A groundbreaking report released Tuesday documents the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths in New York City’s commercial sex trade. It delivers a portrait of youth sex work that’s more complicated than the popular narrative of “girls working under pimps.”
Here are some of the findings: Half of the interview subjects identified as male, one-third were female, and more than 10 percent identified as transgender. Ninety-five percent of the subjects were youths of color. This reflects the deep barriers that black, Latino, Asian, and multiracial LGBT youths face accessing education, employment, health care, and housing and, ultimately, simply becoming full participants in American society. Most of the study’s participants were not enrolled in school and did not have a high school diploma. Nearly 55 percent reported living in a shelter, and an additional 10 percent lived on the streets. The average age of entry into sex work was 17 but ranged from seven to 22 years old.
The new research was led by Dr. Meredith Dank, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank focused on social and economic issues. To reach such an underground population, Dank worked with Streetwise & Safe, a New York–based leadership development group for LGBT youths of color. Dank trained young people to identify subjects and help conduct interviews. Dank’s team interviewed nearly 300 youths over three years. The new report, Surviving the Streets of New York, offers an unusually in-depth look into what drives young people to sex work and their experiences in the industry.
Dank sat down with TakePart to discuss the findings. Here’s an edited excerpt:
TakePart: How did you come to this topic and the study?
Dr. Meredith Dank: This report came out of the 2008 study I worked on at John Jay College. What everybody told us was (a) we're not going to get the sample size we need, and (b) it's all going to be girls, and the girls are all going to have these third-party exploiters that are going to make things really difficult.
There is a lot of conversation around human trafficking and commercial sex exploitation of children right now. I think LGBT youth are often left out of that conversation because they don't fit the predominant narrative that's out there. But you can't talk about those issues without talking about these young people. If you're putting all the funding into only helping one subgroup, and that's young cisgendered [i.e., not transgender] girls who have pimps, then you're not really serving the needs of all young people.
I'm not saying that doesn't exist, and we were able to capture some of those stories in our study. But there's so much more when it comes to these young people and their experiences. Yes, cisgendered girls were more likely to be in an exploitative situation with a third-party exploiter. But young boys, transgender girls, and transgender boys were also dealing with this. And most youth weren’t working under someone.
As far as these findings go, anecdotally, I've heard from those who work with these young people that these are things they know, but there wasn't the evidence to show that this problem extended beyond just a handful of young people.
TakePart: What can you tell us about the population in the study? Who are they, and what are some of their key characteristics?
Dank: Prevalence [the size of the youth population involved in sex work] is such a hot-button issue, and it's really difficult. That was not what we had set out [to study] in our proposal. We're not trying to say, "Of all young people engaging in this, X percent of the population identifies as LGBT." We wanted this study to focus on their experiences, their needs, and why they were doing this [work]. The minute you start trying to put a number on it, you miss the point that at the end of the day, there are things we can do to prevent young people from feeling like that is their only choice.
TakePart: Your research on this project is focused on New York City. What lessons can citizens and government officials in other cities take from your research?
Dank: Even though this was a report solely focused on New York City, I don't think it's unique to New York. I think LGBT youth are having the same experiences in other cities, in other places, in other towns across the country. They are being kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and not having any social support or safety net once they leave, they are creating these peer networks and finding a way to survive.
I'm hoping that people outside of New York can take this [research] and go to whomever and say, “This is exactly what's happening with the young people I'm working with, and these are things we need to be able to help them.”
TakePart: What are the top policy recommendations you would make based on your findings?
Dank: It's really important that there are preventative measures that can be taken. They’re difficult, because they have to do with structurally changing institutions that have been working inefficiently for a really long time—like the foster care system, the juvenile criminal justice system, and our education system. If we don't start tackling that, it's going to be really difficult to stem the tide of young people who are engaging in commercial sex work.
This is not something we can arrest ourselves out of. Especially because when a young person is arrested for prostitution, only then are we like, "We have these services set aside for you." But if they aren’t arrested for prostitution, if they’re arrested for something related to this—like theft or assault—no one’s connecting the dots to say, “Oh, maybe you could benefit from these services.”
Housing is a top priority for many people. And not just emergency housing but long-term housing. Without housing, you don't have that address to put down on a job application, to put on a school application, to even put on a public assistance application.
TakePart: What progress are you seeing in New York?
Dank: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had committed to funding 100 beds every year for homeless youth until the need was met. He added 100 beds last year. But in the budget he just released, there were no new beds for homeless youth. When you only have 350 beds available to a homeless population in a city that has a minimum of 4,000 young people at any given time who are homeless, well, desperate times call for desperate measures. A lot of these young people are extremely resilient, and they’re going to go out and do what they have to do.
TakePart: What’s at stake for these young people—and our country?
Dank: The more these young people are out on the street, the higher the likelihood they’re going to be caught up in the criminal justice system, which is a huge burden for everyone—particularly for misdemeanor crimes.
At the end of the day, this is a human rights issue. We should all care that these young people are having their rights violated. There are agencies in place that are supposed to be helping these young people, and they’re not.
These young people have a lot to contribute, they’re amazing, they’re resilient, and they’re very talented. By denying them basic rights and needs, we’re failing the country. Because these young people are the future.