Purpose: Sexually exploited youth (i.e., youth under the age of 19 who engage in sexual activity in exchange for food, money, shelter, etc.) are an extremely vulnerable population. Multiple barriers prevent youth from accessing health services and these barriers are complicated by the significant stigma attached to being exploited. Print news media are a powerful means of maintaining and changing stereotypical beliefs, and are highly influential in creating public perceptions of who these youth are. These perceptions can affect policies and funding for services, and influence the types of programs available to exploited youth. This study explored how Canadian print news media portray exploited youth and examined the accuracy of this portrayal based on current research.
Methods: This discourse analysis drew upon 880 newspaper articles relating to exploited youth that were published between 1980 and 2008. The articles varied in length from 50 to 6000 words and included both small and large newspapers from urban and rural areas across Canada. We analyzed the data using NVIVO8 computer software and coded the context of exploitation and the language used to describe exploited youth, including their age, gender, ethnicity, and risk behaviors. Similar categories were used to analyze the language used to depict perpetrators. Each category was carefully reviewed by three researchers to ensure inter-coder consensus. Results were then compared to current research data about exploited youth in Canada.
Results: Despite a dataset that spans a 28-year period, there was little change in how exploited youth were depicted. Although “sexually exploited youth” was used more frequently in current articles, language such “child hooker”, “kiddie criminal” and “teen prostitute” were still common. Street-involved exploitation was the primary form of exploitation identified and although research identifies the presence of women perpetrators, the articles primarily identified perpetrators as adult men who were referred to as “johns”, “pimps”, and “customers”. Research evidence finds that a similar prevalence boys and girls are exploited, and that the average age of exploitation is 13. Canadian print media, however, almost exclusively described older teenage girls who were engaged in “work” and provided limited recognition that sexual exploitation is a form of abuse. Boys and younger teens were rarely described.
Conclusions: Canadian news media fail to provide an accurate description of exploited youth, and instead perpetuate stereotypes and convey messages that youth are willing participants who have choice and control over being exploited. The recognition that boys are exploited is notably absent, and this adds to their invisibility and potentially influences the lack of health and social service programs available to exploited young men.