New research on young people who engage in commercial sex work looks at how young people understand their own experiences and explores how they meet felt needs, such as finding a way to make money or meet essential needs in the face of limited employment opportunities, meeting familial obligations, and accessing resources for survival (such as housing), that young people are often trying to solve through selling sex. Research highlighting the voices of young people who sell sex illustrates young people’s’ concerns from their point of view. I understand why the church struggles with how to address these kinds of issues but it can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines. The church must get their hands dirty if it still desires to bring hope to vulnerable people on the margins. If it doesn’t, then it simply needs to stop adding to the problem and stay out of the way.
There is a large amount of epidemiological literature documenting higher levels of HIV prevalence and risk factors for transmission among young people who sell sex. Homelessness and involvement in street economies are frequently associated with higher levels of risk and HIV infection among young people who sell sex. Biomedical research emphasising individual behavior sometimes does not fully address the role of structural and institutional violence in the lives of young people who sell sex, nor does it explore linkages with HIV vulnerability.
The literature also shows that the ways young people sell sex can differ from older sex workers. They are often displaced to more marginalized working and living conditions than older sex workers. Exchanging sex for money, goods, or a place to stay occurs in many different types of relationship and can be a livelihood strategy for persons both over and under 18 years of age. Not all young people who sell sex, including those under 18, necessarily identify what they do as work or exploitation.
Young people express a variety of feelings and understandings about selling sex. Some young people say that selling or trading sex allowed them to meet familial responsibilities and obligations or provided them with the means to establish lives independent from their parents. For others, it helped them to meet their basic needs and find community. Some young people find selling sex harmful or violating, some felt it was degrading to them, disliked being with strangers, or disliked the stigma and unsafe conditions. Young people who have been forced or coerced to sell sex experience severe human rights violations.
Young people who sell sex should be understood within their specific social and economic contexts. There is often a mismatch between economic needs and opportunities to meet these needs in the context of severe global economic inequalities, familial disruption or abandonment, and limited access to resources. Economic hardship has been shown to be particularly profound for LGBT young people, as they experience additional stigma and high levels of discrimination from support services and in employment.
Alternative economic opportunities to selling sex for many young people, including those who are under 18, are overwhelmingly irregular, informal, and sometimes very unsafe activities that carry their own risks. These include activities such as begging, street vending, unregulated factory work, or other criminalized activities such as selling drugs. While many young people sell sex for physical and economic survival, some young people also sell sex to access an improved lifestyle beyond basic subsistence, including consumer or luxury items and aspire to express autonomy and individualism through consumer goods.
Research shows that young people who sell sex have greater vulnerability to violence, have heightened sexual risk behaviors such as lower levels of condom use, and often have a higher number of sexual partners. A number of studies show that drug use often intersects with the sale of sex, exposing young people to additional legal and health risks. Young people may experience force or coercion during their involvement in selling sex. This is of particular concern, as decreases in autonomy have been shown to increase vulnerability to HIV and other sexual and reproductive health problems. Young people may also lack adequate negotiation skills, making it more difficult for them to negotiate condom use in personal or commercial exchanges. Gendered power dynamics that compromise young women’s negotiating abilities in relation to men can further produce gendered vulnerabilities to HIV infection.
Numerous laws and policies shape young people’s’ vulnerability to HIV infection and access to healthcare and HIV services. Young people often experience compounding forms of institutional violence and exclusion that victimizes them two to three fold. Young people are made vulnerable when they cannot access support or assistance because they fear arrest, detention, discrimination, or encounter policies that deny them access to services. This, in turn, has been shown to exacerbate violence in their personal and work spheres. While support systems are supposed to help young people, they are too often set up to create harms or not meet the needs of the people they serve.
Persons under 18 who sell sex often encounter mandatory reporting legislation and policies when trying to access services, which require social service or healthcare providers to report them to police. Mandatory reporting legislation creates a disincentive for service providers to help young people, sometimes denying them services outright, and makes young people hesitant to seek support out of fear of being detained or arrested. Age of consent legislation and parental consent requirements for access to sexual health examinations, harm reduction commodities, HIV testing, and abortion services, also create barriers to accessing services, as most young people do not want to disclose their activities to their parents. In Asia and the Pacific region, adolescents aged 15–19 years are more likely than persons over 20 to have unmet needs for contraception and are more vulnerable to unplanned pregnancy. Additionally, fewer young women who sell sex have ever had an HIV test compared to their older counterparts.
Young people who sell sex are often turned away from services and do not want to seek out help because of poor treatment from service providers, often owing to stigma and discrimination based on their age and behaviors. Young people are denied assistance because of their involvement with selling sex and/or drug use, their sexual orientation or identity, gender expression, or HIV status. As one report explains, “girls are denied help from the police, hospitals, shelters, and addiction treatment programs because they are in the sex trade, because they are trans or queer, because they are young, homeless, and because they use drugs.”
Young transgender, gender non-conforming, and other LGBT people who sell sex face endemic levels of discrimination and stigma which may condition their entry into selling sex and denies them the support they need to keep themselves safe and healthy.
Young people can be criminalized and arrested under laws concerning ‘prostitution’, drug use, and homosexuality or other forms of sexual behavior. This has negative effects on the human rights of persons over and under 18 years of age. The United States does not have a provision that persons under 18 should not be criminalized and treated as victims. This leaves them vulnerable to arrest. The criminalization of sex work affects young people by reducing control over working conditions and fostering a reluctance to seek services for fear of arrest. An arrest can sometimes be used as a strategy to direct persons under 18 who sell sex into the judicial system and detain them for their own ‘protection’, such as in secure care or Safe Harbor legislation.
Similarly, laws against drug use or same-sex sexual activities can also lead to arrest. Laws prohibiting ‘prostitution’ or trafficking can also compromise young peoples’ support networks that are comprised of other people who sell sex who are both over and under 18 years of age. Young people who sell sex have extensive peer networks including individuals both above and below the age of majority and rely on peers for knowledge and support. Laws criminalizing third parties can sometimes deprive young people who sell sex from community support.
Young people who sell sex experience very high levels of violence from state authorities, including in detention, in the custody of police, as well as in healthcare settings. Studies show that significant proportions of street youth who sell sex have been arrested or have had encounters with law enforcement. Studies suggest that police harassment and abuse of young people who sell sex is systematic and widespread, and experiences of physical and sexual assault, rape, and extortion have been well-documented. This raises questions for policymakers about the appropriateness of law enforcement as the primary response to young people who sell sex, particularly as forced detention or forced rehabilitation remains a standard practice in a number of country contexts and closed environments are themselves associated with increased risk for HIV.
Young people are denied assistance because of their involvement with selling sex and/or drug use, their sexual orientation or identity, gender expression, or HIV status. The voices of young people who have formerly or currently sell sex are nearly inaudible in the literature overall. Thus, understandings about ‘commercial sexual exploitation’ in research and international law have developed without the involvement of young people with experiences of selling sex. Young people express a range of complex feelings about selling sex and voice many struggles, experiences of violence, and other difficulties, yet also express notions of resilience and resistance in the context of their lives. One 21-year-old male explained, “there [are] only two positive things that I found [from survival sex work], the fact that it helps you survive and the second thing is that I felt that it made me stronger because it’s like I’m able to go through these tough situations … It shows how much I am willing and determined to keep living and surviving.” In addressing young people and HIV/ AIDS prevention, researchers propose a holistic approach to understanding young people’s’ involvement in selling sex. This approach looks at a range of motivations, including sexual initiative owing to love or pleasure, decisions made for economic or financial reasons, concerns about basic physical and economic survival, and forced or coerced sex.
Young people’s narratives suggest that there are often many overlapping factors that shape their experiences of selling sex. Even young people in exploitative situations report complex feelings toward the person exploiting them, who may also be a source of love and support. Some young people explain that they were able to resolve situations where they experienced coercion and sometimes continued to trade sex under different conditions. Taking seriously the perspectives of young people who sell sex does not set aside moral or ethical obligations to protect vulnerable young people. However, compassionate and effective responses to young people who sell sex, including those under the age of 18, requires an understanding of their needs and motivations as well as the social and economic dynamics of their lives.
Chris Schaffner is a counselor and veteran youth worker. He is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.