Anchors in Floating Lives

Edited by Margaret Melrose and David Barrett

This book gives accounts of projects throughout England, designed to offer young people involved in prostitution alternative ways of living, and it discusses the difficulties encountered in the work.

It is an important book in a number of ways. First, the subject matter is still fairly new; not a lot has been published about it. One of the reasons, mentioned a number of times in the book, is that the involvement of young people in prostitution is a subject which people do not like to acknowledge. Child prostitution has been known about for centuries, not only in England but in other countries as well, but its existence implies not only that there are adults organising the trade but also adults who are clients. All of these adults are abusing the children and young people, which people do not like to admit. The book is significant, therefore, in putting down a marker about the existence of the problem and providing some evidence of its scale.

Secondly, the book gives a consistent message about some of the principles which underpin the work. Key among these is the decriminalisation of the activities of the young people and their treatment as victims of sexual abuse. The establishment of this principle has taken some time, and it takes the pressure off the young people and puts it onto their pimps and clients. This should send a powerful message to potential pimps and clients.

Thirdly, the descriptions of the individual projects will be quite interesting for the average concerned reader, and probably very helpful to any individual or group thinking of setting up a similar project. Even small-scale projects require a lot of organising, in view of the range of services and professions involved. The evidence shows that every town of any size needs a project of this sort to help support young people and enable them to find alternative ways of supporting themselves.

So, what are the drawbacks with the book? First, the descriptions of the projects become rather “samey” by the end. There is a lot of discussion about ways in which the professionals need to co-operate which, as noted earlier, may be of help to people intending to set schemes up, but risks becoming a bit tedious to general readers. It is hard to get excited about meetings and communications structures.

Of greater interest are the descriptions of the individual young people, the choices they face and the decisions they take. As in any field in the personal social services, a study of a group such as young people involved in prostitution resolves itself into a lot of very different profiles of individuals with different life experiences, different motivations for entering the trade, and different prospects for the future. The book would have come to life more with additional examples.

Again, the projects were still so new that it was difficult in most cases to determine whether they had had any impact, either on individual young people or on local patterns of prostitution. In this respect, a follow-up book or second edition will be helpful in two or three years’ time, when medium-term lessons will have been learnt. The book does contain some clues as to the likely lesson, but the picture is only just beginning to emerge, and it is too soon to see much by way of statistical trends.

Another area which received only limited coverage in the book was the practical techniques which were of help. The NSPCC project in London, Street Matters, for instance, had devised a system of risk assessment where there would be intervention only in the event of exceptionally high risk levels. The group of young people who work in prostitution often have highly disturbed backgrounds, are demanding to work with and are very suspicious of authority. Finding ways of obtaining their trust and co-operation is therefore very difficult, and mechanisms such as the NSPCC risk assessment approach are no doubt useful in helping frame ways of working with the young people.

Another example of practical measures was the gathering of evidence from sources other than the young people, so that action could be taken against pimps without having to call the young people to speak in court. This is helpful not only because it takes the pressure off the young people but also because some of them see their pimps as boy-friends and are strongly attached to them.

A key conundrum faced by workers in this field, emerging from the book, is that the workers are strongly motivated to help the young people get out of prostitution and support the principle of decriminalising their involvement, seeing them as victims of sexual abuse. Yet the young people are making choices – perhaps under pressure from pimps or driven by the need for drugs – but choices nonetheless, to earn their money in this field, and it is recognised that if the young people are to be respected,  their ability to choose how to live their lives has to be respected as well.

The editors are quite explicit in limiting the book to England, and it is no doubt better to produce a quality book within parameters than to spread its brief too wide and fail. However, in a future edition, the international dimension will need to be addressed. To what extent do young people from this country go abroad? What proportion of the young prostitutes in this country are from abroad? Is the trafficking of young people a major issue in this country? Is the pattern in England similar to that in other countries, or are cultures very different in this respect?

On balance, then, this is a useful book and it covers an important subject as well as could be hoped at this stage. A new book – or a revision of this one – should be much more useful, though, in a few years’ time, when the scale of the problem is better known and the effectiveness of the schemes has been evaluated.

Anchors in Floating Lives: Interventions with Young People Sexually Abused Through Prostitution

Russell House Publishing (2004) ISBN 1-903855-21-7

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