There’s a difference between sex work that is legal and that which is criminalized, as far as protection and health-regulation goes, but it’s all work. People are doing this work for many different reasons, very rarely because they want to. It can be incredibly dangerous.
What appears to be a study that is the first of its kind, was released by an Urban Institute report on survival sex and LGBTQ youth in NYC. The study took interviews from 300 participants between 13 and 21 years of age and was done in collaboration with the organization Streetwise and Safe. The study was conducted with participants speaking to their peers, which likely made it much more effective.
This approach seems to have been a good move, resulting in straightforward and complex responses from LGBTQ teens who have taken part in survival sex. To say they choose to do this is misleading and damaging–it’s for survival; they’ve often run out of options. The main reason LGBTQ teens turn to survival sex is homelessness. As many as 50 percent of youth who are homeless or runaway, trade sex for money to care for themselves or for shelter. Forty-eight percent of transgender people who engage in sex work report that they’re homeless.
A 2007 study of LGBTQ teens in New York showed that transgender teens were eight times more likely to have traded sex for shelter than heterosexual teens and that LGBTQ youth in general were seven times more likely. More than half of the respondents of the study said they used the money from survival sex to buy food first.
Often, LGBTQ youth are introduced to this way of survival by a friend. Meredith Dank, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute believes these are relationships and circumstances too fraught to be labeled as “good” or “bad”. These teens have little control over meeting their own needs for survival and don’t have support systems, so they turn to each other as family and protection. Dank said, “They’ll say, ‘I needed a parent and I didn’t have them.’ Peers are serving that role of support they really need.”
The community ties these teens have built make it difficult for them to leave survival sex, even when they are presented with other employment opportunities. And, almost all of the youth interviewed in the study said they wanted to be able to support themselves differently. They reported they did not want to be engaged in survival sex, not even in a year and that, “They wanted a job. This wasn’t a job to them, it was just how they were surviving.”
Dank says, “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.”
The end of the report includes a list of recommendations that is intended to reach social service agencies serving LGBTQ youth beyond NYC.