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Population Characteristics

Among young people who trade sex all classes, races, genders, and sexualities are represented. Most of the media attention focuses on cisgender girls. Cisgender is a term that refers to someone who identifies with the gender/sex they were assigned at birth (Schilt & Westbrook, 2009). This term acknowledges that there is nothing abnormal about being transgender. Research about youth who trade sex does not always support the claim that more cisgender girls are involved.

Each section below provides greater detail:

Age of Entry

Similar to the issues addressed about estimates of the total number of young people who trade sex, it is complicated to arrive at a consistent age of first entry. It is not uncommon to hear that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13. Below are some important things to know about this number.

One study among adult women calculated the average age of entry for those who started before they were 18 and those after. In this sample the average age of entry for those who started before they were 18 was 15, and for those who started after it was 20 (Martin, et al., 2010).
If studies only sample young people, the average age will reflect that. By including both sets of numbers, those gathered from samples of young people and those from their older counterparts, it is clear that not all people who trade sex start when they are young and that not all youth continue to trade sex past the age of 18 (Edwards, Iritani, & Hallfors, 2006; Martin, et al., 2010). This is an important clarification as the service needs and service delivery approaches will necessarily need to vary based on the age of the individual.

Prior “Home” Life

Regardless of gender or the age at which they first traded sex, within their families these young people have frequently experienced physical and sexual abuse (Schwartz, 2009; Weisberg, 1984; Kotrla, 2010; Brawn & Roe, 2008; Cree, 2008; Jesson, 1993); neglect and emotional abuse (The Skillman Foundation, 2002); parental alcohol and drug use problems (Unger, et al., 1998); and chaotic, ineffective parenting (Brawn & Roe, 2008).

“Part of the reason why she doesn’t stay there is because she says her aunt is mainly verbally and emotionally abusive and she can’t, she doesn’t want to be around her and she’s always treating her terribly, so she tries to go out and find other places to live” (Lutnick, 2013).

Youth who run away from home or child welfare placements (Weisberg, 1984; Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2010; Kotrla, 2010; Brawn & Roe, 2008; Badawy, 2010; Caplan, 1984; Calvin, 2010; Martin, et al., 2010) or are pushed out of their homes because of their gender or sexual identity (Schaffner, 2006; Unger, et al., 1998) are at an increased risk of trading sex. Homophobic and transphobic living situations at home can effectively push lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender young people out of their homes and into the street economy.

The biggest thing with her was that…her family was not accepting of it [her being a young transgender woman]. Her family was very religious, her adopted mother was a minister and so was her adopted father so they were really, really against it and she lived in a community where transgenders were not welcome. So therefore…if her family didn’t accept her then she was still going to do it but away from home” (Lutnick, 2013).

Contributing Factors

When looking at the contributing factors associated with young people’s involvement in sex trades, it is clear that no one factor in and of itself facilitates their initiation. The dominant narrative in the media is that of a young girl forced to sell sex by a pimp. Some young people do have pimps or facilitators, and some are forced to trade sex. However, it is a rarity for involvement in sex trades to occur instantaneously and rarely does it result from the use of overt force by a third party (Harris, Scott, & Skidmore, 2006). A variety of reasons are associated with young people trading sex:

Young people who have run away from or been pushed out of their homes are more likely to have exchanged sex for some type of payment to meet their survival needs (Haley, Roy, Leclerc, Boudreau, & Boivin, 2004; Weber, Boivin, Blais, Hayley, & Roy, 2004; Yates, MacKenzie, Pennbridge, & Swofford, 1991). 

Economic Impact

For young people who are homeless or runaways, trading sex becomes an economic strategy that is linked to the circumstances and duration of their homelessness (Greene, et al., 1999; Schaffner, 2006). It is not uncommon for youth who are homeless to strategically couple with someone who can provide for their basic needs of shelter and protection (Lutnick, 2013; Garofalo, et al., 2009).

“A lot of times I’d go home with somebody so I didn’t have to be on the streets” (Calvin, 2010).

Among transgender youth, trading sex may also be a response to the ways in which transphobia limits or eliminates employment options. Young transgender women who trade sex are more likely to have dropped out of school because of their gender identity, and also more likely to have been homeless than their peers who do not trade sex (Wilson, et al., 2009). In one study, over half of the young transgender women who trade sex reported that the inability to find gainful employment resulted in their turning to sex trades (Garofalo, et al., 2006).

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