The U.S. just finished celebrating Thanksgiving, a day for family, friends, lots of food, and time to be thankful for people and events in our lives. However, in the U.S. not everyone has a lot to celebrate. The holiday made me wonder about the type of meal and family the homeless children of America are sharing. It also made me wonder whether the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is simply ‘feel good’ talk.
These questions were sparked by my recent reading of two reports – one on homeless youth in prostitution in New York City and the other on services for trafficking victims in New York City. The reports are difficult to read because they paint a picture that no caring person wants to acknowledge – that homeless children remain ‘throwaway’ children who often survive by selling sex and that very little is done to help them. Although the reports focus on New York City, the children’s stories are, I believe, universal and so is the failure of society to provide necessary support and funding to prevent youth homelessness and to help youth leave prostitution. So, the findings of these two reports have meaning and importance beyond New York City and the U.S.
The reports demonstrate why it is necessary to have good data and clear legal definitions that distinguish between minors who are trafficked into prostitution and minors who sell sex on their own. Both groups of children need the ‘village’ of support, but it seems that only children who are labeled as victims of trafficking are actually provided government or NGO assistance while the other children are left pretty much on their own.
The first report was published in 2008 by a team from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice led by Professor Ric Curtis. Prior to this report, many advocates and others claimed that child prostitution is almost exclusively a problem affecting girls who are controlled by pimps and so the solution is to rescue all of the girls and prosecute their pimps and clients. This is essentially the ‘trafficking’ narrative of the enslaved youth.
However, the research revealed a different, more complicated reality. The researchers interviewed 249 youth under 18 who were engaged in commercial sex. For the majority of the youth, the trafficking narrative is simply not their experience. This finding alone raises serious concerns about whether the trafficking rescue approach can work for all youth in prostitution. The research revealed that:
- 3,946 teenagers are selling sex in New York City (including Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn). This number is actually higher but the researchers were not able to contact minors who are held indoors by traffickers or who do not speak English. The total does, however, include minors working under the control of pimps.
- 54% are male, 42% are female and 4% are transgender
- Only 10% of the teenagers have a pimp (mostly girls). 90% reported that they are selling sex on their own. Many of them use the internet to find clients and 56% found clients on the street.
- The majority are homeless (32% of the sample live on the street)
- 45% were introduced to prostitution by a friend; 23% were first approached by a stranger propositioning them; most started around age 15.
- 95% reported that they sold sex in order to support themselves.
- They had accessed multiple service providers but services needed to help them exit from sex work were scarce or missing: jobs, education and easy to find long-term housing (90 days maximum at present and then back to the streets).
Curtis and his research team are presently carrying out similar research in six other U.S. cities. The report will be out in 2012, but Curtis has already revealed to the Village Voice newspaper that the research so far suggests “that the scarcity of pimps revealed by the New York study does not appear to be an anomaly.”
The second study by Professor Gregory Maney and a team at Hofstra University looked at social services available for trafficked persons in New York City and found that “service needs are frequently not being met.” They gathered information from an on-line survey of 17 private service providers and asked for information about the number of ‘survivors’ they have each worked with between 2000 and 2010 and what they provided them. They did not interview any actual survivors.
From the surveys, they estimate that, in New York City, “private service providers…have interacted with at least 11,268 survivors [of trafficking] between 2000 and 2010.” They found that 71.5% were victims of trafficking for prostitution and 58.4% of all trafficking victims were children. They do not state the percentage of children who were trafficked for prostitution.
However, these numbers are open to challenge. As the John Jay study reports, youth (and probably adults) contact multiple service providers, so it is possible that many of the survivors were double or even triple counted, inflating the numbers. The number of ‘survivors’ in prostitution are certainly also inflated even more because the researchers treat all minors in prostitution as ‘victims’ of trafficking. This is simply not correct. The law makes it clear that, in order to have a crime, there must be a perpetrator – for example, a pimp or trafficker – who is organizing the minor for prostitution. Without a perpetrator, there is no victim of trafficking. So, youth who sell sex on their own (90% in the John Jay study) are not trafficked.
So what, you might ask. Does it matter whether we call them ‘victims’ of trafficking or teenagers selling sex to survive? Don’t we want them all to receive the help and support they need to get out of their terrible situations? Of course, the answer is yes, but the solutions are not so simple.
Although the Hofstra researchers are concerned about all of the youth in prostitution, they are actually ensuring that responses to help youth will only assist minors who are trafficked and not minors who are homeless and/or sell sex. Their recommendations, though excellent, will only help trafficking victims and not youth who are not trafficked.
A bill currently before the U.S. Congress is similarly problematic. It recognizes that homelessness is a serious concern and that youth may sell sex to survive. Nonetheless, it seeks additional funding for shelters and services only for “minor victims of sex trafficking.” So, the bill excludes the 90% of youth in prostitution found in the John Jay study. Did the bill sponsors intend to exclude them? If so, why? They claim that 75% of minors have a pimp. Perhaps they think the bill will provide services to 75% of youth in prostitution. If they had read the John Jay study before drafting the bill they would have discovered that their bill will actually help very few of the youth in prostitution. They would have learned about the lived reality of homeless youth and perhaps would have drafted a different bill – one that offers shelter and services to trafficked and non-trafficked youth in prostitution.
It is impossible, after reading the John Jay study, to ignore reality. The research has the power to force all concerned persons – the ‘village’ – to take a hard look at our communal failure to save our children from homelessness or to prevent the desperation, abuse, exploitation, crime and possible engagement in survival sex that always follow. The study directs our attention to the need for multiple responses – one or more set of responses to address the 90% who are not ‘trafficked’ into prostitution but who (together with other homeless youth) are, nonetheless, in desperate need of help and another set of responses to help the 10% who are trafficked or controlled by a pimp.
Our global village needs to do more to support the development of educated, productive and happy adults. Feeling good about ourselves for helping young people who are victims of the crime of trafficking is not enough. We also need to feel bad about failing to do more to protect children from homelessness, abuse and exploitation. The two studies do an excellent job of making readers feel bad. It is now up to us come up with solutions for our children. If we don’t act, who will?