Risky Business: Turning to Sex for Survival

When Travis turned his first trick, he still had an apartment in Roslindale and a job as a retail clerk.

He was doing “well enough” financially until January 2010, when his shifts were cut to just five hours per week. His housemate helped him pay his rent for as long as she could.

He looked for additional work, but with youth unemployment at the highest rate seen in decades, he came up empty-handed. And while the fractured job market has driven many young people back to their family home, this was not an option for Travis.

He has not felt welcome at home since coming out to his family as gay.

Travis heard that an acquaintance had made a fair amount of money by selling sex to older men. The idea seemed risky, but he was facing the possibility of becoming homeless within the month. He felt desperate. Hesitantly, he went with this acquaintance to meet two men willing to pay for sex in a motel room. He made some money, but not enough to pay his rent. He soon landed on the street.

“The number of times that I have slept outside while it was snowing is just too many for anyone. Nobody should have to sleep outside in the snow,” he said. “The idea of getting to sleep in a motel bed and earning some cash by having sex with a stranger became more appealing.”

He added his email address and phone number to a loosely organized network of sex workers around the city and spent several months engaging in sex work.

For many young people living on the street, sex for money or lodging can be a means to survival.

Every year, 500 young adults seek help at Youth On Fire (YOF), a drop-in center in Cambridge that serves homeless street-youth between the ages of 18 and 24. One-fifth of the young adults that check into YOF disclose that they have exchanged sex for money, drugs or a place to stay, Ayala Livny, a program manager, said.

“What we know is that young people do what they need to do to survive, and part of surviving is having a safe place to sleep. If we can provide a safe place to sleep, hopefully they will be less likely to engage in behaviors such as survival sex that compromise their health and safety.”

However, connecting youth like Travis to a safe bed is easier said than done.

General population shelters can be dangerous places for young adults. Young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people experience special challenges around victimization and violence, Livny said.

Travis tried staying at a shelter geared toward young adults. As a gay young man, he specifically sought out a center that had a reputation for being welcoming to young LGBTQ individuals.

Once there, however, he was repeatedly the victim of homophobic slurs by both clients and staff members; he witnessed altercations between shelter residents that had begun with similar slurs before they escalated to violence.

Fearing for his own safety, he opted to take his chances on the streets. On a good night, he slept on someone’s couch. More often, he slept outside on benches or in a tent on the beach.

Travis’s experience is all too common, Jessica Flaherty, program director for the Boston Alliance for LGBT Youth (BAGLY), said.

The use of homophobic slurs in a shelter raises alarm bells to homeless LGBTQ people. It signifies a culture in which intolerance is the norm and warns that violence may follow. “The history of their lives has taught them that they can expect to be beaten by somebody that calls them a faggot,” Flaherty said.

Comparatively, going home with someone, “tricking” or doing sex work for a place to stay, can seem like a safer option.

Of course, sex work comes with its own risks.

While Travis was able to set a few boundaries for himself, such as not traveling outside the Boston area and not working with men over 60, he quickly learned that he was at the mercy of the men who hired him.

He had no say in setting the price for his services. Sometimes he would make $200 or more; other times he would make next to nothing. He had been warned that turning down an offer because of the price could get him blacklisted by the network.

Some clients scoffed at his request to use a condom and he usually gave in for fear of developing a bad reputation within the network.

Every three months, he headed to the doctor’s office and anxiously waited for the results of sexually transmitted diseases and infection tests. Miraculously, he remained healthy.

“I am a very, very, very, lucky person,” he said gravely.

Flaherty said that she frequently hears from individuals engaging in sex work that clients offer a higher price to have sex without a condom.

Both Flaherty and Livny said that the majority of the young people that they work with are well aware of the potential risks of contracting both short-term and chronic infections and diseases, including HIV.

“People are making choices, and they are informed choices, but if you are starving and need a place to stay, you are definitely going to choose the option that better meets your immediate needs. People are going to make the choices that are going to keep them alive for the night and worry about the rest of their lives later,” Flaherty said.

Staff members at Youth On Fire, BAGLY and a handful of other area organizations try to help individuals in this situation to reduce this risk.

“At intake we ask directly, ‘Have you ever exchanged sex for drugs, for money, or for a place to stay?’ We ask it, we hope, in ways that are open and non-judgmental so that they can begin having these honest conversations without fear of being judged or denied services,” Livny said.

Livny has found that the young adults that come to YOF are eager to talk about their situation when given the opportunity.

Staff members talk with them about ways to reduce their level of risk by making sure they have access to condoms and lubricant. They connect them to doctors at Fenway Health for testing for STIs and inform them about new prophylactic treatments that are available for both pre and post-exposure.

“We also know that most folks that are engaging in survival sex are often using substances to cope with the emotional ramifications, so we talk about the dangers of sharing needles and the risk for overdose,” Livny said.

All of YOF staff members are trained in risk reduction and substance abuse. In addition, a clinician comes into the center twice a week and welcomes kids in need of a supportive ear or specialized counseling on a walk-in basis.

While BAGLY and YOF cannot solve all of these kids’ problems, they help then to meet their immediate needs, refer them to agencies that can help them to connect more permanent services, and advocate for them at the local and state level.
Travis first turned to Youth On Fire during his last days in his apartment for food assistance. For four years, YOF has been a consistent place where he can take a shower, eat a hot meal, wash his clothes and breathe freely.

This month, Travis moved into an apartment with the help of a friend, but he still heads to Youth On Fire every day.

“The staff at Youth on Fire is like having a family who cares about me and will help me — like a family should care about you,” Travis said.

–Noelle Swan



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