Underage Prostitutes Stay in School for 'Normalcy,' Study Finds

Since the system isn't aware of the issue, juvenile prostitutes who continue studying are at a greater risk than those who drop out

11th graders in a Tel Aviv high school taking a test, February 23, 2011.
Nir Kafri

Roughly 80 percent of underage prostitutes in Israel continue to attend school, a new study has found.

Many studies have found that child prostitutes generally share certain risk factors, including physical or sexual abuse, bad relations with their parents, drug addiction, crime and dropping out of school. But juvenile prostitutes who stay in school are actually at greater risk than dropouts, “because the system doesn’t know about their involvement in prostitution – neither the school nor the welfare authorities – since as far as the state’s concerned, she’s in a framework,” said Israeli criminology Prof. Arnon Edelstein, who presented his findings at the Israeli Association of Criminology conference in Jerusalem last month.

“Child prostitution isn’t done only for money, but also for drugs, brand-name products, housing and economic support,” Edelstein said at the conference. “The girls’ definition of rape was a situation in which the person who had sex with them didn’t give them the payment set in advance. From her standpoint, the fact that she’s a 14-year-old girl doesn’t make sexual relations rape, even though the law says explicitly that it’s rape.”

Moreover, he said, while dropouts may eventually wind up in shelters to satisfy their basic needs, “The girls in school return at the end of the day to their abusive homes.”

Edelstein believes that child prostitutes don’t stay in school to pursue knowledge, but because school satisfies certain needs for them. “School gives them a social place. It’s a place that gives them a kind of normalcy, but also a place to find customers, a place where nobody will suspect them.”

Most of the girls in Edelstein’s study came from impoverished homes with physically or sexually abusive parents. But among those who stayed in school, he also cited another factor: Modern teenagers have a much more expansive definition of basic needs than previous generations did.

“Today, a girl who lacks the ability to buy a telephone to be part of the social network at school, or with her friends after school, sees this as a lack of something basic, almost essential to survival,” he said. “Teenagers have expanded the definition of basic needs.”

The girls said most of their clients were adults, but some were fellow teens. The form of payment they demanded depended on whether or not they knew their clients, Edelstein said.

“Among girls in school who engage in prostitution, we found that when the girl knows the client, the price for sex can be merchandise (clothes, a telephone, a restaurant or a vacation), but in cases where she doesn’t know the client, it will usually be money. In most cases, the girls said they spent the money immediately after getting it, because they saw it as dirty money and wanted to get rid of it and receive immediate gratification from it.”

Most of the girls used drugs, Edelstein said, but it isn’t clear whether this preceded or followed their entrée into prostitution.

He pointed an accusing finger at the Education Ministry. “The education system gives us the illusion of a safe, normative space, but three findings from the study overshadow this view – violence, prostitution and drugs,” he said. “You shouldn’t treat the education system as a safe space that doesn’t require parental supervision.”

The researchers interviewed 135 girls ages 14 to 17 from southern Israel. All the girls were born and raised in Israel, but half had parents who immigrated from other countries. Their families’ average income was below 6,000 shekels ($1,700) a month.

Edelstein, who has previously studied suicide among Ethiopian Israeli teens, conducted the study with a research assistant who works for an organization that helps at-risk youth.