Primary Sources: What Might Make Youth More Likely to Leave 'The Life' of Commercial Sexual Exploitation?

Photo of a young woman

The Illusions and Juxtapositions of Commercial Sexual Exploitation Among Youth: Identifying Effective Street Outreach Strategies” (abstract), Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, Vol. 22, No. 3 (2013).

What it’s about: Researchers from Minnesota and British Columbia wanted to know how best to meet the needs of sexually exploited young people, and what types of outreach and services the youth found most helpful. To find out, the researchers interviewed 13 sexually exploited young women ranging in age from 14 to 22 years old. Six of the young women identified as African-American, two as Caucasian, one as Native American and four as multiracial. Of the 13 participants, four identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and one participant identified as transgender.

Why read it: Research has found that the longer someone has been sexually exploited, the harder it is to escape. Young people who have been sexually abused or exploited are also at higher risk than their peers for depression and suicidal thoughts, unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, drug use and other health problems. They are less likely than other youth to finish school. Knowing how to best to approach trafficked youth may enable street outreach workers and other youth and family services professionals to help young people escape the cycle of exploitation.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: While street-based prostitution was common among the young women interviewed, they were exploited in a number of locations, including hotels, massage parlors and private homes. All of the participants used the Internet to meet abusers, especially Craigslist, chat rooms, Myspace and Black Planet. The researchers suggest that street outreach workers use all these avenues to contact young people in need of assistance.

Several participants viewed their pimps as boyfriends, and they rationalized exploitation as lucrative work. Yet, the participants had also been coerced to use drugs and alcohol to cope with exploitation, had been seriously assaulted by pimps and others, and had been pressured into sexual acts with both women and men. The authors suggest that the illusions and rationalizations the young people had about their exploitation were the result of the sense that they had no other choices.

Young women in the study felt that street outreach workers should be non-judgmental and take their time to build up trust. They recommended using “soft words” to describe sexual exploitation, rather than clinical terms often used by police, physicians and social workers. They also suggested that street outreach workers carry condoms, lubricant, hygiene supplies, information about social service and health care providers, clothing (not just underwear and socks, which are commonly handed out by outreach workers), gift cards, bus tokens, mace and first aid kits.

Additional references: Learn how to recognize and support victims of sex trafficking by reading our brochure "Bought and Sold: Helping Young People Escape From Commercial Sexual Exploitation." The National Runaway Safeline offers a training about the commercial sexual exploitation of runaway, homeless and at-risk youth. Last year, the Administration on Children, Youth and Families released guidance to states and social service agencies on preventing domestic minor sex trafficking and assisting victims.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB, or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

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