Shauna Miller is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the former managing editor of CityLab.
A new study reveals the reasons that LGBTQ teens find themselves pushed into the sex trade—and why the cycle is so hard to break.
Sex work is work. Where it is legal, sex workers are somewhat protected by labor and health-regulation laws. Where it is criminalized, any infrastructure is largely informal, with workers left vulnerable to the whims of clients. Sex work takes many forms, and adults do sex work for a variety of reasons. It can be fulfilling and it can be dangerous. It can be temporary or long-term. It can be a choice or it can be coercion.
"Survival sex" takes place on a related but separate matrix. An Urban Institute report released today looks at a first-of-its-kind study of survival sex and LGBTQ youth in New York City. The study, done in partnership with an organization called Streetwise and Safe, drew from interviews of 300 respondents between the ages of 13 and 21 years old. This is the first study with that large a sample size to examine this issue and include the words of study participants speaking to their peers.
Meredith Dank, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, worked on a related study in 2008. "I thought, 'Wow, this would be a lot more effective if there were young people trained to interview other young people."
The approach appears to have worked, yielding honest and complex answers from LGBTQ teens who engaged in survival sex. The report presents a comprehensive look at the landscape of survival sex for LGBTQ teens in New York City: The reasons they turn to it, the social-service barriers that leave few other options, the difficulties that a lack of services presents to getting out, and the complicated purposes—beyond allowing basic subsistence—that it serves.
First, Dank clarifies the issue of choice in survival sex involving LGBTQ teens. "To the extent this can be considered a choice, it is born out of the fact that there are no other choices," she says. "Language when it comes to this is so difficult; if you say they have a choice, that implies full agency, that they had other options. This is very much about resilience."
Homelessness is a primary driver for LGBTQ teens turning to survival sex, according to the report. It cites national statistics showing that as many as 50 percent of homeless or runaway youth trade sex for shelter or for money to provide shelter for themselves, and that 48 percent of transgender people involved in sex work overall also report experiencing homelessness. A 2007 study of LGBTQ teens in New York revealed that LGBTQ youth were seven times more likely to have traded sex for shelter than heterosexual teens, and that transgender teens were eight times more likely.
Researchers also found that more than half of the respondents (54 percent) used any earnings from survival sex to buy food first. While conducting interviews for the study, Dank recalls how often the research team ordered pizza for the subjects. "I can't tell you how many of them had not eaten in more than 24 hours," she says. "They were weak. They didn't have a dollar for a slice of pizza."
One of the study's participants, a 21-year-old black, gay male, explained plainly how he first became involved survival-sex trading:
I don’t remember it that vividly, all I know is just that I was starving. …My friend was like, “come to the stroll trust me, you'll get somebody.” I was hungry, I was cold, so I did it.
Forty-six percent of the study's respondents said that they were introduced to survival sex by a friend. To Dank, these are relationships and situations too fraught to be judged "good" or "bad." In a life over which they have little control over basic human needs, networks of teens engaged in survival sex may serve as a surrogate family and protection. "For a lot of them, this is a really critical time in their lives," Dank says. "To have already lost so much. They'll say, 'I needed a parent and I didn't have them.' Peers are serving that role of support they really need."
Another subject, a 19-year-old black, gay male, explains how his "gay family" helped him learn how to navigate the world of survival sex:
I had a gay sister. She pretty much knew ... how much to cost the rates and things of that nature. And I used to spend nights with her to just be there to make sure that she'd be okay, and then I kind of needed money too, and so she put me on and we became a skillful trade.
Dank says that such strong community ties may also make it difficult to leave the survival sex life when other opportunities for employment arise. And this is what nearly all of the study participants reported wanting, she says: To be able to provide for themselves another way.
"The young people made clear that this is not what they wanted to be doing, in a year even," she says. "They wanted a job. This wasn't a job to them, it was just how they were surviving."
Other key findings from the study concern failings of care systems that these youth have passed through: The shelter system is hard enough on adult homeless, let alone for a queer or trans teenager who may be rejected or unwelcome in gender-segregated shelters. Respondents reported staff objecting to their gender identity not physically matching their bodies, or their chosen names not matching their legal identification documents. Attempting to get public assistance becomes dangerous, too: If someone engaged in survival sex is under 13, they go into the hands of Child Protective Services. Sixty-nine percent of respondents had been in the foster care system, but teens "age out" at 18. Even when the subjects could find help, it was not enough to survive on without income from survival sex. Recalls one respondents, a 19-year-old gay Latino male:
So ever since I did the walk-in center, they set me up for ... shelter, the group homes, and things like that, to get my health benefits. So, I did the health benefits, I did the welfare. I sat in the welfare for days, waiting for them to approve my food stamps, it didn’t work. I did it over and over and over. In the time of doing welfare and trying to get my health benefits, I was still doing sex trade. And even when it worked, I still had to do sex trade 'cause it was too much. It’s like it’s not enough food, it’s not enough money. ... I still need my parents and they weren’t there. That’s all I knew.
The report closes with a list of recommendations that can be applied to social services agencies serving LGBTQ teens and those engaging in survival sex far beyond the borders of NYC. They include: Adoption of non-discrimination, confidentiality, and complaint procedures in shelters; broadening access to and improving gender-affirming health care; developing living wage employment opportunities; and improving “food security” for LGBTQ youth.
"New York City is somewhat unique in that there are agencies that serve LGBT youth pretty well and it's still not enough," says Dank. "What we knew was mostly anecdotal, and now we have data to share. LGBT youth are having these experiences all over the country. Whoever is passing the laws about this, we need them to know all of this."