The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of LGBTQ Youth



The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of LGBTQ Youth

Bernadette Brown, Senior Program Specialist, NCCD

Every year approximately 300,000 children become victims of commercial sexual exploitation.[1] The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 is the governing federal law that seeks to combat human trafficking. TVPA states that sex trafficking of children occurs when anyone under the age of 18 is induced to perform a “commercial sex act,” which is defined as “any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.”[2]

In recent years a number of jurisdictions throughout the country have increased their efforts to eliminate the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). Most of these reform efforts focus on the exploitation of girls, presumably heterosexual girls. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are, once again, an overlooked population in most of these initiatives.

Research conducted in 2008 by Dr. Angela Irvine, NCCD’s director of research, uncovered a disproportionate number (15%) of youth in detention identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, and/or gender non-conforming.[3] That survey also found significant differences in detentions for prostitution. Lesbian, bisexual, and questioning girls are twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to be held for prostitution—11% compared with 5%. The statistics are starker for gay, bisexual, and questioning boys. Only 1% of heterosexual boys are detained for prostitution compared with 10% of their gay, bisexual, or questioning peers.

Why are LGBTQ youth disproportionately represented among the CSEC population? The prevailing consensus it that the high level of homelessness among LGBTQ youth is the main contributing factor. Data collection on this population has been difficult for a number of reasons (e.g., many youth do not self-disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity out of fear of harassment and/or discrimination; many providers harbor bias against LGBTQ youth, do not question youth about their identities, and/or are not trained in developing trusting relationships with LGBTQ youth), but we do have some information. A recent survey reported that about 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and they are homeless mostly due to family rejection based on their sexual orientation or gender identity[4]. This same report found that more than 40% of agencies serving homeless youth do not address issues related to this rejection.[5]

Many homeless youth engage in survival sex (exchanging sex for food, shelter, clothing, etc.). A survey of LGBTQ youth service providers in New York City highlighted the prevalence of survival sex among this population; while some providers thought it was more common among young boys, another provider reported that the majority of homeless LGBTQ youth were sexually exploited and it was evenly distributed across sexes.[6] One Canadian study found homeless LGBT youth were three times more likely to engage in survival sex as compared to their homeless heterosexual counterparts.[7]

It is crucial that jurisdictions seeking to protect sexually exploited children include interventions and support services for LGBTQ youth and their families. Last year, the California Child Welfare Council’s Child Development and Successful Youth Transitions Committee convened a commercially sexually exploited children workgroup. The purpose of the workgroup is to explore the problems facing youth and their families, explore the challenges encountered by the juvenile justice and child welfare agencies, and put forth recommendations on policies and practices. NCCD was invited to be a member of this workgroup, which is diligently highlighting issues impacting LGBTQ youth who are also CSEC. Hopefully, other jurisdictions will follow suit and begin to incorporate the needs of LGBTQ youth and their families in their reform efforts.

Bernadette Brown is a Senior Program Specialist at NCCD.

[1] Adams, W., Owens, C., & Small, K. (2010). Effects of federal legislation on the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, available at

[2] Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, H.R. 3244, 106th Cong., 2nd Sess. (2000) available at

[3] Irvine, A. (2010). “We’ve had three of them”: Addressing the invisibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans- gender youth in the juvenile justice system. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, 19(3), 675–701.

[4] Durso, L. E., & Gates, G .J. (2012). Serving our youth: Findings from a national survey of service providers working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Los Angeles: The Williams Institute with True Colors Fund and The Palette Fund.

[5] Ibid. at pg. 4.

[6] Goodman, J. L., & Leidholdt, D. A. (2011). Lawyer’s manual on human trafficking: Pursuing justice for victims, 150–151, unofficial publication, available at

[7] Ray, N. (2006). Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth: An epidemic of homelessness. New York: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and the National Coalition for the Homeless citing Gaetz, S. (2004). Safe streets for whom? Homeless youth, social exclusion, and criminal victimization. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 46(6).

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