On September 12, 2016, the Urban Institute, a Washington DC based think tank tasked with “taking a comprehensive view of urban life and seeking to understand the forces that produce decay as well as growth,” published a report titled Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America. The report chronicled a study conducted with focus groups of teenage boys and girls in ten major U.S. cities and found that in communities with high rates of poverty and food insecurity, focus groups in all ten of the cities studied talked about “some girls selling their body” or “sex for money.”
The CSE Institute has previously highlighted the prevalence of “survival sex”, that is, the performance of sexual acts in exchange for basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter, often in marginalized communities where there is a lack of available resources. This new report by the Urban Institute reveals that engaging in commercial sex due to food insecurity in the United States may be much higher than previously thought. The study notes that, particularly in high-poverty communities that the teenagers involved in the study described as “sexually coercive environments,” teenagers are forced or coerced to seek basic needs like food by engaging in sexual activities when they would prefer to earn money through formal jobs. However, other employment opportunities either do not exist, or pay too little to allow the teenagers to secure basic needs.
Food insecurity leads to the exploitation of these children, often in the form of “transactional dating,” to get enough food for themselves or family members to survive. The study found that the strongest link between food insecurity and sexual exploitation was in communities where teens were stably housed and had deep housing subsidies to protect their families from extreme hardship, but still faced an inability to provide for other basic needs and extremely coercive sexual environments that led to “survival sex” as a coping mechanism for food insecurity.
Young adolescents who are sexually exploited for basic necessities can experience further commercial sexual exploitation later in their life. As a result of their exploitation, sexually exploited youth may develop psychological disorders or substance abuse problems, leading to further exploitation by those that would physically or psychologically manipulate them. The study concludes that in order to decrease the pressure for young teens to engage in exchange of sex for basic needs, there must be an improvement in the social welfare programs that provide for basic needs, more job opportunities for youth, and empowered, less sexually coercive and exploitative environments for youth.
The CSE Institute, through our work with victims and survivors of human trafficking and prostitution, sees first-hand how low-income areas with highly coercive and exploitative sexual environments contribute to the early exploitation of a younger generation. The CSE Institute encourages community programs that seek to empower youth, especially girls, so that we might create a safer environment for this vulnerable population and reduce the number of people who become victims of commercial sexual exploitation.