The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and subsequent reauthorizations (TVPRA) defines sex trafficking as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act” by means of “force, fraud, or coercion”§ unless the person has not yet turned 18. For someone who has not reached the age of 18, sex trafficking can be understood as exchanging “any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.” Anything of value includes, but is not limited to money, shelter, food, and/or drugs. This includes survival sex for youth, that is the selling of sex in order to meet one’s subsistence needs such as money, food, shelter, or drugs.
Much of the available research about the sex trafficking of youth focus on cisgender females, despite the literature indicating cisgender males, transgender females, transgender males, and gender nonconforming (GNC) youth are among those who are trafficked. This research brief outlines the present state of research related to the unique pathways to sex trafficking taken by transgender and GNC youth in the United States. It prioritizes available peer-reviewed literature from the fields of health, medicine, social work, gay and lesbian studies, queer theory, and law, Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) reports and other available research. This research brief also identifies knowledge gaps in current research, population-specific health and safety considerations for victims of sex trafficking, and recommendations for further research and policy considerations.
It is important to note that there is a legal distinction between sex trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). CSEC can include a broader range of sexual crimes against a child, which may include child pornography and/ or forced marriage. For the purpose of this research brief, the focus will be narrowed to refer to acts that meet the definition of sex trafficking under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and its subsequent reauthorizations (TVPRA). State antitrafficking and CSEC laws also vary and may include “sexually explicit performances” and other forms of CSEC under their sex trafficking laws. Most studies in the social sciences, however, refer to commercial sexual exploitation of children more broadly. When there is an absence in the literature specific to sex trafficking, research referring to the larger community of commercially sexually exploited youth will be used and clearly distinguished.
II. The Over-representation of Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth in Comparison to Cisgender Peers
Research shows the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) population is three times more likely to engage in survival sex, when compared to their cisgender and heterosexual peers. This statistic demonstrates a disproportionate representation of the LGBTQ community among potential victims of sex trafficking. It is critical to acknowledge there may be significant differences between risk factors that impact marginalized sexual orientations when compared to risk factors impacting marginalized gender identities and gender expressions. The experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth can be drastically different than those of transgender and GNC youth, which has implications at all stages of response including prevention, identification, and service provision. There is a limited body of research that explicitly differentiates these populations. Within the LGBTQ community, transgender and GNC youth are often among the most marginalized. Their representation among those who are trafficked for sex is no exception. A New York based study revealed that 16% of LGBTQ youth, Young Men Who Have Sex with Men (YMSM), and Young Women Who Have Sex with Women (YWSW) who engage in survival sex in New York City identify as transgender male, transgender female, or “transgender other” (androgynous, femme, gender nonconforming, genderless). The literature estimates transgender youth to be approximately 5.6 times as likely as their cisgender peers to engage in survival sex. It further reveals transfeminine individuals to be twice as likely as transmasculine individuals to participate in the sex trade generally. Disproportionate representation further exists at the intersection of race and gender identity/gender expression. Transgender and GNC youth of color are at a particularly high risk for sex trafficking, and homeless transgender youth of color are significantly more likely to engage in survival sex than White transgender, homeless youth. A Chicago-based study of 51 transgender female youth of color found 59% of their sample to have a history of exchanging sex for resources. The representation of transgender and GNC youth engaged in survival sex is incommensurate to the demographics of the general population. Despite this knowledge, there is very little research exploring the pathways, experiences, and necessary service provisions unique to transgender and GNC youth.
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