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In Their Own Words: Youth Sex Work and Trafficking

A young man sitting on the sidewalk at night.

We hear a lot about meeting youth where they are to gain their trust and know how to help them. When it comes to difficult topics like survival sex, what can young people's experiences teach us about the way we provide guidance and services?

NCFY listened to the insights of Alexzander "Zander" McRae, a formerly homeless youth and panelist for the April 2016 webinar, “Holding Complexity: Young People, Sex Work, and Trafficking.” That session, jointly organized by the NW Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse (the NW Network) and Break the Cycle, sought to educate participants on how they can develop supportive, youth-centered responses for young people engaged in the sex trade.

Here we share highlights from the youth panel that included McRae, a participant in OutSpoken, the NW Network’s leadership program for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.

[Read a report about youth in New York City who trade sex for money or shelter and what they say they need.]

Panelist: What was it like to have people to reach out to for support?

McRae: While homeless, I used sex as a way to get my needs met. There are so many stigmas around sex already. I had a lot of fear of judgment from family or friends, and shame. Many entities are faith-based. I had the feeling that I didn’t want to be told what to do. I wanted to be listened to, [to be] validated. It was scary to reach out for support at that time.

Panelist: How do intersecting issues—either around identities, gender, poverty, race, or homelessness—affect what is available to LGBTQ youth?

McRae: I would say that I felt really limited with my resources. Already as a queer and trans person, and other identities and experiences I hold, there are such a small amount of resources in [my area] because it isn’t downtown Seattle. On the intersection with queer identities, sex work is not talked about very often. For youth of color, it is hardly ever acknowledged. Being a person of color, queer, and trans, people would acknowledge that these identities made it so I had to engage in the sex trade because I couldn’t find resources to be supported in one space. Going around to [multiple shelters or other service spaces] makes it strenuous, but I often could only have one identity supported.

[Check out this guide to working with youth who have experienced both homelessness and sexual violence.]

Panelist: What do people who experience violence on the streets need the most?

McRae: From my own experience, things I needed or received that helped were safety planning and risk reduction. Rather than saying "don’t do this" or "don’t do that," tell me more about what I can do when I’m feeling unsafe—whether it was calling someone or having a safe place to go. [We need] protection with risk reduction resources for [sexually transmitted infections] like condoms, peer support, visibility, and to create unity.

I benefited from talking to adults with similar experiences and shared identities, besides a therapist. It was less about getting out of the situation, which wasn’t an option for me. It’s nice to have an adult who looks like me, who is trans, with experiences in the sex trade, to talk about things without judgment. Someone who [makes me] feel listened to rather than [telling me] to leave the situation, when [sex] is a basic form of survival and getting my needs met.

I think that defining terms like violence and exploitation is helpful because at the time, I didn’t know I was being exploited or experiencing violence. I saw that violence sometimes looks like physical, other times like emotional, abuse. It has many forms. [When people defined those terms] with me, not for me, it provided validation for things I was experiencing and opened doors for me to reach out for resources I didn’t think I needed at the time.

[Listen to a recording of "Holding Complexity: Young People, Sex Work, and Trafficking."]

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