What Are Youth Perspectives on Commercial Sexual Exploitation?

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A young woman looks nervous.

“We’re Automatically Sex in Men’s Eyes, We’re Nothing But Sex…”: Homeless Young Adult Perceptions of Sexual Exploitation (abstract). Katie Fritz Fogel, Lauren Martin, Bob Nelson, Marney Thomas, and Carolyn M. Porta. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, Vol. 61, No. 2 (May 2016).

What it’s about: Fogel and her colleagues explored how homeless young adults ages 18 to 23 view commercial sexual exploitation among themselves and their peers. Research staff conducted a total of four unique focus groups centered on two main questions: 1) “What is sexual exploitation?” and 2) “What is the pathway for homeless youth and young adults to exploitation?”

Staff from YouthLink, a Family and Youth Services Bureau grantee partner, recruited 24 female-identifying young adults from three of its programs: 1) a support program serving young adults with a known history of being sexually exploited; 2) a housing program; and 3) a drop-in center program. In the focus groups, the young adults defined commercial sexual exploitation as a group and gave examples of it. Afterward, youth created individual “pathway maps” to illustrate their perceptions of how young people become involved in sexual exploitation.

Why read it: Previous studies have shown that youth experiencing homelessness are at high risk of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking. This study identifies missed opportunities to intervene with sexually exploited youth by presenting what sexual exploitation means to youth rather than limiting the identification of it to a pre-defined screening question, such as asking youth if they have ever traded sex for food, money, drugs, or shelter. Many youth answer “no” to this common screening question, even if they are actually experiencing certain aspects of sexual exploitation, the authors note. The information gained from this study, the authors suggest, can help service providers more accurately detect and prevent sexual exploitation, and create evidence-based interventions and policies.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Youth in the focus groups identified three themes they believe make homeless youth vulnerable to sexual exploitation:

  1. Desperation: homeless youth engage in survival sex or trading sex for goods and resources because there are no other options.
  2. Curiosity/Immaturity: the appeal of making easy money and being curious about new sexual experiences outweighs the negative consequences of prostitution, such as violence.
  3. Love-Seeking: thinking they’re in love and can trust someone who ultimately betrays them by convincing them to sell their bodies for sex.

In their definitions of sexual exploitation, youth included a broad range of activities—not only sexual acts, but also activities that do not involve physical sex, such as massage, stripping, and dancing. Based on their experiences, performing certain acts, such as dancing, could lead to oral or vaginal sex and prostitution. Traffickers use this range of acts to recruit and exploit young people experiencing homelessness, knowing it is easier to get youth to first engage in an act such as massage, and then later convince them to engage in more explicit sexual behavior, the authors write. Many youth reported being approached for various sex acts, usually in exchange for money or substances like drugs or alcohol.

Homeless youth were routinely recruited into sexual exploitation by male sexual partners or boyfriends, females working with a trafficker, or their fellow peers. In many cases, youth were approached by men they met or saw at homeless agencies where they received services.

Future studies should examine youth culture around sexual exploitation and experiences of youth and young adults who recruit and exploit their peers, the authors recommend. They also recommend gaining knowledge about sexual exploitation from the perspectives of young men.

Additional references: Learn more about on commercial sexual exploitation in our digital library.

For more information on responding to the sexual exploitation of youth, read this slideshow on how safe harbor laws can support young victims, and access a resource with activities for working with young people to end sexual exploitation.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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