With all the End Demand rhetoric around, it’s hard to remember that the word demand actually means many things. Hunt Alternatives Fund and people like Melissa Farley have put most of their eggs into a basket that makes men who pay money for any kind of sex the single important cause for all injustices and unhappinesses associated with sex work, child prostitution and sexual exploitation.
The issue of young people on the street who have a home somewhere they don’t want to live in – runaways – is always charged because of a widespread refusal to accept that everyone has a sexuality – babies, toddlers, children, teenagers, old people. In a recent discussion about End Demand campaigns in the United States, Johannah Westmacott made an interesting comment about the whole idea of demand. I first met Johannah when we were interviewed for an NPR show in Nevada last year on the topic of child sex trafficking. She is Coordinator for Trafficked Minors at Safe Horizon Streetwork Project in New York.
There are real demands out there that are forcing people (of all ages and genders) into the sex trade and if these demands weren’t there the people would be free to make other choices, and studies show that many people in the commercial sex trade say that if not for these demands they would leave the sex trade tomorrow. The three biggest demands that coerce people unwillingly into trading sex are the demand for safe shelters, affordable housing, and living wage jobs. Also low-threshold and supportive substance abuse treatment, but I’m not aware of that one being included in studies. Almost everyone I know who has participated in any way in the commercial sex trade has listed at least one of these things as the force that pressured them into the sex trade. The whole men demanding sex thing seems like a red herring to me. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it certainly doesn’t happen at the same rate as poverty and homelessness. Why aren’t we trying to impact those demands since they have a much larger influence?
In example, in NYC there are approximately 4,000 unaccompanied homeless youth every single night. The city funds approximately 200 youth shelter beds. We are providing safe, age-appropriate shelter to less than 10% of the youth in our city who need it. When these young people have no safe way of sleeping indoors, and when they have already experienced violence from being on the streets, or when the weather outside is nasty, what choice do we give them for taking care of themselves and sleeping indoors? Maybe the young person is making a choice to go home with someone for the night, but until we actually offer them another option, we can’t judge them for making a forced choice. Decisions are really only as empowered as the options available.
If there were safe, low-threshold, voluntary youth shelters available on demand in NYC to everyone who requested them, without a waiting list involved, it would absolutely impact the number of youth involved in the commercial sex trade. I’m not saying that funding youth shelters would 100% eliminate youth involved in the commercial sex trade, but I am saying that it would be a game-changer. It would probably also be the most cost-effective and efficient way to impact the most number of youth either at-risk for coercion into the sex trade or who are already in the sex trade and want to exit or even take a break. Funding shelters would not only provide an alternative for youth currently in the commercial sex trade, it would also prevent a huge number of youth from feeling pressured to be involved in the first place. Again, I’m not saying 100%, but I really would guess that this impacts the majority of young people trading sex in NYC right now.
It may be noted also that a recent study in Massachusetts found a trend towards greater numbers of homeless among lgbtq youth. One sort of marginalised sexuality can contribute to another, unfortunately. Doesn’t the suggestion that shelters would make a huge difference make sense?
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist