Not Helping Youths In the Sex Trade

Last Friday I wrote about Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s terrific Reason magazine article on the FBI’s long involvement in policing Americans’ sex lives. In this post, I’d like to follow up on a small detail that caught my eye.

Supporters of anti-prostitution law enforcement operations often justify them as necessary to protect victims of sex trafficking, especially children. Brown’s article mentions a Department of Justice report titled Evaluation of Services for Domestic Minor Victims of Human Trafficking as an example. In particular, she references the following passage, which ends with a question that needs an answer.

Detention was also used in the belief that it protects young people and ensures their connection to services. Key informants acknowledged that this situation was not ideal but argued that young people were likely to be safer in detention than elsewhere. A public defender asked, “How else do you get them services but lock them up and force them to engage in services?”

As a libertarian, my instinctive response is “How about…nonviolently?”

Is it really necessary to send cops with guns to forcibly “help” people? And even if you think it’s necessary to coerce child victims of sex trafficking into accepting social services, can’t you do it without giving them a criminal record? State child protection agencies have the authority, if they believe there is immediate danger, to remove at-risk children who are living with their parents. I’m pretty sure they can figure out a way to take a child off the street.

That won’t work with young adults, but that doesn’t mean arresting them is the only solution. There are better alternatives. We know this because non-governmental organizations like the Sex Work Outreach Project (SWOP) don’t have arrest powers, and they’ve been doing outreach to sex workers for years.

Katherine Koster from the U.S. chapter of SWOP characterizes many of the problems facing young sex workers as basically a variation on homelessness:

The issue is that there is a very large gap in no-strings-attached resources for homeless youth. A great example of this is the lack of shelter beds for youth.


Institutions–from schools to hospitals–very commonly are not a “safe” and comfortable space for homeless, especially GLBTQ youth.


We need to be making these resources available to youth on a voluntary basis. We need to stop attaching funding for services to the criminal justice system, as is frequently the case, and start making sure funding for these core services are available to people without being arrested and locked up, without interacting with the criminal justice system.

Here in Chicago, the Young Women’s Empowerment Project spent years studying ways to help young women in the sex trade, and they had some useful observations, especially about what they call institutional violence:

First, we were surprised how many stories we heard from girls, including transgender girls, and young women, including trans women about their violent experiences at non profits and with service providers. This was upsetting because adults and social workers often tell us that seeking services will improve our lives. Yet when we do the systems set up to help us actually can make things worse. This was clear when looking at the foster care system.


Health care providers were also identified by girls as being unethical. We heard many stories from girls going to the emergency room or to a doctor and being placed in psychiatric units just because they were in the sex trade, transgender or were thought to be self injuring. 

Law enforcement authorities come in for special criticism:

There are particularly a lot of examples of police violence, coercion, and refusal to help. Police often accuse girls in the sex trade of lying or don’t believe them when they turn to the police for help. Many girls said that police sexual misconduct happens frequently while they are being arrested or questioned. […] Stories about police abuse outnumbered the stories of abuse by other systems by far.

So what are the alternatives? The YWEP has their own solution:

When leaving isn’t an option or what a girl might want, YWEP is here to encourage and facilitate safety planning, harm reduction ideas, and offer support and resources. Unlike programs that focus on exiting the sex trade—which usually exclude girls who aren’t ready, able, or wanting to exit—YWEP meets girls where they are and helps them make the next steps they choose. Empowerment means that girls are in charge of their decisions and have power over what they want to do—even if that means something different than what adults think is safe or appropriate. YWEP believes that the more often girls are in charge of the choices in their lives—whether that choice is about food, sleep, relationships, housing or the sex trade—the more power they take in their lives as a whole.

(My guess is that most members of YWEP lean liberal and progressive, but damn if that isn’t a heartwarmingly libertarian approach to helping people. They offer choices.)

The local SWOP chapter here in the Chicago area offers a variety of services, including a support group, monthly meetings, and weekly street-corner outreach events offering food, coffee, condoms, and referral to resources such as sex-worker-friendly doctors and lawyers. In winter they give out warm clothing.

Other organizations, although not focused primarily on sex workers, provide services that will nevertheless help homeless young people in the sex trade. Project Fierce Chicago, for example, has purchased a nine-bedroom house in the North Lawndale neigborhood, and they are renovating it to provide housing for 10-12 LGBTQ youths. (That may not sound like much, but with only a few hundred youth beds in Chicago, it’s going to help.)

Koster summarizes why this approach can help:

I think what is super-important is that 95% of the time, youth are not engaging in the sex trade because they are kidnapped from a secure home where all their needs are met. They are engaging in the sex trade because they ran away from an abusive home or foster home or were kicked our because they are GLBT, and they don’t have a place to sleep, they don’t have older people rooting for them and supporting them, they don’t have food. […]

So you don’t need to hold these kids in detention to protect them–you need to give them a safe place to stay and healthy meals, with great mentors and counselors. So meet their emotional and social and material needs, and they will be safe. You don’t need to hold them in a juvenille detention center to protect them.

This doesn’t sound hard. No, that’s not quite right…it sounds like it’s a lot of very hard work. But it doesn’t sound hard to understand. If you want to help people, you listen to them, you get to know them, you figure out what they want, and you give it to them.

And yet, we keep seeing stories like this one that I found at random:

Sure, there are a few local facilities where juvenile prostitutes can live, waiting for trial dates or transfers home, but these places are hardly ideal. They’re not designed for child sex workers—if therapy is offered, it’s certainly not tailored to the specific needs of juvenile prostitutes. More importantly, perhaps, they’re not lock-down facilities. Residents can leave. This means the girls must want to stay in a court-mandated home for delinquents (and what teenager would?) They must resist the urge to run back to their pimps—which sounds easy, until you remember that most were only selling sex because there was a pimp, with a lot of power over them, pulling the strings. Or throwing fists. Or both.

Girls living in these facilities have been known to bolt into the idling cars of pimps waiting outside—running right back into the abyss of abuse.

“These girls are so broken. They identify with the girls they work with, the pimps. [Prostitution] becomes their safe area, and they want to go back to where they feel safe,” says Susan Roske, Clark County chief deputy public defender. “We want to hang onto them, to keep them from running, and sometimes the only way to do that is in a secure environment.”

Many people running these arrest-to-rescue programs may have the best of intentions, but I think need to stop dismissing these girls’ choices as “broken” and answer an important question: Given that the girls, having experienced both, are running away from your facilities to be with abusive pimps, what does that say about the quality of your attempt to help?

If you have to arrest people and lock them up to get them to accept your help, maybe you need to rethink your approach to helping.

(Thanks to Katherine Koster at SWOP USA for her comments and for helping with some of the research for this post.)

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