Exchanging Sex for Survival

So-called "safe harbor" laws may help, but they overlook the vast number of teen runaways who use their bodies as their only form of currency.

Thomas Leuthard/flickr

As human trafficking becomes an increasingly acknowledged reality in the United States, states are gradually implementing anti-trafficking laws to discourage the clandestine practice. According to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit combating human slavery and trafficking, 300,000 children are at risk of sex trafficking in the U.S. each year. In response to this rising epidemic, safe harbor laws have been enacted in states like Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, Washington, and most recently, New Hampshire.

So-called "safe harbors" grant immunity from criminal prosecution to minors under the age of 18 engaged in prostitution. The thinking is that these minors are not criminals but victims, often homeless and runaway teens who are exploited by malicious, manipulative pimps. Such laws comply with and reinforce federal law, which has decriminalized prostitution for minors and now legally classifies them as victims of human trafficking.

But here's where things get tricky. The well-intentioned deluge of anti-trafficking laws, political rhetoric, and bipartisan legislation are exclusively focused on people coerced into the commercial sex trade. In other words, forced prostitution. What this overlooks is a frightening, lesser-known exchange: survival sex.

Unlike sex trafficking, survival sex is not a financial transaction. Survival sex is, quite simply, exchanging one's body for basic subsistence needs, including clothing, food, and shelter. While estimates vary, most figures put the homeless youth population in the U.S. around 1.5 million. These are kids under the age of 18 who were often either kicked out of their homes because of dwindling financial resources or ran away to escape an abusive, volatile environment. Once on the streets, these teens rapidly find that clothing, food, and shelter are far from guaranteed. Without any money or the ability to get a job, many are forced to rely on their bodies as the only commodity they possess.

According to an article published in the New York Times in 2009, nearly one-third of homeless youth end up participating in survival sex during their time on the streets. While survival sex also entails exchanging their bodies for drugs and alcohol, youths are most frequently seeking shelter. After leaving home, they scramble to find abandoned buildings, riverbanks, underpasses, and rooftops to sleep at night. When their situations become desperate enough, runaways can end up having sex with someone in exchange for a place to stay, however brief.

Such behavior rarely occurs in a vacuum. As reported by Covenant House in May 2013, survival sex and sex trafficking, while legally and definitionally distinct, have significant overlaps, with the former often serving as a segue to the latter.

In some cases, teens begin sleeping with older men in exchange for a place to stay, but over time, the man starts forcing the girl to have sex with his friends for cash. In others, young girls find themselves in self-preservation-minded sexual relationships with providers or "sugar daddies," but are abruptly kidnapped or exploited by other predators in the same social circles

Covenant House recounts the horrifying story of a young girl who, by the age of five, had already been repeatedly raped by an older family member. As a teenager living on her own, she engaged in prostitution/survival sex when she was unable to make the rent. At the age of 19, she attended a party thrown by people she had just recently met, and was kidnapped at gunpoint and forced into sexual slavery for three months until she finally escaped.

This appalling turn of events may be unique in the extreme levels of abuse at different phases of the girl's life, but their relationship to one another—that is, the pattern of sexual abuse—is not. The connection between prostitution and a history of childhood sexual abuse is staggering.

Some studies have found that 70 percent of female prostitutes were sexually abused as children; others peg the figure at closer to 85 percentThe bottom line is that prostitution, especially among teenagers, is rarely if ever an act of free will; it's born out of a lifestyle that destitute young people are forced into.

Prostitution, commercial sex acts, and survival sex are deeply bound up with one another, but they are all also strongly associated with running away from home at an early age. In other words, trying to resolve teenage prostitution and sexual victimization starts with understanding why teenagers run away from home in the first place.

The reasons are grim: The National Runaway Safeline reports that 80 percent of female runaways were physically or sexually abused at home before fleeing to the streets. In addition, the study done by Covenant House found that among youth victims of sex trafficking, 36 percent of the traffickers were family members, the largest of all the trafficking groups. Sometimes sex trafficking is the final stop on a road littered with necessary acts of degradation; other times, it's where everything begins.

Simply put, the strongest determining factor in teens becoming runaways is physical and sexual abuse and exploitation at home. And the cruelest irony is that when they run away from such noxious environments, more often than not they run toward a homeless adolescent culture where sex is both a means of survival and a form of exploitation.

Survival sex, then, is just one sociological expression of the complete lack of agency among adolescent runaways. It’s not a way of life in and of itself, but rather a single permutation of lives almost entirely determined by social and economic powerlessness. Survival sex and teenage prostitution are not autonomous phenomena; they’re seamlessly woven into the fabric of a near-invisible world where the human body is the main form of currency.

Yes, safe harbor laws are better than nothing and will possibly be a step in the right direction. But "human trafficking" is an opaque, abstruse term partly because it is linked to a complex set of environmental circumstances that make something so anachronistically barbaric possible. Rarely are people just plucked off the streets, thrown into the back of a van, and manacled. It's more complicated and gradual than that.

The same goes for teenage prostitution. Those who engage in it have often been conditioned into such a lifestyle for years and years; according to the University of Rhode Island's Donna Hughes, more than 60 percent of prostitutes start before they turn 18. In other words, most were victims of sex trafficking before they could be legally defined as prostitutes. They never really had a choice.

The same sinister netherworlds of neglectful parents, rapists, criminals, and rapist-criminal-parents that make human trafficking possible make teenage prostitution necessary, unavoidable. Youth prostitution doesn't overlap with survival sex; it is survival sex.