Homeless Young Adult Perceptions of Sexual Exploitation

“We’re Automatically Sex in Men’s Eyes, We’re Nothing But Sex…”

By Kate Fritz Fogel, Lauren Martin, Bob Nelson, Marney Thomas, and Carolyn M. Porta.

A recent study published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma explored how homeless young adults view commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), sex trading, prostitution, and trafficking among themselves and their peers. Researchers were looking to help a homeless youth and young adult serving agency better understand how to define CSE, as well as help define the pathways that lead youth and young adults into CSE. The agency hoped to find new information to help them prevent CSE among homeless youth and young adults using their drop-in center.
The study was designed as Participatory Action Research, a type of qualitative study, which views participants as experts rather than “subjects”. The participants were selected to be part of focus groups and asked a series of questions about CSE, prostitution, trafficking, and the specific pathways into CSE. For data analysis, participant statements were organized into themes including relationships, pathway to involvement, what do youth trade sex for, motivations, solicitation, and more.

Key Study Results
Results showed that sexual exploitation is a spectrum, including informally trading sex with peers, erotic dancing, massage, and sexual fetish work, all of which can progress to pimp-mediated prostitution. Sexual exploitation is not just a discrete event or singular experience.
Participant quotes:
“All I did was spank him and I got $100 for it…”
“It’s easy to turn people onto other stuff that has nothing to do with prostitution, like massage, or dominatrix, you name it, but it won’t involve sex.”

Sexual exploitation is always an option. Sex exchange is one of the few options for homeless youth to help them afford necessities. All of the participants in this study shared that homeless young adult women and girls confront and think about sex exchange as an option, and it is often discussed among peers.
Participant quotes:
“Everybody (talks about this). I mean everybody, like every girl that’s going through stuff who is homeless or doesn’t have anywhere to go or doesn’t have any money, they just don’t have nothing… “
“If you’re thinking about prostitution or the actions leading up to prostitution, your thoughts are racing. Like should I do it? Is it survival? Peer pressure?”

Intentional and unintentional recruitment among peers often occurs. Some participants were taught by friends and acquaintances how to trade sex for money or a place to sleep, but did not participate in pimp-mediated prostitution. Instead, other women were sharing what they had learned as the best ways to survive. Participants described an ongoing conversation among homeless youth and young adults about the merits of sex trading.
Participant quote:
“I look at it that someone can genuinely be your friend… but not know their own self-worth so the only advice I have is ok … girl, yeah you should totally do this or try this. Not wanting to intentionally tear them down, but they don’t know any better and they can only teach what they know.”

Solicitations are part of the landscape. Sexually exploitive situations happen everywhere. Participants shared being solicited on the bus, in bathrooms, on the street, and at friend’s houses. Participants also experienced the paradox of homeless youth serving agencies- that by seeking services they are targeted for solicitation more frequently, often by people they see at or near the agency. In addition, sex exchange can often be the assumption if something was given by a male peer, usually drugs or alcohol.
Participant quotes:
“I can be walking down the street and see people from [a homeless youth organization] that I don’t even associate with and they’ll come up to me, ‘oh you want to make this quick cash?’”

Examine Your Screening Questions

In many programs, there is only one screening question asking clients if they have ever traded sex for food, money, drugs, or a place to stay. Basing services entirely off of this question misses opportunities to prevent and intervene with sexually exploited youth and young adults. The researchers noted that many participants would have answered ‘no’ to that screening question, even though they would also describe having to exchange sex in order to survive.

Service providers should:

  • Understand that sexual exploitation is a spectrum
  • See sexual exploitation as a dynamic reality confronting homeless youth and young adults
  • Be trained in discussing the spectrum of CSE and intervene during the earlier behaviors- such as peer-to-peer trading of sex for substances
  • Be comfortable asking appropriate follow-up questions to understand the full situation a client might be experiencing
  • Examine safety and security measures within the organization to discourage recruitment and solicitation