it are (Edwards 1997). That is, under the Street Offences Act 1959 it is illegal for a ‘common prostitute’ to ‘loiter’ or ‘solicit’ for the purpose of selling sex. Furthermore, the law is fundamentally sexist and rules that ‘a person who engages in sexual activity which is sold “in lewdness for payment” can only be female’ (Edwards 1997). This sexism in the law was upheld in 1994 by the High Court when it ruled that ‘only women can be charged with loitering under the Street Offences Act 1959’ (Scambler and Scambler 1997). Additionally, the law has tended to be used against those who sell sexual services rather than those who buy them (Faugier and Sergeant 1997, Edwards 1998). In the past, the law has not distinguished the age at which a woman may be charged with offences of loitering or soliciting. This means, absurdly, that it has been possible for young girls, who are in law not old enough to consent to sex, to be prosecuted for attempting to sell it (Lee and O’Brien 1995, Aitchison and O’Brien 1997, Edwards 1998, Melrose et. al. 1999, Melrose and Barrett 1999, Melrose and Brodie 1999).


Recently, however, the Government has issued new guidelines in relation to the treatment and management of child and juvenile prostitution (Home Office/Department of Health 1998). These guidelines recommend, for the first time, that ‘the primary law enforcement effort must be against abusers’ and suggests that ‘those children drawn into prostitution must be protected from further abuse’ (Section 2.3). The guidelines acknowledge that the involvement of children in prostitution is ‘indicative of coercion or desperation rather than choice’ (Section 2.1) and recognise that ‘normally a child will not voluntarily enter prostitution: they are coerced, enticed or utterly desperate. It is not a free economic or moral choice’ (Section 4.1). The guidelines recommend that statutory and voluntary sector agencies such as the police, social services, education services and youth services work together ‘for the welfare of the child’ (Section 3.1). It is to be hoped that as a result of these new guidelines vulnerable young women who become involved in prostitution will henceforth be treated as young people ‘at risk’ rather than as criminals. To criminalise these poor and emotionally needy young women, for what are, after all, acts of survival, merely serves to further entrap them in prostitution because for many traditionally ‘female’ jobs, such as in the health or education services, prostitution offences must be declared (Adams et. al. 1997, Bindell 1999).  


Survival Acts

The data on which I am drawing in this paper was generated by in-depth interviews with forty-six women, all of whom had become involved in prostitution before they were 18. At the time of the interviews, 32 were still involved in prostitution. Approximately three-quarters of those interviewed were street-working prostitutes. These are thought to be the most vulnerable and exploited of all sex industry workers (O’Connell-Davidson and Layder 1994). Indeed evidence suggests that most teenagers work on the streets, which is estimated to be ten times more dangerous than working from houses or flats (Adams et. al. 1997).


At the time of the interviews, half the women were under 25 years of age and half were over 25. In all 36 women told us that their primary motivation from becoming involved in prostitution was economic. For half of these, prostitution was adopted as a means of survival in the context of being missing from home or care. These young women did not perceive that they had any alternative means of generating the incomes they needed to feed them, or keep a roof over their heads. For the other half, and especially amongst those in the younger age group, prostitution appeared as a ‘viable alternative to no or low income’ (Green et. al. 1997, Melrose 2000). It enabled them to generate the incomes they required for consumer goods and other things that they would otherwise have been unable to afford.


Many of those in the younger age group had adopted prostitution to provide them with the incomes they required, in the context of limited opportunities in the formal labour market. Dawn, for example, a twenty-four year old woman, had become involved in prostitution when she was 15. She was clear that the formal labour market could not provide her with opportunities to make the sort of money she made from prostitution. She told us,

What job pays £60, £100 a night? Sometimes you can earn £100 in an hour if it’s busy. You know where you’re well off, don’t you?

Carol, who became involved in prostitution when she was 13, was 37 at the time of the interview and still involved in prostitution. She lived with her partner and two young sons. She told us she was not prepared to work for £80 a week in the formal labour market because she would be unable to meet her living expenses. Susan had become involved in prostitution at 16. She was 26 at the time of the interview and was still involved. She found her welfare benefits inadequate for her needs and told us,

            Money, money, money’s still the reason why I’m doing it’.

Josie, had become involved in prostitution when she was 14 and at the time of the interview, when she was 17, was still involved. She was unable to live on £28 per week Job Seeker’s Allowance and told us, ‘It’s money all the time’ that made her resort to prostitution. Sally, who had become involved when she was 15, was 24 when she was interviewed and still involved in prostitution.  She felt that there was no way she could earn the same sort of money by doing anything else.


Even the women who had successfully exited from prostitution acknowledged that their need for money continually tempted them to return to it. Pauline was 48 at the time of the interview and had been involved in prostitution from the age of 15 until she was 40. When she was asked about what had kept her involved for so long, she said it was lack of money. She told us,

You get used to the money and you know that you can’t make that kind of money from doing anything else’.

Nicki, one of our youngest interviewees, was 14 and had been involved in prostitution for the past seven months. She told us she was no longer involved at the time of the interview but acknowledged that if she needed money she would probably go back to it,

If I need some money I’ll probably end up going back on the game’.


A small number of the women supplemented incomes from the formal economy with income from prostitution. Sandra had first become involved at 13. She was 38 at the time of the interview and was still involved. She had tried to get out of prostitution in the past and had worked as a care assistant, for which she had been paid £3.40 an hour. She found that she had to supplement her formal income with earnings from prostitution. She gave up the job eventually and returned full-time to prostitution. Similarly, Lisa, who was 18 when she was interviewed, had first become involved when she was 12. At the time of the interview she was working in a chip shop and supplementing her income from that employment with income from prostitution. She turned to prostitution ‘whenever I need the money’.


The ‘choice’ of prostitution should not be understood as a ‘free’ choice. These young women had ‘choices but not choices over choices’ (Willis 1990 cited in Craine 1997:137). Theirs should be understood as ‘structured choices’ (Pettiway 1997) that result from a highly constrained agency (Melrose et. al. 1999, Melrose and Brodie 1999, Melrose 2000). The adoption of prostitution as a means of income generation ‘is powerfully determined by negative experiences and reduced circumstances which constrain young people to act in ways that are inimical to their best interests’ (Pitts 1997:152).


Approximately two thirds of the young women had limited formal skills, training or education having ‘just stopped going’ to school when they were as young as twelve or thirteen. Many came from chaotic family backgrounds and almost half had previously been sexually abused in their families. For almost half the women, their first sexual experience had taken place in the context of abuse and many had appeared to make an almost seamless transition from being abused in the private sphere of the home and family to being abused in the public sphere of the sex industry. Half the women had previously been looked after in the public care system and of these, over half had a history of going missing.  It was those with a history of going missing who had tended to become involved in prostitution at the youngest ages (Melrose et. al. 1999).


The reasons young people become involved in prostitution are of course complex and should not be reduced to one single factor. Previous research has demonstrated that vulnerable young women are propelled into prostitution as a result of a conjunction between their emotional neediness and their poverty (O’Neill 1997). As the women quoted above clearly demonstrate,  the combination of a lack of provision for young people who are emotionally vulnerable, with social and labour market policies and welfare retrenchment, propel them into prostitution and trap them there once they have become involved.


Many of the participants in the study told us they aimed to earn in the region of £100 per night – on average this would involve them seeing four ‘clients’ a night. Given these incomes it is not difficult to see why prostitution should appear to many of the women to be a route to ‘easy money’. Even if there were opportunities in the formal labour market, it is unlikely that they would earn anything like the sums of money they are able to generate through their involvement in prostitution.


In the discussion above we have seen that many of the young women had become involved in prostitution before they were old enough, legally, to enter the labour market or to receive welfare benefits in their own right. In fact, approximately two-thirds of participants had become involved before they were sixteen and of these, three-quarters (24) actually became involved when they were 14 or younger. Two participants had become involved when they were 11. Across the whole group, the average age of first involvement was fourteen and a half. A slightly higher proportion of the under 25 age group had become involved at fourteen or younger compared to the older age group. This suggests that young women are becoming involved in prostitution at younger ages and that their involvement may be a result of the relationship their families and the communities from which they come have to the labour market. That is, they are likely to come from areas of high unemployment and neighbourhood decline (Pitts 1997).


Almost all the women we spoke to said they thought there were more young girls involved in prostitution now compared to when they had first become involved themselves. Of course, in the sex industry there is a premium on age. The younger the girl, the more she is likely to earn. Dawn, for example, spoke quite matter-of-factly about ‘young girls’ always being able ‘to make a lot of money because punters like fresh meat and they go for a new face’. Zoe also told us, ‘when you’re a new face you get more customers anyway’. For many of the young women, the client’s appreciation of a ‘new face’ provided an incentive to move around and work in different areas where they were not known.



The discussion above demonstrates that there is an urgent need for action to transform the social conditions that give rise to child prostitution (Melrose and Brodie 1999, Melrose 2000). The long term objective must be to bring about social transformation by ‘dismantling the entire system which commodifies and devalues human beings, body parts, masculinity, femininity, cultures and communities’ (Sangera 1997). That is, at a structural level, there is a great deal to do to dismantle the inequalities generated by globalisation, patriarchy and senarchy (Melrose 2000).


We have seen that it is these intersecting inequalities that create the conditions in which the prostitution labour market thrives and provides alternative opportunities for income generation for vulnerable, emotionally needy and disadvantaged young people, but for young women in particular (Melrose 2000). While new government guidelines do suggest some progress in responding to juvenile prostitution, and are therefore to be welcomed, they do little to tackle its causes. As we have seen, labour market and welfare policies play their part in propelling young people into prostitution by determining rights to welfare entitlement and wages on the basis of chronological age rather than on need or financial commitment (Coles and Craig 1999).


In order to tackle the causes of child prostitution, this author would argue that there is a need to tackle the poverty of the communities from which these young people so often come (Pitts 1997). The social security system, voluntary and statutory social services agencies, the education and youth services need to be provided with the resources to respond to the problems with which these young people are faced. In addition, there is a need to provide them with attractive opportunities in the formal labour market, as well as to restore welfare benefits and educational grants to young people (Adams et. al 1997). While young people are denied legitimate means to resist destitution, or to achieve economic and domestic autonomy, prostitution will continue to appear as a rational economic choice and they will continue to engage in ‘survival acts’ through which their economic marginalisation and emotional vulnerability become more deeply entrenched (Melrose 2000).

4, 662 words to here



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[1] The Children Act 1989 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child define a ‘child’ as anyone under the age of 18 and this is the definition adopted in this paper when ‘children and young people’ are discussed.


[2] This research was funded by The Children’s Society, London and was conducted during 1998. The author is grateful to The Children’s Society for making funds for the research available.


[3] Margaret Melrose is a Research Fellow in the Department of Applied Social Studies, University of Luton. Correspondence Address: Margaret Melrose, Department of Applied Social Studies, University of Luton, Park Square, Luton LU1 3JU, Beds. England. Tel: (00 44) (0) 1582 732886. Direct line: (00 44) (0) 1582 743088

Email: Margaret.Melrose@luton.ac.uk