Mentoring For Youth With Backgrounds Of Involvement In Commercial Sex Activity


Group Review Board
David DuBois, Ph.D., Chair and Jennifer K. Felner
(University of Illinois at Chicago)
National Mentoring Resource Center

This review examines research on mentoring for youth with backgrounds of involvement (or high-risk for involvement) in commercial sex activity (YCSA). The review is organized around four questions:

  1. What is the documented effectiveness of mentoring for YCSA?
  2. What factors condition or shape the effectiveness of mentoring for YCSA?
  3. ——What are the intervening processes that are most important in linking mentoring to outcomes for YCSA?
  4. ——To what extent have efforts to provide mentoring to YCSA reached and engaged targeted youth, been implemented with high quality, and been adopted and sustained by host organizations and settings?

Research directly addressing mentoring for youth with backgrounds of commercial sex involvement is extremely limited in scope and largely insufficient for answering any of the above questions. However, when these findings are considered in combination with other available research (for example, qualitative studies of the experiences of youth who have been involved with commercial sex exploitation and survey research eliciting the observations and recommendations of professionals who work with such young persons), it is possible to identify a number of noteworthy possibilities that merit consideration. These include:

  1. A potential for both formal and informal forms of mentoring to be of benefit for YCSA
  2. The possibility that benefits of mentoring for YCSA may be conditional upon mentors having appropriate training and/or histories of commercial sex exploitation involvement themselves
  3. ——A potential for processes involving hope, identity, social support, and education and career development to be instrumental as pathways through which mentoring is able to benefit YCSA
  4. ——Although it appears viable to engage YCSA in mentoring supports and services, it may prove difficult to sustain their involvement over time due to high levels of flux and instability in the life circumstances of youth with backgrounds of commercial sex involvement


The commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth is increasingly recognized as a significant societal and public health concern within the U.S. as well as globally. As a population, young persons involved in commercial sex activity (YCSA) are markedly more susceptible to a wide range of serious and potentially life-threatening negative health outcomes and experiences. These include suicide and other forms of self-harm, substance use, mental health difficulties (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder), sexually transmitted infections (e.g., HIV), and several different types of victimization (e.g., rape, physical and psychological abuse).1-4 The extent to which such problems can be directly attributed to involvement in commercial sexual activity remains to be clarified, as there are often a variety of factors affecting YCSA, although as expected, available research does point to a number of ways in which involvement in commercial sex itself can be harmful to young people.5 Furthermore, even in the absence of an established causative link between involvement in commercial sex activity and increased adjustment difficulties, there is obvious value in prevention efforts focused on reducing the numbers of youth who fall into this group. It is also clear that those who do become involved in commercial sex activity often will be in need of an array of effective and well-coordinated services and supports (more systemic or “upstream” efforts to combat commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth, such as those focused on demand reduction and law enforcement, are also vitally important,5 but are not the focus of this review). Mentoring has been frequently cited as one strategy that may be helpful in supporting prevention and intervention goals for YCSA5 and is the focus of this review. The specific questions addressed are as follows:

  1. What is the demonstrated effectiveness of mentoring for youth with current or past involvement in (or at high risk for involvement in) commercial sex activity (YCSA)?
  2. To what extent are the benefits of group mentoring likely to depend on characteristics and backgrounds of the youth and/or their mentor(s) or program practices?
  3. In what ways are the benefits of mentoring for YCSA likely to differ as a function of such considerations as the backgrounds and characteristics of the youth involved and the types of program practices being employed?
  4. What intervening pathways or variables are likely to be most important in linking mentoring to outcomes for YCSA?
  5. To what extent have efforts to provide mentoring to YCSA reached and engaged targeted youth, been implemented with high quality, and been adopted and sustained by host organizations and settings? What factors predict better reach, implementation, and adoption/sustainability?

YCSA are young persons who have current or past involvement in (or at high risk for involvement in) commercial sex activity. For the purposes of this review, commercial sex activity is defined broadly as follows: “[A]ny form of being sexual (or the idea of being sexual) in exchange for money, gifts, safety, drugs [. . .] or survival needs like housing, food, clothes, or immigration and documentation – whether [the young person involved] gets to keep the money/goods/service or someone else profits from these acts.” (p. 7).6 A variety of other terms associated with youth involvement in commercial sex activity also have been used in the scholarly literature and in advocacy discourse (i.e., sexual exploitation of children, commercial sexual exploitation of children, domestic minor sex trafficking, child/juvenile prostitution, and survival sex). In this review, we use the term YCSA in an effort to eliminate potential value judgments regarding youth involvement in commercial sex activity and to avoid language that is potentially stigmatizing or paternalizing such as could be the case with terms that emphasize concepts of “victimization,” “exploitation,” or “criminality.” At the same time, we recognize that our choice of terminology has its own potential limitations. Eschewing the term “exploitation”, for example, runs the risk of calling attention away from the blatant forms of maltreatment and abuse that are routinely experienced by youth involved in commercial sex activity as well as the more subtle, but no less significant and exploitive forms of manipulation and psychological coercion to which such youth are frequently subjected. As one final note on this issue, in describing the results of specific studies we have elected to utilize terminology of the study authors wherever feasible so as to be consistent with the original source material.
This review considers mentoring to be relationships and activities that take place between youth (i.e.,mentees) and older or more experienced persons (i.e., mentors) who are acting in a non-professional helping capacity – whether through a program or more informally — to provide support that benefits one or more areas of the young person’s development (for further detail, see What is Mentoring?). This definition excludes services and supports that are offered in formal professional roles by those with advanced education or training (e.g., social work, counseling). However, for purposes of the present review, we have relaxed this requirement to some degree out of necessity in view of the limited amount of available research. Such allowances when made are noted.
A systematic literature search for research that has examined mentoring for YCSA as defined above was carried out to identify articles, book chapters, and evaluation reports that have reported findings pertinent to one or more of the central questions for this review. The review of available research for each question begins with a background section. These sections are intended to help frame the question and to orient the reader to findings of related research (e.g., benefits of mentoring for other populations of youth faced with high levels of adversity or life challenge).


Implications for Practice
(Mike Garringer, MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership)

Although there is a limited amount of research on the use of mentoring to support YCSA, there are several themes that emerge in this review that practitioners should keep in mind as they develop and implement services for this population.


Given the limited research on mentoring this population, we encourage both public and private funders to support evaluation of the role that mentoring supports and services can have in benefiting YCSA. With the benefit of such support, organizations and programs serving youth with backgrounds of involvement in commercial sex activity are positioned to make a pivotal contribution to growing the knowledge base in this area. The insights gained through this type of data gathering and research will be essential for better replicating and expanding effective forms of mentoring for these youth.

Learn More:
The full study, “Group Mentoring” is available on the National Mentoring Resource Center website. Read Now
This review examines the research evidence for mentoring programs that use a group format, in which one or more mentors is matched with a group of youth for a shared mentoring experience.

About the Review:
Each Mentoring Model/Population Review is conducted by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board with the intention of examining the full body of rigorous evidence as it pertains to either mentoring for a specific population of youth (e.g., youth with disabilities, immigrant youth) or a specific model of mentoring (e.g., group mentoring, e-mentoring). Each review is built around a thorough literature review for the topic in an attempt to answer key questions about mentoring’s effectiveness, participant characteristics and program processes that influence that effectiveness, and successful implementation of relevant programs to date.

Each Review also contains an “Implication for Practitioners” section that highlights steps programs can take to use or build on this evidence base. A draft version of each review and accompanying implications for practice is anonymously reviewed by at least one practitioner and one researcher who have expertise in the topic. A Research Board member serves as the coordinating editor for each review and makes final decisions regarding the acceptability of its content, prior to submission for final review and approval by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.