Does trading sex define who you are?
In our recently released study, “Surviving the Streets of New York: Experiences of LGBTQ Youth, YMSM and YWSW Engaged in Survival Sex,” Urban Institute researchers trained youth from Streetwise and Safe to interview young people about their experiences engaging in survival sex. The lead youth researcher, Mitchyll Mora, offered to share his perspective on working on the project and the importance of the study.
The “Surviving the Streets of New York: Experiences of LGBTQ youth, YMSM, and YWSW Engaged in Survival Sex” study is unlike others because the majority of the 300 interviews were conducted by young people who either had experiences engaging in survival sex, like me, or were in the community with youth who did.
Do you feel that trading sex defines who you are?
Nearly every time I asked an interviewee this question, I would ask myself too. “Do I feel that trading sex defines me?” More often than not I’d answer, “Yeah, it does.”
But this wasn’t true for 85 percent of the youth we interviewed. “No, it does not define me” was a common response, and while that might not feel true for me all the time, I do get it. Youth who are or have engaged in survival sex live large lives, filled with all kinds of pain and joy and resilience.
We can define ourselves.
So, this research team didn’t attempt to define experiences for the youth we interviewed. We didn’t create identities for them. This is reflected in the language we used. By having youth like me doing the interviews, we created an environment that allowed for nuance of the experiences being shared. They knew that I knew that engaging in survival sex wasn’t the only thing that has ever happened in their lives. That it’s complicated.
Overwhelmingly, youth expressed a desire to stop trading sex. In fact, 67 percent of youth reported that they wanted to stop, 5 percent said they wanted to stop immediately, and 21 percent said they had already stopped.
These same young people also reported that they didn’t have access to the housing that they needed, with 48 percent reporting living in a shelter and another 10 percent saying they lived on the street. This is one example of the way needs inform whether or not youth will trade sex to survive.
I hope that “Surviving the Streets of New York” will add complexity to a narrative that often reduces us to a specific set of experiences. I hope it prompts readers to look at the totality of our lives. In so doing, we can begin to create responses and support systems that are based in the realities of youth’s lives.
When a young person says that their family isn’t safe, that foster care isn’t safe, that they aren’t safe in police custody or at the shelter, we need to listen and believe them. We need to figure out how to support youth in creating lives that work for them. This is especially true for LGBTQ youth who are more likely to be engaged in survival sex, without a home, with limited or no economic options, and more likely to experience violence at home and in the systems they come into contact with.
This is why so many of the youth shared their stories. They want you to listen. They want to see change. And if you, the reader, listens, then we can begin to get them the things that they need and end the systematic violence that they experience.
Photo: Used with permission from Will Anderson