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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sex as a currency: the phenomenon of survival sex and what we can do about it

“She drank his money.” It’s an expression in South Africa used to imply that when a woman accepts alcohol from a man, she owes that man sex in exchange for consuming his drink. This toxic attitude exists in the Western world as well, and is presently a serious issue for homeless youth in America.

Homeless youth are often left with no options and
resort to exchanging sex for basic resources
The numbers are horrific. Studies indicate that more than a third of homeless youth exchange sex for housing, food, and often drugs, a practice commonly known as “survival sex.” This type of behavior marks the beginning of a slippery slope to full-blown prostitution, abusive relationships, and more. What’s worse is that once girls begin engaging in more traditional prostitution, they fall into legal sinkholes and are oftentimes treated as teenage criminals rather than victims of exploitation.

Pimps are often aware of the vulnerability of homeless youth, in some cases driving around schools after hours to seek out girls with low self-esteem and nowhere to go. These exploiters play the role of a father figure or boyfriend as a guise for imposing prostitution. As a convicted pimp Harvey Washington said, “With the young girls, you promise them heaven, they’ll follow you to hell.”

Indeed, the bonds girls form with their pimps are often complicated and abusive on many levels. They become attached to their captor and may even continue to work for a pimp after he is incarcerated. After significant abuse, the girls soon begin to trust no one, including authorities who can help. These trust issues are not helped by the present systems in place in the State, which include recent state cuts to mental health services, poorly trained child welfare agencies, and a lack of housing options with support systems.

Research indicates that almost all of the juveniles involved in prostitution are runaways of some kind. It’s also important to remember that the issue of survival sex is not unique to girls. In a survey of LA homeless youth, about half of homeless males engage in survival sex. According to one study, LGBTQ youth are three times are likely to engage in survival sex, and transgendered youth are the most likely of all.

Despite the disheartening reality of the troubles facing homeless youth, awareness is beginning to spread, and so too are effective initiatives. A new system implemented by a Dallas police force showed remarkable success in deterring prostitution by targeting repeat runaways in a unique and sensitive manner. (You can read about it here). There are ways you can help too. Here are three starting points (as recommended by this report):

1. Learn about youth homelessness in your community. Find out how many homeless youth are enrolled in the public schools and what kinds of resources are available to help them. Be informed about the realities of your community.

2. Be a vocal advocate for increased housing resources. Youth are less likely to be exploited when they are off the streets and in stable housing. There are model youth housing programs that can be developed in rural, suburban, and urban neighborhoods. Is there enough affordable housing in your neighborhood for older teenagers and young adults who are fleeing abuse and neglect?

3. Make sure that local law enforcement is targeting the businesses (pimps, strip clubs, escort services) and customers (johns) of the commercial sexual industry and not the victims (youth and young adults) for prosecution.

Become an advocate for their cause. Empower them to seek alternate resources. Support programs that are working. Homeless youth in America should not feel this helpless.

Nikhitha Murali, Intern

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