Street Teens Often Turn to Prostitution to Survive

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Flowers, R. Barri. "Street Teens Often Turn to Prostitution to Survive." Street Teens, edited by Dedria Bryfonski, Greenhaven Press, 2012. Opposing Viewpoints. Opposing Viewpoints In Context, Accessed 29 Mar. 2018. Originally published as "Prostitution-Involved Youth," Street Kids: The Lives of Runaway and Thrownaway Teens, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010, pp. 115-129.

Street Teens Often Turn to Prostitution to Survive

Street Teens. 2012.

COPYRIGHT 2012 Greenhaven Press, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning

From Opposing Viewpoints In Context.

Most runaway and thrownaway youth who become homeless inevitably turn to survival sex and prostitution to make ends meet in a street life that often robs them of their youth and forces them into high-risk activities. The thriving sex-for-sale industry in the United States includes a high number of teenage (and even some preteen) and young adult prostitutes who sell their bodies to and for customers, pimps, pedophiles, pornographers, gang members, and other sexual exploiters. Prostituted youth thus become victims and offenders of sex crimes at once, subjecting them to dangerous and often unprotected sexual relations with frequent, anonymous, and known partners, placing them at risk for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, other illnesses, and arrest. Furthermore, juvenile prostitutes are typically involved with other risky experiences detrimental to their physical and mental health and well-being, such as substance abuse, intravenous drug use, sharing dirty needles, and various delinquencies and criminality. Many prostituted youth have been the victims of sexual and physical abuse at home, both of which have been shown to be strong predictors of running away and prostitution involvement. Though law enforcement has cracked down more on teenage prostitution and those who solicit the sexual services of minors in recent years, runaway/thrownaway youth who have nowhere else to turn continue to find their way into the sex trade as homeless, detached from parents and family, while being amongst other youth who have found themselves headed down the same path....

Most experts on teenage prostitution believe that runaway and thrownaway youth who actually become homeless (as opposed to staying with a family member or friend) almost inevitably turn to prostitution at some point as a means to meet their basic necessities and often as a result of the coercive powers of pimps and other child sexual exploiters. According to a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children report, as many as one out of three runaway and homeless youth become involved in street prostitution or survival sex; whereas more than three in four prostituted youth have reported running away from home on at least one occasion. In Ruth Dean and Melissa Thomson's study of teenage prostitution, they found that the majority of prostituted youth run away from home or substitute care.

Other researchers have also shown a strong correlation between runaways and prostitution. [Nancy] Walker found that two in three teenage prostitutes were runaways, with more than eight in ten presently or previously homeless. The Klass Kids Foundation reported that an estimated 55 percent of homeless female youth were actively involved in the sex trade industry as prostitutes. In Z.M. Lukman's study of runaway prostituted youth, nearly 78 percent were said to be more likely to become prostitution-involved than participants in other delinquent or criminal behavior. David Barrett posited that being a runaway was a more significant dynamic in youth involvement in the sex-for-sale industry than sexual abuse.

Entry into Prostitution

The pathway into the world of prostitution for runaway, thrownaway, and homeless youth often comes with little time to truly digest the implications of selling sex and its associations in the street subculture. Studies show that within thirty-six to forty-eight hours, and sometimes even sooner, after a youth becomes homeless, they will be solicited for sexual favors; persuaded, coerced, recruited, or abducted into prostitution and/or pornography by pimps, customers, gangs, pedophiles, or pornographers. In many cases, the sexual exploiter may pretend to be interested in helping or romancing the new street youth in order to charm and seduce the unsuspecting, naive victim into compliance. Other times, the runaway or thrownaway may be supplied with alcohol or drugs as part of the recruitment and laying the groundwork process. Most newly homeless youth, away on their own for the first time and frightened, are easy marks for those who would take advantage of their desperation and vulnerability.

Researchers have found that the longer runaway/thrownaway youth are without a secure place to call home, the likelihood they will never return to their original home increases, as does the probability of becoming prostituted or otherwise victims of sexual exploitation. Staying homeless for thirty days has been shown to be the single greatest dynamic in leading street youth to become prostitution-involved. However, most homeless youth enter the sex trade much sooner. According to one study, after two weeks of being homeless, three out of four runaways will have participated in prostitution, child pornography, drug, or delinquent activities.

The average age of entrance into prostitution is fourteen, with the median age for prostituted youth 15.5 years. Many prostituted youth have been reported to be under the age of twelve and in some cases as young as nine years of age. The average age for girls to enter prostitution is twelve to fourteen; while for boys and transgender youth, the average age of becoming prostitution-involved is eleven to thirteen.

Most prostituted youth escape from or are forced to leave unsafe or dysfunctional home environments that often include such issues as physical and sexual child abuse, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, and family discord. Many also have school or peer problems that play a role in their leaving home. Unfortunately, the street world they enter provides a host of new troubles, unstable living conditions, dangerous situations, exploiters and victimizers, and negative connotations that few, if any, homeless youth are equipped to deal with.

Prostituted Youth and Child Sexual Abuse

The relationship between child sexual abuse and prostituted youth has been well documented in the literature. One report noted that sexual abuse "has a significant impact on the probability that a runaway will become involved with prostitution," further suggesting that "sex abuse appears to indirectly increase the chance of prostitution by increasing the risk of running away."

Most runaway youth who enter prostitution have been victims of physical and sexual abuse, with the latter the strongest indicator of becoming drawn into the sex trade industry. Some studies report that more than half of runaway youth were victims of sexual and physical abuse. An Australian study found that nearly three out of four runaways had been sexual abuse victims prior to reaching the age of fourteen. Similarly, another study found that almost eight in ten prostituted girls had been victims of child molestation, and nine in ten victims of physical abuse before entrance into prostitution. In Stephen Gaetz's research, homeless street youth were said to be five times more likely than non homeless youth to have been sexually abused while living at home....

Violence Encountered by Prostituted Youth

Prostitution-involved youth are frequently the targets of violence perpetrated by customers, pimps, pedophiles, pornographers, gangs, and others they encounter in the sex trade and street life. The victimization is in the form of physical assaults, rape/sexual assaults, forced sexual perversions, robberies, verbal attacks, intimidation, and other violence, including murder. As most underage prostitutes are neither physically nor mentally equipped to defend themselves against attackers, while being in a high-risk environment for violence, they face potential threats to their health and well-being at every turn. According to studies, around two in three prostituted youth are the victims of violence perpetrated by pimps and customers. Another study of street prostitutes found a high rate of rape and other violence in the course of prostituting.

Prostituted female youth tend to be the victims of sexual assaults more often than prostituted male youth in the street environment, given their greater association with pimps and physically superior violent Johns and other victimizers. However, boy prostitutes are still vulnerable to sexual and physical assaults by older males, gang members, and others who prey on children. One study found that prostituted males tended to be victimized through assaults and robberies most often by "homophobic male onlookers" than customers.

All young prostitutes are at risk of being murdered. Apart from the everyday threats of potential fatal violence from customers, pimps, and drug addicts prostituted youth face, they are also a prime target of sexual and serial killers. For instance, the so-called Green River Killer murdered at least forty-eight females during the 1980s and 1990s in Washington and Oregon. Most of the victims were runaways and teenage prostitutes.

Though prostitution-involved youth are prone to every type of violence that exists in the homeless world, most shy away from reporting their victimization to the authorities for fear of being disregarded, retribution from their attackers, and/or being arrested themselves as runaways and returned to an abusive home environment or put in juvenile detention. Unfortunately this reality only compounds the situation while increasing the risk teenage prostitutes face for further victimization.

In an examination of the culture of violence homeless prostituted youth are immersed in, B. Schissel and K. Fedec found not only a high degree of child sexual and physical abuse experienced by the prostitute, but proposed that prostitution itself "creates a context in which those youth who are involved will run a high risk of being damaged by a predator or by themselves—whether directly through assault and self-injury or indirectly through high-risk behavior." Similarly, in another study of streetwalkers in Vancouver, Canada it was found that most had been physically and sexually abused prior to and after entering prostitution, and a very high percentage had been victims of dating violence.

Prostituted Youth and Child Pornography

Prostitution-involved youth and are often lured or forced into child pornography as another disturbing aspect of child sexual exploitation. Child pornography, also known as child porn or kiddie porn, is denned as "photographs, videos, books, magazines, and motion pictures that depict children in sexually explicit acts with other children, adults, animals, and/or foreign objects." Child pornography is a multibillion dollar international business that has moved onto the Internet and other digital devices as a means of further exploiting the innocent minors pornographers and pedophiles target. In the United States alone, child porn takes in as much as six billion dollars annually, exposing victims as young as five up to well into their late teens to "every form of child sexual exploitation, including molestation, rape, sadism, prostitution, bestiality, troilism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and even murder."

Child pornographers often set their sights on runaway, thrownaway, and prostituted homeless youth because they are easily accessible, vulnerable to sexual exploitation, desperate enough to engage in survival sex and pornographic activities, and of fairly low risk for detection by law enforcement (though more aggressive efforts are being made these days to go after pornographers and purveyors of child porn and its customers), and often have mental health or substance abuse issues, further making these youth susceptible to victimization. Most victims of child pornography have been sexually abused at home and sexually victimized through prostitution, rape, sexual slavery, sex trafficking, and other sexual mistreatment as street kids. This puts them at even higher risk for sexually transmitted infections such as HIV....

In many instances, pimps and pornographers are one and the same or work in conjunction in sexually exploiting children. According to the Prostitution of Children and Child-Sex Tourism, compelling prostituted female youth to participate in pornographic activities is another way for pimps to "control and humiliate the girl and break her resistance," as well as "normalize the practice of prostitution." In today's Internet age, some pimps use pornographic images of the girls in their stable to peddle them, while many clients and pedophiles photograph or videotape prostituted youth for their own perverse pleasures and collecting child porn.

The correlation between juvenile prostitution and child pornography often begins with the runaway or thrownaway turned street youth and homeless. As explained by teenage prostitution researcher Clare Tattersall: "You do not have to be a runaway to be forced into pornography. But because runaways are more likely to become prostitutes, they are also more likely to be forced into pornography." A survey of prostitution-involved teenagers found that about one in three were also involved in child pornography. The percentage of prostituted youth being exploited by pornographers is likely much higher.

In her study of prostituted youth in New York City, Mia Spangenberg reported that child prostitution is,

... a continuum both in terms of the age of the young people involved and the range of exploitation.... Some youth work part-time, some full-time, and some are engaged in prostitution while others work in sex clubs, in the pornography business or both.

For many homeless teenagers looking for any means to survive living on the streets or feed a drug addiction, it may be hard to resist the lure of seemingly "easy" money that child pornographers often promise but can never deliver. While most prostituted youth become involved in pornography after entering the sex-for-sale business, others were initially recruited into child pornography before being coerced into prostitution, maximizing the potential for sexual exploitation.

Prostituted Youth and Police Contact

Though prostituted youth are generally regarded as victims of sexual and physical abuse and troubled histories and sexual exploitation, they are also subject to arrest as violators of prostitution laws that are in effect in every state where it concerns child prostitution. The delicate balance between victim and offender has made it difficult for law enforcement to handle cases of prostituted youth, who are mainly runaways, thrownaways, and/or homeless and often involved in prostitution as an act of desperation, drug addiction, or a lifestyle dictated by the street environment.

Arrests of prostitution-involved teenagers are often looked upon by police departments as a way to rescue or divert the victimized and sexually exploited youth from a difficult life. In many instances, however, police view prostituted youth in a manner consistent with adult prostituted individuals as sex offenders. Other times, the efforts and resources of law enforcement agencies are either inadequate or the reluctance of the prostituted youth too strong to keep them from returning to the streets or going back to an environment they ran from, which includes an abusive domicile or foster care....

Recent years have seen a greater emphasis by law enforcement agencies on efforts to try and steer prostitution-involved youth away from the streets and/or pimps, as well as the juvenile justice system, while going after pimps, customers, pedophiles, pornographers, sex traffickers, and others who sexually exploit children. In addition to targeting traditional street prostitution, authorities are cracking down on the growing problem of teenage prostitution over the Internet, such as the popular Craigslist.

In an analysis of information taken from the FBI's National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which gathers crime data known to law enforcement, for the years 1997 to 2000, David Finkelhor and Richard Ormrod profiled prostitution-involved juveniles. Among their findings were the following:

  • The prostitution of juveniles had a greater likelihood of involving multiple offenders than prostituted adults police came across.

  • Juvenile prostitution tended to take place more often outside and in large metropolitan areas.

  • The likelihood was greater that police would treat prostitution-involved youth as offenders rather than victims of crime and sexual exploitation.

  • Prostituted females and young prostitutes were more likely to be considered as victims than males and older prostitutes.

  • Female juvenile prostitutes were more likely than prostituted male juveniles to be referred to social service agencies and elsewhere.

  • Prostituted youth were less likely to be arrested than prostituted adults.

  • More than six out of ten juvenile prostitution incidents involved male offenders.

  • More than four in ten male juvenile prostitution incidents consisted of assisting/promoting prostitution.

  • Almost nine in ten female juvenile prostitution incidents involved prostitution only.

  • Around three in four juvenile prostitution incidents resulted in an arrest.

The researchers also found that among prostituted youth, virtually all the prostitution activities were segregated by gender. This is not too surprising, given that female and male juvenile prostitutes generally operate under different rules with different clientele within the same street subculture, with females typically having pimps who dictate their movement; whereas males tend to work independently, though they too can be controlled by others, such as older prostitutes, customers, pornographers, and drug dealers.


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