Abstract: Sex Trafficking Risk in a Representative Sample of High School Students: Prevalence and Associated Characteristics of Youth Who Trade Sex (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Sex Trafficking Risk in a Representative Sample of High School Students: Prevalence and Associated Characteristics of Youth Who Trade Sex

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Luke Muentner, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Shih-Ying Cheng, MSW, Doctoral Student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Lara Gerassi, MSW, LCSW, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Background and Purpose: Sex trafficking (ST) studies exclusively stem from non-representative samples with high-risk populations (e.g. homeless/runaway youth), which skew our knowledge base. ST occurs when someone is induced to perform a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion. Additionally, any minor who reports trading sex for financial compensation meets the federal definition of ST. The purpose of this study was to determine the prevalence and associated characteristics of youth who report trading sex for financial compensation, using a representative sample of high school youth.

Methods: Data for this study comes from the Dane County Youth Assessment, a cross-sectional survey administered to 9th–12th grade students across 24 high schools (17 districts) in 2018. Most districts captured over 90% of students, except for one large district that used stratified random sampling to survey approximately 50% of students.

Our weighted sample included all students who answered the question [Y/N] (dependent variable), “have you ever had sexual contact in order to stay safe or to get something like a place to stay, money, gifts, alcohol or drugs?” (n=13,714). The sample included cisgender, heterosexual males (43%), cisgender, heterosexual females (40%), and LGBTQ+ (14%) youth. The majority were white (74%).

Independent variables spanned four domains of ST risk factors: economic (e.g., running away; homelessness), behavioral (e.g. condom use; tested for STI; depression; substance use), social (e.g., sexual assault; gang membership; connection to school), and demographics (e.g., race; sexual orientation). Chi-square tests and logistic regression analyses were conducted to examine associations with the dependent variable. Our model accounted for stratified sampling schemes, weighted observations, and clustering effects by school.

Results: 2.47% (n=416) of survey respondents reported sex trading, of whom 91% were minors. Chi-Square analyses revealed statistically significant differences between the ST group and the non-ST group for variables across all measured domains (p < .001).

Our final model (F (25, 11560) = 56.50, p < .001; AUC = 0.9065) suggested that youth who reported depression (OR = 1.82), dating violence (OR = 2.86), sex with 2 or more people (OR = 2.15), personal gang involvement (OR = 2.75), knowing a friend who is involved in gang (OR = 2.41), out-of-school suspension once (OR = 2.59) or two or more times (OR = 5.07), substance use (OR = 2.37), cut class (OR = 1.69) and identifying as LGBTQ+ (OR = 2.09) were more likely to report sex trading (p < .001).

Other statistically significant relationships with sex trading (p<0.05) included higher rates of holding jobs that supported their families (OR = 1.57), foster care involvement (OR = 2.68), and identifying as cis-gender woman (OR = 1.41) (p < .05).

Conclusions and Implications: Findings from this study provide a profile of associated risks among high school students who report ST (minors) and ST risk (adults) as compared to non-sex trafficked students. Although the causal order of characteristics analyzed in relation to the ST is not known, important implications for ST prevention, assessments, and interventions with high school youth will be discussed.