(1) examine the contexts and conditions under which young people trade sex,
(2) identify inclusive strategies used to screen for sex trafficking and sex trading,
(3) understand the relevance of sex trafficking indicators.
Methods: We partnered with our youth leaders’ group (YLG) who have lived experiences and are consultants in youth services. We developed a cross-sectional, web-based survey of young people (ages 16-29) who had lived experiences of sex trading and/or homelessness. Quantitative and qualitative questions explored youths’ perceptions of: (1) sex trading type, compensation, and meaning; (2) recommended inclusive practices to increase youths’ comfort in disclosing sex trading; (3) known sex trafficking indicators. Questions were developed by adapting items from sex trading studies, prior evaluations of sex trafficking indicators and screening questions, recommended best practices for inclusive indicators, then revising with YLG.
Participants (N=103; Mage = 22.9 [SD = 3.5]; 34% white; 55% ciswomen/21% trans; 39% heterosexual) all reported past or current experiences of homelessness; 72% (n=74) reported trading sex themselves, and 78% (n=80) reported having friends who traded sex.
We conducted descriptive analyses and examined differences (using t-tests and one-way ANOVAs) by demographics, lived experiences of sex trading and homelessness as well as (perceived) friends’ experiences of sex trading. We conducted thematic analysis of qualitative questions through a multiphase, independent co-coding process with the academic researchers, then YLG.
Aim 1: “Sex trading” signified multiple meanings, ranging from an occupation (e.g., sex work) to acts that were inherently exploitative. Two-thirds of youth who reported sex trading and 90% of young people who reported having friends who traded sex indicated that they engaged in some type of online sex trading. Diverse compensation forms that are not yet discussed in literature were identified (e.g., Amazon Wishlist items).
Aim 2: Across groups, youth indicated that they felt more comfortable disclosing sexual activity when the provider indicated that they would advocate for them if they are victims of discrimination. Compared to cisgender youth, trans youth were significantly more comfortable disclosing sexual activity when a service provider used gender/sexuality inclusive indicators.
Aim 3: Youth who traded sex had higher likelihood of skipping middle and high school, compared to youth who did not trade sex. Youth whose friends traded sex had statistically significant higher likelihood of dating and having sexual relationships with older people (e.g., 5-10 years, 10+ years older), compared to youth who did not trade sex. There were no significant differences among some indicators emphasized by community presentations, e.g., tattoos.
Conclusions and Implications: This study reveals new insights about the type of sex acts exchanged, forms of compensation, and meanings of language used to assess sex trading in research and practice. Providers must use inclusive practice to ultimately reduce potential harm among youth who trade sex.