How Can We Prevent the Sexual Exploitation of LGBT Youth?

Think about this: while approximately 5 to 7 percent of the general youth population identifies as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender (LGBT), 9 to 45 percent of the homeless youth population does. In other words, LGBT youth are significantly more likely to be homeless than non-LGBT youth.

In addition to being over-represented among the homeless youth population, LGBT youth may also be more likely to be involved with the justice system due to arrests related to survival crimes (such as theft or sexual acts). When LGBT youth are in shelters, group homes, or foster homes, they often experience harassment or violence. As a result, they may resort to “survival sex” in order to avoid these living arrangements. (This is a term for sexual acts that are exchanged for money or goods required to meet life’s basic needs.)

What impact does survival sex have on LGBT youth, and what can providers do to help? A new study from the Urban Institute examines the experiences of LGBT youth who engage in survival sex. The report focuses on this population’s interaction with law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and the child welfare system.

Researchers conducted interviews with almost 300 youth, aged 13 to 21, who identify as LGBT. They also spoke with 68 stakeholders in the fields of criminal and juvenile justice, child welfare, and service provision to runaway and homeless youth and LGBT youth. These interviews highlight a tension between LGBT youth and the systems with which they interact, and allowed researchers to develop several policy and practice recommendations for improving the outcomes of LGBT youth who engage in survival sex.

These recommendations include:

  • Stop arresting youth who engage in survival sex. The processes of arrest, booking, and justice system involvement present many opportunities for negative outcomes for LGBT youth. Instead, these youth should be treated as trafficking victims and guided to supportive services.
  • Promote low-barrier, voluntary services for youth. Many court-mandated services are available to youth only after arrest, but these services—if offered earlier—could help prevent arrests altogether. When providers create services that are easy to access, LGBT-affirming, and culturally competent, it mitigates youths’ risk of sexual exploitation.
  • Train law enforcement and child welfare staff on LGBT youth, and hold them accountable. Most of the stakeholders interviewed for this study said they had not received training specific to LGBT youth. Many didn’t even feel comfortable working with this population. Training could include how to determine gender identity for placement into foster care or detention, which is particularly relevant for transgender and gender nonconforming youth.
  • Limit restrictive conditions on child welfare placements. Many of the youth interviewed said they were forced to live in situations that were dangerous or abusive due to their gender identity or sexual orientation. Shelters, group homes, and foster homes should be required to accommodate gender identity and sexual orientation upon placement.

These are just a few steps that we can take to ensure the health and safety of LGBT youth. Rather than waiting for LGBT youth to engage in survival crimes, we must work upstream of the problem to ensure that LGBT youth are never forced to make that choice.