To help sex trafficking victims, offer more services, fewer arrests
By Carisa Showden and Samantha Majic | January 8, 2019
Stories of sex trafficking are everywhere: news stories, NGO reports, television, movies, and congressional testimony. Yet, while sex trafficking is an important and difficult issue, most of these stories dismiss its complexity and focus on simple, media-ready narratives about young, innocent white women trapped by predatory brown or black men (or criminal gangs of men). If we want to understand and address sex trafficking, we need to go beyond sensationalist and misleading stories. In Youth Who Trade Sex in the U.S.: Intersectionality, Agency, and Vulnerability, we take on this task by comprehensively examining the best available recent research on this topic: 128 well-designed, peer-reviewed studies of sex trafficking of young people in North America.
What we found both confirms and challenges popular representations.
Yes, individual bad men do sometimes lure young, innocent women from the suburbs into horrific situations. And those people must be held accountable. But much more frequently, “sex trafficking” of young people occurs as the result of poverty, racism, and transphobia. It isn’t usually a matter of criminal gangs moving young women and girls across state or national borders.
It’s more often mothers or other family members exploiting their children for money. Also overrepresented are youth who run away from home because of homophobia or transphobia in their natal families. When those young people end up on the streets, they sometimes sell sex for money for needed goods, or trade sex for shelter or food.
We argue that to be unequivocally anti-trafficking, we need to understand the broader picture of young people who trade sex. To do this, we draw from the studies we reviewed to propose an intersectional approach to improve research, policy, and community interventions.
Instead of dwelling on issues of sex, sexuality, or the innocence of the young people involved, we acknowledge the complexity of young people’s situations, and consider how the various individual, social, locational, and structural factors of their lives mitigate or foster their vulnerability to exploitation.
We argue for this intersectional approach because when sex trafficking policy and public discourse gets caught up in questions of innocence and sex, it’s too easy to blame young people for making “bad choices.” Trading sex becomes an ontological fact about the young person rather than something they have done or that has happened to them in a context of survival.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) is one example of a policy that centers youth’s innocence without considering the context of their lives. By naming all youth under age 18 who trade sex for any reason “sex trafficking victims,” the TVPA acknowledges that youth are vulnerable. Yet by allocating the bulk of its resources to law enforcement, it does little to account for or change their circumstances, leaving in place the structural factors (e.g., criminal justice practices or cuts to social welfare programs) and social factors (e.g., racism and gender ideologies) that criminalize and harm them. Consequently, as Alix Lutnick shows in her analysis of FBI data, not only have prostitution-related arrests increased since TVPA implementation, but the arrest of young women specifically has driven this increase. This trend suggests a “sexual double standard” in criminalization. This is not particularly new. As feminist criminologists have noted, “In the United States, girls have historically been jailed for being ‘sexually immoral,’ running away, and being in need of supervision.”
Additionally, because the TVPA is focused on “stranger danger,” it does little to address the fact that family members are one of the most common sources of vulnerability for youth.
As Alicia Peters documents, the bulk of TVPA funding to address sex trafficking has gone to vice departments, which primarily investigate street-based sex work and venues that allegedly promote sex trafficking, such as massage parlors. Resources for investigating family-based abuse and neglect (and for prevention and victim assistance) are not prioritized and funded through the TVPA, and other forms of labor trafficking remain under-investigated.
Another flaw is that, under the TVPA, youth services are devised with children, not teenagers, in mind. The older group is mostly ignored despite making up a large proportion of sex trafficked youth. (Studies disagree on the specific proportion of youth from different age groups, as numbers depend on researchers’ sampling methods.) The needs and experiences of very young victims of trafficking are quite different from older youth who often engage in survival sex or similar acts. But the law collapses the most horrific forms of sexual violation and (literal) trafficking of 10-year-olds with the decisions of 16- and 17-year-olds to engage in trading sex to survive after being kicked out of their homes. Transgender youth may find their situation compounded by also being unable to get identity documentation, such as a drivers license or state ID, that would allow them to access shelter services, which are often segregated by gender.
We suggest that a more effective and far-reaching “anti-trafficking policy” for older youth would promote and sustain structural interventions.
First and foremost, we recommend ending the arrest and prosecution of youth for prostitution offenses. Currently, over half of US states either shield youth from criminalization for prostitution or they have passed “safe harbor” laws that explicitly prohibit this prosecution and instead direct youth to specialized services. However, studies show that these laws are not commonly enacted and implemented as intended, and so we recommend decriminalizing prostitution to ensure that youth are not being arrested and marked with a criminal record.
We also advise support for a wider range of services, such as free or subsidized access to skills and employment training and housing that accommodates transgender youth. Also required is sustained support for local, peer- and community-based service providers and advocacy organizations. This community-based support is essential because young people who trade sex garner many of their resources from their social-locational networks as opposed to their natal or legal families, with whom they often do not live or have regular contact.
The needs of vulnerable youth are complex and immense. No simple narrative can capture the range of government, political, and social failures that lead to young people’s sexual exploitation. For those of us who care about sexual violence and vulnerability, it’s time to listen to what young people are telling us they need, and to work harder to provide appropriate care, not just a lock-’em-up model of justice.