Contact: Mitchyll Mora, (212) 929-0562, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Today we celebrate the culmination of years of research and organizing by the youth members of Streetwise and Safe (“SAS”) on the needs of youth in the sex trades with the launch of Locked In: Interactions with the Criminal Justice and Child Welfare Systems for LGBTQ Youth, YMSM, and YWSW Who Engage in Survival Sex. In February 2015, we released the first report in this series—Surviving the Streets of New York—an overview of what it is that youth engaged in trading sex say that they need, as well as where they experience violence. Locked In focuses on the youths’ interactions with the criminal justice and child welfare systems. The perspectives of youth themselves are combined with in-depth interviews with 68 criminal justice, child welfare, and youth-serving professionals across 28 organizations.
Locked In exposes how youth in the sex trades are caught in a vicious cycle of arrest and court-involvement. Seven out of ten youth respondents said they had been previously arrested (70 percent), with most of those 197 youths (80 percent) reporting five or fewer arrests. Youth reported that many police encounters were initiated as a result of profiling on the basis of actual or perceived race, sexuality, and gender non-conformity, and 15 percent of youth reported that condoms found during a stop, question or frisk were used as a justification for sustained questioning and arrest for prostitution-related offenses.
“If we as LGBTQ youth trade sex to survive, it shouldn’t make us more of a target for police encounters,” said SAS member DREAM. Frequent arrests for a variety of “quality-of-life” and misdemeanor crimes create instability and perpetuate youths’ need to engage in survival sex as a result of far-reaching collateral consequences. The arrest-based approach to these youth is part of an escalating sequence of cause and effect: instability in home and school, inability to pay fines and surcharges, active warrants, incarceration, disqualification from certain public benefits, deportation, and consequences for future employment.
In the words of Campaign Staff and Researcher Mitchyll Mora, who has also traded sex for survival, “Each arrest represents so much more than ink on a R.A.P. sheet for youth in the sex trades.” Throughout the process of arrest, booking, and pre-arraignment detention, many youth reported violence and abuse by police, including verbal harassment; physical assault such as beating, choking, and “rough rides”; sexual assault, including extortion of sex in exchange for release from custody and rape; denial of help when reporting a crime against the police; and destruction or theft of personal property. In addition to physical injury, youth also identified police violence as leading to psychological injury.
The study is not only important for its first-of-a-kind findings, but also because the majority of the 283 interviews conducted were done by young people who either had experiences engaging in survival sex or were in community with youth who did. This study aims to put power back in the hands of youth living at the edge of survival to define their own needs and make suggestions regarding the policy options they would like to see.
“We are surviving by any means,” said SAS member Amòs Santiago. “It’s important to not sensationalize the act of trading sex but to understand why LGBTQ youth, YMSM and YWSW are trading sex. Understand that employment is not equal, housing isn’t fair, and violence and oppression are very real. We have a system set up to keep us from being equal,” added Santiago.
Streetwise and Safe (“SAS”) works to build leadership, expertise with respect to the rights and realities of police encounters, and community education, outreach and policy advocacy skills, among LGBTQ youth of color who have experienced police profiling, harassment, arrest and/or incarceration. Our goal is to reduce the harms of encounters with law enforcement through legal education, and to center the voices, experiences and visions of LGBTQ youth of color in debates on policing and safety.
This work could not have been done without the support of our partners and funders: the Urban Institute and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.