Survival sex

Survival sex is a form of prostitution engaged in by a person because of their extreme need. It describes the practice of people who are homeless or otherwise disadvantaged in society, trading sex for food, a place to sleep, or other basic needs, or for drugs.[1] The term is used by sex trade, poverty researchers, and aid workers.[2][3]

Some thinkers suggest that people are motivated to prostitute themselves because it is familiar – specifically to victims of child sexual abuse.[4] Other researchers state that, while some see it as a normal job, the vast majority want to get out of the industry given the potential for disease and dangerous clients.[5]


Survival sex is common throughout the world, and has been extensively studied in many countries including the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand, New Zealand, Colombia, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa.[6]

Researchers estimate that of homeless youth in North America, one in three has engaged in survival sex. In one study of homeless youth in Los Angeles, about one-third of females and half of males said they had engaged in survival sex.[7] Likelihood increases with the number of days the youth has been homeless, experience of being victimized, engaging in criminal behaviour, using illegal substances, attempting suicide, being pregnant and having an STI.[8][9]

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender street children are three times likelier to engage in survival sex compared with their heterosexual counterparts, according to one study. Another found that transgender youth are most likely of all to engage in survival sex.[7]

Survival sex is common in refugee camps. In internally displaced persons camps in northern Uganda, where 1.4 million civilians have been displaced by conflict between Ugandan government forces and the militant Lord's Resistance Army, Human Rights Watch reported in 2005 that displaced women and girls were engaging in survival sex with other camp residents, local defense personnel, and Ugandan government soldiers.[10]


Some researchers say that street children do not always see survival sex as exploitative: rather, they sometimes characterize it as the "beginning of a potential relationship." Given that one of the strongest predictors of engagement in survival sex is a prior history of sexual abuse by adult caregivers, some researchers theorize that rather than being driven to survival sex out of desperation, street children might be reproducing familiar behaviour and relationship patterns.[4]

Other researchers maintain that people only engage in survival sex when they have no other options. Psychologist and anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley, writing in the New York Times, says that prostitution is nearly always coercive and lacking in full consent. She says this is the biggest issue, not simple inequalities between buyers and sellers, nor health and safety risks. Farley says women rarely have viable alternative means of paying for the basic needs of themselves and their loved ones. Farley argues that even having the "job option" is immoral because it will most likely hurt women who are very vulnerable (psychologically, economically, or otherwise). Farley says for women looking to survive, the experience can be traumatizing, and she describes it as "Becoming objects for masturbation". She also warns that the men who pay for prostitution the most are usually the most violent towards women.[5]

According to Farley, research suggests that very few prostitutes (she estimates that only 5% of women) make the choice freely. She says that most women in prostitution, including those working for escort services, have been sexually abused as children. Farley claims that a majority of prostitutes would like to leave the industry.[11] Bob Herbert echoed a similar opinion, also in the New York Times. Herbert says "Those who think that most of the women in prostitution want to be there are deluded... the world of the prostitute is typically filled with pimps, sadists, psychopaths, drug addicts, violent criminals and disease."[12]

Outreach and law enforcement

US municipalities such as Boston and Dallas have noticed a sharp increase in runaways engaging in survival sex since 1999. Dallas established a special group home for counseling, from which 75% of the underage girls who receive treatment do not return to prostitution. Congress nearly approved a program for cities to create pilot programs modeled on the Dallas system in 2007, but never appropriated the necessary funds. The Department of Justice has yet to study the number of children involved in prostitution even though they were authorized by Congress to do so in 2005.[14] However, the Center for Problem Oriented Policing claims, "there is no consensus on whether the practice is widespread," and recommends that runaways should be questioned about sexual abuse but not consensual sex, survival sex, or prostitution.[15]

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, outreach services to help sexually exploited youth should focus on the locations where they congregate and are approached by pimps for exploitation, including public spaces such as malls and schools, and the internet. Outreach workers need to develop a close professional relationship with law enforcement to learn about trends and locations, but should carefully avoid compromising their independence or the confidentiality of their clients. Local law enforcement should target pimps and customers (janes or johns) and not the victims (youth and young adult prostitutes) for prosecution to be effective. Partnerships between nonprofit programs and law enforcement can help offer survival sex worker victims community-based services and housing when they are picked up by police officers.[16]

According to ECPAT International, when sex industry women and children victims are held in police custody or remand homes, denied freedom and access to information, or abused by police, they are encouraged to lie about their situation and try to escape, so community assistance services are substantially less useful. Similar failures occur when court procedures do not allow victim testimony or representation or, when they do, are neither victim-friendly nor children-friendly; or when decisions on children's futures seldom include the opinions of children, or when the right to privacy is violated by media reporting, or by stigmatization of and discrimination against children exploited in prostitution. Governments have the duty to provide services to children, but sharing that duty with nonprofits by coordination, monitoring, and support, especially with respect to periodic review of placement, is likely to have the best results. Protection measures for children at all stages of the legal process has not been sufficiently implemented through children-friendly courts, justice systems and law enforcement agencies. Decriminalization of children exploited in prostitution is a substantial gap in addressing survival sex worldwide. Successful law enforcement partnerships have included a campaign of brothel-based prostitutes who policed the recruitment of under-age girls in Bangladesh.[17]

See also


  1. Flowers, R. Barri (2010). Street kids: the lives of runaway and thrownaway teens. McFarland. pp. 110–112. ISBN 978-0-7864-4137-2.
  2. Hope Ditmore, Melissa (2010). Prostitution and Sex Work (Historical Guides to Controversial Issues in America). Greenwood. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-313-36289-7.
  3. Kelly, Sanja, Julia Breslin (2010). Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance (Freedom in the World). Freedom House / Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 556. ISBN 978-1-4422-0396-9.
  4. Mallon, Gerald P., Peg McCartt Hess (2005). Child Welfare for the Twenty-first Century: A Handbook of Practices, Policies, and Programs. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 237. ISBN 978-0-231-13072-1.
  5. "Prostitution Research and Education: Intelligence Squared Debate on "It's wrong to pay for sex"". Archived from the original on October 1, 2012.
  6. Barker, G. (1993). "Research on AIDS: knowledge, attitudes and practices among street youth". Children Worldwide: International Catholic Child Bureau. 20 (2–3): 41–42. PMID 12179310.
  7. Flowers, R. Barri (2010). Street kids: the lives of runaway and thrownaway teens. McFarland. pp. 110–112. ISBN 978-0-7864-4137-2.
  8. Neinstein, Lawrence S., and Catherine Gordon, Debra Katzman and David Rosen (2007). Adolescent Health Care: A Practical Guide. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. p. 974. ISBN 978-0-7817-9256-1.
  9. Greene, J.M., S.T. Ennett, and C.L. Ringwalt (1999). "Prevalence and correlates of survival sex among runaway and homeless youth". American Journal of Public Health. 89 (9): 1406–1409. doi:10.2105/AJPH.89.9.1406. PMC 1508758. PMID 10474560.
  10. Human Rights Watch (2005). The Less They Know, the Better: Abstinence Only HIV/AIDS Programs in Uganda. New York: Human Rights Watch. p. 55.
  11. "The myth of the victimless crime". New York Times. 2008-03-12. Retrieved 2010-07-17.
  12. "Today's hidden slave trade". New York Times. 2007-10-27. Retrieved 2010-07-17.
  13. Bassuk, E.L., et al. (2011) America’s Youngest Outcasts: 2010 (Needham, MA: The National Center on Family Homelessness) page 20
  14. Urbina, I. (October 26, 2009) "Running in the Shadows: For Runaways, Sex Buys Survival" New York Times
  15. Dedel, K. (2006) Juvenile Runaways Guide No. 37 (Madison, Wisconsin: Center for Problem Oriented Policing) pp. 1 and 3
  16. National Alliance to End Homelessness (2009) Homeless Youth and Sexual Exploitation: Research Findings and Practice Implications (Washington, DC:
  17. Ennew, J. (November 2008) "Exploitation of children in prostitution" Archived 2012-03-29 at the Wayback Machine World Congress III Against the Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: ECPAT International)

Further reading

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