Joanna Phoenix finds that support for young people at risk of
prostitution is let down by patchy provision.
Despite a decade of innovative practice and policy, and recent
government guidance, services for children and young people at risk
of sexual exploitation or involved in prostitution remain patchy.
What service a young person receives depends largely on where in
the country she or he lives.
Recent research sought to analyse provision for young people in
prostitution within England, Wales, Scotland and Northern
Services for young people who are at risk of sexual exploitation
can be divided into either specialist initiatives, whose main brief
is to work with this particular client group, or generic
initiatives that have workers with expertise in the field.
In the UK, there are only 42 specialist projects (or projects
with specialist workers) and these are concentrated in Edinburgh,
Glasgow, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Middlesbrough, Doncaster, Leeds,
Liverpool, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Norwich, London,
Bournemouth, Southampton, Bristol and Birmingham.
Such concentration in urban areas is related to two factors: the
tendency for prostitution to be a largely urban phenomenon; and
that urban centres are better resourced than rural areas,
especially in relation to non-statutory provision. The result of
this uneven geographical provision is that across Scotland,
Northern Ireland and Wales, only seven cities have either a project
or an individual with expertise in working with this client
Also, services are provided by different types of organisation.
So in north east England, services are dominated by drugs projects.
In south east and central England, services are provided mainly by
sexual health outreach projects.
However, most services for young people in prostitution are
provided by voluntary agencies whose main role is to offer support
to young people or adults working in prostitution, to support those
experiencing housing difficulties or difficulties with drugs and
alcohol, or by agencies offering support with other more generic
social and personal welfare problems.
The unique needs of this client group can be lost within these
agencies, with young people in prostitution being treated the same
as other vulnerable young people. Many of the young people that
come into contact with voluntary agencies have mental health,
housing and economic needs that outstrip the resources of agencies
on the ground.
In councils where there is a good spread of services,
practitioners reported serious differences between the policies and
protocols adopted and the services on offer. So, while the policies
and protocols give the appearance of multi-agency practice working
well, project workers on the front line talked about problems in
agreeing definitions of risk and confidentiality.
Voluntary agencies also discussed their difficulties when
working with police and social workers. For example, unless a young
person is “at risk” of immediate danger and under the age of 16,
social services and police either did not see the relevance of
their involvement or did not respond.
Yet despite the uneven evolution of these services in the past
three years, the dynamism and dedication of a very few individuals
has driven creative and innovative work. For example, the efforts
of only three individuals in the south west of England have ensured
that child and youth prostitution is taken seriously by councils
and police, which now work with a specialist organisation in
providing a broad range of services.
But when a nation’s services rely on only a handful of
people and projects, it inevitably raises questions about
sustainability and worker burn-out.
– For information about services visit www.nspcc.org.uk/inform/
Joanna Phoenix is lecturer, department of social and
policy sciences, University of Bath. Further information about the
study contact her at
The research took the form of a survey combined with qualitative
interviews. Contact questionnaires were sent to all councils and
local government bodies within England, Wales, Scotland and
Northern Ireland as well as the key children’s charities and police
forces. Key individuals with responsibility for developing practice
and policy for child protection, community safety or sexual health
were identified for interview.