When most people hear “human trafficking,” they think of kidnapped young cis, mostly white girls sold into enforced sexual slavery by criminal gangs composed mostly of people of color. Lurid depictions of this kind of crime are common in film and television like 2014’s Eden—based on a now debunked “true story”—or 2017’s Trafficked.
Any underage person who trades sex is considered a trafficking victim under most legal definitions. But most of these underage trafficking victims are not kidnapped or coerced by pimps. Alexandra Lutnick, a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, estimates that only about 10% of underage people who trade sex are forced to do so. Even when force or coercion is present, kidnapping is extremely rare. Usually, young people are forced to trade sex by people they know, such as a significant other, a parent, or a guardian.
Because the usual narratives about underage people trading sex are misleading the usual interventions to help such people generally don’t work. Sending police to arrest rings of kidnappers doesn’t help when most young people who trade sex have not been kidnapped. To help underage people who trade sex, we need to “meet people where they’re at. We need to hear from them what their needs are,” Lutnick told me.
How young people end up trading sex
Young people who trade sex are a diverse group; from a quarter to a third of them may be cis boys, according to one study, and they are disproportionately likely to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans. What many of them share in common, though, is that adults and social supports systems have, for one reason or another, failed them. They have been kicked out of their homes or fled their homes to avoid abuse. (Underage people who trade sex are more likely to be queer because queer youth are more likely than their peers to be homeless.) They often start trading sex because that is a way that they can obtain food or shelter for themselves or their loved ones.
This is what happened to Kristin DiAngelo, the Director of the Sex Worker’s Outreach Project, Sacramento, and a survivor of human trafficking. “I entered the sex trade because I was engaged in survival,” she told me. “I needed a place to stay; I needed a roof over my head. I needed food to eat.” DiAngelo was working in a massage parlor and did not have a pimp until she tried to get a fake ID so she could prove she was older. She started to work for the pimp to get the ID, and then was unable to escape him.
Law enforcement did not rescue DiAngelo; they mostly just tried to arrest her. In some states, the laws have changed; people under 18 are no longer supposed to be arrested for prostitution in California, for example. Nineteen states, though, still allow children to be charged with prostitution offenses. Even in states where prostitution laws don’t apply, a young person who trades sex may still be arrested for other charges, like lying to a police officer, or vagrancy. In some localities, police are also empowered to place youth in a detention facility if they deem that the safest option; youth experience this as arrest and imprisonment, even if the law doesn’t see it as such. At best, the police are focused on saving young people from the sex trade, rather than on helping them solve the problems of homelessness, neglect, or abuse which made the sex trade seem like their best option. At worst, police may themselves demand sex from, or assault, underage people.
Ineffective child protection systems
In theory, where the police fail, shelters and the foster system should step in. In practice, however, child protection systems are also often ineffective or actively harmful.
One serious problem, Lutnick notes in her book, is that the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 1974 requires all shelters receiving federal funding to report young people’s whereabouts to parents or guardians within seventy-two hours of arrival in the shelter. For young people fleeing abusive homes, this means they can either forego housing, return to the dangerous situation they were fleeing in the first place, or continue trading sex. Many choose the last option.
Tara Burns, the research director for COYOTE RI and a co-founder of CUSP, told me when she was homeless and underage in Alaska, she tried to stay at one shelter until they decided she was a suicide risk. At that point, they would no longer let her sleep overnight. “Those were the only resources and basically I was the wrong kind of victim to be allowed to access those kinds of resources.” Burns says that, based on her experience and advocacy, shelters continue to reject young people working in the commercial sex industry “because they think they’re going to corrupt the other kids.”
So what could law enforcement and service providers do to help underage people trading sex? Burns argues first of all that the most important thing that could be done for people who are actually being coerced is to decriminalize the sex industry. That way, she says, “everybody around them can report to law enforcement.” The people most likely to notice that underage people are being coerced into sex are other sex workers or clients. But if sex workers or clients go to the police, they are likely to be arrested themselves and can face very serious charges.
Satisfying basic needs
For the vast majority of trafficking victims who are not being coerced, Burns said, “what we really need is housing.”
That housing needs to have very few strings attached. Young people who have been living alone on the street, and who have had traumatic experiences with parents or guardians, are not going to respond well to services that put a lot of restrictions on their behavior. “We have to have programs that can provide housing to kids without labeling them as bad kids because they have this trauma with authority figures,” she told me. The priority needs to be on providing young people with a roof first. Rules—no smoking, no significant others in the room, no contact with people considered bad influences, no staying out after curfew—can end up just being another excuse to put young people back on the street. Once they are there, they will likely again end up trading sex for shelter.
After housing, the other priority for young people who have traded sex is often income. “I would have liked somebody to just figure a way where I could go get any job,” Kirstin DiAngelo told me. “Just some way where it could be acknowledged that, okay, I’m on my own, I need a job. I need a job that can sustain life. That would have been a big step.”
Obviously, child labor laws prevent young people from working in most industries. If we really wanted to help young people in difficult situations, we could simply give them money to meet their needs. That is not a policy idea that has gained much traction. However, in her book, Lutnick points to some other innovative solutions. One organization she observed, Streetwise & Safe (SAS) had success in creating a peer-run internship program for LGBTQ youth of color. The youth learned about how to reduce dangerous interactions with police and were also asked to identify and work on policy areas relevant to them. The program paid them a stipend for meaningful work, which means they do not have to trade sex to meet basic needs for food, shelter, or to create a sense of self-worth. (It is not clear whether SAS is still active at this time.)
Most young people who trade sex don’t see themselves as victims, Lutnick emphasizes. They often see themselves as resourceful individuals who are doing what they need to survive in difficult circumstances. Narratives that frame them as disempowered, desperate, and in need of a heroic savior don’t resonate with them. Neither do narratives that portray them as incorrigible criminals or bad people. “We need to meet them where they’re at, hear how they’re making sense of their experiences, and also create the space to know that meaning-making shifts with time,” Lutnick says. If we really want to help underage people who trade sex, we need to listen when they tell us what they need, rather than demanding that they be grateful for whatever interventions we offer.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of child sexual abuse, you can find resources and support here.