Locked In: Interactions with the Criminal Justice and Child Welfare Systems for LGBTQ Youth, YMSM, and YWSW Who Engage in Survival Sex

Research Report

Locked In: Interactions with the Criminal Justice and Child Welfare Systems for LGBTQ Youth, YMSM, and YWSW Who Engage in Survival Sex


This report focuses on LGBTQ youth who become involved in the commercial sex market to meet basic survival needs, describing their experiences with law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and the child welfare system. Interviews with these youth reveal that over 70 percent had been arrested at least once, with many reporting frequent arrest for “quality-of-life” and misdemeanor crimes other than prostitution offenses. Youth described their experiences of being cycled in and out of the justice system as highly disruptive and generating far-reaching collateral consequences ranging from instability in the home and school to inability to pay fines and obtain lawful employment. This report is part of a larger three-year Urban Institute study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) youth; young men who have sex with men (YMSM); and young women who have sex with women (YWSW) engaged in survival sex.


Young people who sell sex to survive are rarely strangers to abuse, rejection, and discrimination. But when the source of that trauma is someone who should be a source of protection—like a police officer or family court judge—it starts a cycle of mistreatment and distrust that can leave youth feeling like they have nowhere to turn.

In this report, the second in a series, we highlight the tension between the law enforcement community and young people who trade sex for money and basic necessities, such as food and shelter. The report details the experiences of nearly 300 youth who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer or questioning (LGBTQ); young men who have sex with men; or young women who have sex with women. Among these respondents, who ranged in age from 13 to 21 and were virtually all people of color, 63 percent said that their interactions with police were negative. Interviewees described being called "faggot" or "dyke," being profiled by police, and being subjected to invasive searches in public areas. And many of the law enforcement officials we interviewed admitted that they weren't sure how best to serve LGBTQ youth; some officers even viewed this population as inherently criminal.

One gay black male told us about a time he was searched at a subway station, and then questioned because he was carrying condoms: "[The officer] is like, 'why do you have so many on you? You know you can get locked up for this, this is prostitution.' So I'm like, 'no it's not. I'm just trying to be safe.'"

That young man avoided a prostitution charge, but instead was handed a ticket for littering after the cop said he dropped some of his condoms.

And that's part of the problem: though 70 percent of these young people had been arrested, only 9 percent had been arrested for prostitution. Without a prostitution or prostitution-related charge, youth aren't afforded the protections of safe harbor laws. So instead of being referred to shelters or services that could help them, these young people were accumulating misdemeanor charges for survival-related offenses, such as public-transit fare evasion or sleeping on the subway. The youth, many of whom had been kicked out of their homes because of their sexual and gender identities, found themselves unemployable and forced to fall back on the sex trade as a source of income or shelter.

"I understand that there are laws and there are people who don't always try to follow the laws," said one interviewee, a 20-year-old pansexual multiracial woman. "But when somebody is trying and you can see that it's a need, they just need to have some humanity. If you must arrest me for panhandling then understand that I didn't eat in three days."

What can be done?

  • Stop arresting youth engaged in survival sex. Federal, state, and local laws should ban arrest and court proceedings for youth involved in prostitution or prostitution-related activity, including survival offenses. Instead, these young people should be treated as victims of trafficking and enrolled in support services.
  • Create more opportunities for LGBTQ youth to access service programs before arrest. Often, services such as gender-affirming health care, affordable housing, and food security programs are only offered after a young person has been arrested. States should reallocate resources to increase the availability of voluntary programs for youth before they enter the criminal justice system.

  • Train law enforcement, child welfare, and court personnel on how to best serve LGBTQ youth, and hold them accountable for treating this population appropriately. Although some of the 68 law enforcement stakeholders we interviewed said they had undergone training on LGBTQ issues, many admitted that they still felt uncomfortable working with LGBTQ youth. In addition, young people reported mistreatment ranging from profiling to harassment. Clear and concrete policies and better oversight must be put into place.

  • Offer child welfare placements that are less restrictive and respect young people’s gender identity and sexual orientation. The youth we interviewed voiced a variety of problems with child welfare placements. Some said they were put into abusive foster homes; some were sent to group homes, where their privacy and freedom were restricted. And some were forced into shelters that they said did not respect their gender and sexual identities. Child welfare agencies should require adequate accommodation of young people’s gender identity and sexual orientation when they are placed in a facility or foster home. They should also take steps to ensure that youth in nonsecure and semisecure facilities are given the freedom they are owed.

  • Involve youth who engage in survival sex in developing policies and programs for this population. As agencies develop diversion programs or new policies to address sex trafficking, they should listen to the voices of young people who have traded sex for survival. 


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