There are thousands of young New Yorkers who engage in survival sex. Most of them do so because they are homeless, and because the city only has 300 beds per night available to needy youths. Essentially, these kids are forced to trade their bodies not just for food or clothes but also for a place to sleep.
The popular narrative is that this population is made up of young girls being exploited by shadowy pimps. But that's not really how it plays out on the streets, according to a new study by the Urban Institute. For "Surviving the Streets of New York," researchers offered $20 to any person who wanted to share his or her experience. They found out that this population—the majority of whom are gay, bisexual, or trans—was desperate to be heard.
"There were a few times where we had to chase them out the door because they would sometimes walk out without taking their money," Meredith Dank, the senior research associate who headed up the study, told me.
Rachel Aviv wrote extensively about homeless gay youth for the New Yorker in 2012, and much of what she reported is echoed by the study. For instance, rather than being forced into the trade, survival-sex participants mostly operate as independent agents within a vast peer network of people doing the same thing. This network is somewhere between a union and a family, where participants swap tips on where to work but also support one another emotionally and financially.
To that end, the Urban Institute found that each teen typically dealt with three to six customers a day, made between $91 and $231 per encounter, and averaged somewhere between $356 and $734 a night. Forty-eight percent of the kids found clients by walking certain spots discovered via word of mouth (known as "strolling"); 40 percent post ads on sites like Backpage using either friends' computers, the Apple store, or public libraries; only 6 percent found "dates" through a pimp.
Other studies have found that 40 percent of the nation's homeless youths are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. So it should be no surprise that 87 percent of the people Dank and her team interviewed identified as something other than straight and that 16 percent were trans. Many of these people were forced onto the street after being rejected by their parents, while some trans participants said they were working to afford costly medical procedures related to their gender identities.
The authors gained insight into the clients too. "There are a lot of married men who have young children and things of that sort, so they're not these old, lecherous gay men that you think," Dank told me. "Especially the boys were talking about how they would get a lot of married men who were curious or questioning or on the down-low. It's hard to know exactly what their motives were. And you even have a pool of Hasidic men who are frequent clients." She also mentioned that men in their early 20s as well as women were willing to pay for sex with homeless youths.
And while the study was obviously cathartic for its participants and illuminating in the sense that it provided hard data where there was once only guesswork, Dank hopes her research will get the city to stop believing in the myth of the bad-guy pimp and the damsel in distress. Kids are exploiting themselves, the study shows, but only because the amount of beds and resources available to homeless kids isn't nearly enough. Survival sex, Dank says, is a problem the city can't arrest its way out of.
"Because where are you leaving these young people if you're not providing these services to them? If you're not providing them with the tools and the net that they need to survive," she told me, "you're literally leaving them with nothing."
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