Q&A: Meredith Dank on LGBTQ Youth and Survival Sex

Young people standing on a New York pier at night

The Urban Institute recently released the first in a series of reports on homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning young people in New York who have engaged in survival sex by trading sex for food, money, shelter or other necessities. The authors of the study, assisted by trained youth interviewers, conducted in-depth interviews with 283 young people who described how they became involved in trading sex, why they did it, their experiences with “customers” and their feelings about “the life” of survival sex.

We spoke to lead author Meredith Dank, senior research associate at the institute’s Justice Policy Center, to learn more about the study. She said she wanted to look into the experiences of LGBTQ youth because of an earlier trafficking study she worked on as a doctoral candidate. That study revealed that cisgender girls--young people whose biological sex match their gender identity--are not the only youth being sexually exploited.

[Publication: "Bought and Sold: Helping Young People Escape From Commercial Sexual Exploitation"]

NCFY: You trained youth to conduct the interviews for this new study. Talk a little bit about why and how you did that.

Dank: This is based on my experience with the other study. I was one of a handful of doctoral students who were conducting interviews with young people. And though I certainly was successful in getting young people to open up, I was thinking about how we could even do a better job for this study.

I thought it would be a great opportunity to work with an organization that had young people who came from similar backgrounds. So all the youth that are part of Streetwise and Safe identify as LGBTQ youth, particularly youth of color. Several of them, at least the ones that I trained, had personally engaged in survival sex themselves or had a large peer network of folks that did, so they had a very good understanding of the experiences.

There were a couple of goals. Training young people and providing them with skills that they could use for future employment or broadening their horizons when it comes to research. The other goal was to provide a safe space for young people to come and share their stories.

Once word got out that this was a place that they could share their stories—it was anonymous and confidential. So that fear of having CPS or law enforcement called went out the window. For many of them it was the first time they told anyone what their experiences were. A lot of them seemed very grateful to just have the opportunity to finally get it off their chest.

[Research summary: "Screening Youth for Sex Trafficking"]

NCFY: How hard was it to find LGBTQ young people willing to be interviewed about their survival sex experiences?

Dank: That’s the beauty of respondent-driven sampling, the methodology we ended up using. Once you get those [first] few brave souls to come in to be interviewed—and the way we identified that was through other service providers that work directly with this population or through young people we were training. Once those people came in and took the chance to see what would happen, and then they would get incentivized to recruit within their peer networks, it kind of snowballed from there.

NCFY: Tell me about any big surprises you and your colleagues found.

Dank: I don’t know if it was a surprise, but it definitely warrants further research as to why 95 percent of the sample identified as a youth of color. I also think it was really shocking how many youth came to be interviewed and had not eaten in the last 24 to 48 hours. In New York there’s overabundance everywhere, particularly when it comes to food. And these young people don’t have even a couple of dollars to buy a slice of pizza. When we use the term survival sex, we don’t use that term loosely. These kids are really trying to survive.

[Research summary: "Barriers--and Solutions--to Serving Young Victims of Sex Trafficking"]

NCFY: What do you want people to come away with after they read the report?

Dank: I think this concept of survival sex is not new, but what we knew beforehand was based on anecdotal information. People thought, “This is just a handful of youth.”

We still don’t know the scope. This wasn’t a prevalence study. But the fact that we interviewed 280 young people—this is not an issue that just affects a handful of young people.

Nor should people walk away and go, “This is New York’s problem.” This is not unique to New York City. In conversations I’ve had with people who work with young people all over the country, this is not something new for them. They’ve been hearing these stories. Hopefully now that there’s some empirical data and evidence, they can go and show the people who provide funding or the people who make decisions about what services are needed and say, "We need to do something about this."

It’s also time that we expand our thoughts about who these young people are. If you’re only providing services with one population in mind, you’re leaving a large chunk out who are in need of services.

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