One of the most difficult topics to approach is that of young people who exchange sex. This page briefly explores some of those experiences as well as the legal framework of minors engaged in sexual exchange. Conversations on minors who exchange sex should affirm the diverse experiences of everyone who trade sex, incorporate voices and affirm the dignity of young people, minimize collateral impacts of policy and invest in resource expansion for all young people. Everyone who engages in commercial sex has a unique experience and there is no singular experience, even for young people. Each persons’ experience is valid and each person as deserving of dignity.

Dynamics and Demographics

Youth involvement in the sex trade is a diverse range of experiences and needs, and there has been focused attention and research in the last several years specific to this experience. In the most recent and most expansive study on youth participation in the sex trade looked at the experiences of young people in six cities across the country. The study interviewed 949 young people ages 13 – 24 identified through respondent-driven sampling (RDS), ethnographic fieldwork, and street and internet outreach. While there are limitations to every study, such as limitations around young people in rural locations or Tribal lands, it is the most comprehensive domestic study available.

A majority of respondents identified as female (60% cisgender and 4% as transgender) and just over half (53%) identified as heterosexual. The majority (70%) identified as Black/African-American and were overwhelmingly (97%) domestically born. One third of respondents identified as parents.

Of their working conditions roughly 15% had someone they considered “pimp”, which the study defined as “a person who exploits an individual in the sex market through coercion, control, or force.” 19% identified someone they considered a “market facilitation” who was not a pimp, but instead someone who helped them obtain customers and youth see these relationships as mutually beneficial. Both of these experiences were more likely to be reported by females/femmes.

The majority reported that they had begun trading sex under the age of 18, and the average age of entry was 16 years old. Most first began trading sex after running away from or leaving home. Half (51%) reported accessing a social service agency at any point, with most of those respondents saying that they needed support with rent or housing. Almost all had seen a doctor in the previous year (93%). Two thirds had previously been arrested, though only 16% for a prostitution arrest, mostly non-violent property crimes or drug-related charges.

When asked about their needs, the top three requests were for employment/education, housing, and food/money. Only 16% asked for counseling.

Legal Framework

The legal approach to minors (under the age of 18) who engage in the sex trade is a complicated patchwork of inconsistent laws and practices which often present conflicts. In numerous states, young people who engage in commercial sex are still held criminally liable for exchanging sex for money under state prostitution-related laws. Other states’ provisions range from non-prosecution to offering affirmative defenses after charges have been brought to required referral to services instead of arrest, described in depth below.

Under federal sex trafficking law (18 US 1591) and all state sex trafficking laws, minors who engage sex are considered a victim of sex trafficking regardless of the circumstances of their experiences. This means that in many states minors will fall into conflicting legal categories for the same conduct, and may end up carrying long arrest or criminal records. In many states, being identified as victim of sex trafficking entitles a young person access to services allocated for victims, or allows them to be designated a victim of child abuse to access services. An additional challenge is that those who are aware or involved in a young person’s exchange of sex, including peers, are also criminalized through these same laws.

Read about the case of Hope Zeferjohn, who was convicted of sex trafficking for conduct that occurred when she was a minor while being trafficked.

Minors are not legally allowed to work in pornography and recording/possessing sexually explicit material of a minor falls under federal criminal statute for child pornography. This is mostly categorized under 18 US 2251, but the Department of Justice lists all associated laws. Strip clubs also bar minors from performing, and some states (Louisiana and Florida) have raised the minimum age to 21 from the previous state law of 18 years old. Dancers themselves have fought the passage of these laws, saying that it would force 18-20 year old dancers to either work illegally, or be pushed into other, less desirable forms of work. Both LA and FL are faced constitutional challenges to the bills. Laws on minors and commercial sex also supersede state age of consent laws.

Safe Harbor Laws

Many states have adopted “safe harbor” laws which looks to move minors from the criminal process into an alternative system. The drafting of these laws are diverse and the implementation is even more inconsistent. Below is a general breakdown of the different elements of state safe harbor laws, but to understand how they are actually working on the ground, please contact local experts of youth-led organizations for their impact and local service providers for their legal analysis. As of 2019, 20 states have no provision regarding the non-prosecution of minors for prostitution.

Further Reading considering the impact on state involvement and rights of youth: Brendan M Connor, “In Loco Aequitatis: The Dangers of ‘Safe Harbor’ Laws for Youth in the Sex Trades,” Stanford Journal of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties 12 (2016): 45–116.

Non-Criminalization of minors

As of 2019, 21 states have crafted law which has some form of non-criminalization provision for minors. In these states, minor may not be prosecuted for prostitution or the prostitution law may not apply to a minor. This does not mean that judges or legal actors have been trained on this law, and still may be charging or even prosecuting minors despite the change. Nine states require a young person to be identified as a victim of trafficking for non-prosecution.

Example: Maine’s prostitution law requires the person to have reached 18 years of age. (ME 17-A. §853-A. Tennessee provides an affirmative defense for someone defined as a victim of sex trafficking under Federal law. (§39–13–513(d), effective 2011)

Alternative or non-Criminal Legal Proceedings

A number of states require a referral and application of a Child in Need of Services (CHINS) legal status, which may have other names (ie PINS) in different states. These are also applied to young people who receive status offenses, or things only considered crimes for minors like staying out past a curfew. This designation moves the young person to Family Court, or a civil court proceeding. While it is not a criminal proceeding, it is still insertion into a legal system which may control or surveil the youth for even longer.

Example: South Dakota (§ 22–23–1, effective 2017) provides immunity but requires moving a young person into a CHINS proceeding. New York does not provide immunity and allows *some* youth to move into family court.

Mandatory Diversion

Young people may be required to complete or access services with a non-governmental organization while cases are being deferred. Programming for what defines successful completion is not standardized.

Example: Nevada requires a young person to be placed under supervision of the court and to access services, only to end either when the court determined their participation complete or the young person reaches the age of 18. (NRS § 62C.240, effective 2015)

“Report Cards” on State Safe Harbor Laws:

LGBTQ Young People

Young LGBTQ people are significantly more likely to be involved in the sex trade, as well as face the legal consequences, than straight/cis-identified peers. LGBTQ youth face familial pushout and abandonment, unwelcoming foster care and out of home care services, school pushout and violence, and barriers to accessing services when lacking proper documentation. As a result, homeless LGBTQ youth are seven times more likely than heterosexual peers to trade sex for a place to stay. Trans youth are eight times more likely than cisgender peers to trade sex for shelter. LGBTQ youth are also twice as likely to be involved in the juvenile system for prostitution-related charges. These experiences are also compounding – criminal records make access to housing and formal employment more difficult, making the sex industry a social safety net where none other exists. “It is difficult to grasp the complete lack of other viable options that makes sex work one of the few options available to youth of color,” noted expert Mitchyll Mora, formerly of Streetwise and Safe.

Further reading on the specific experiences of LGBTQ young people in the sex trades: “Surviving the Streets of New York: Experiences of LGBTQ Youth, YMSM, and YWSW Engaged in Survival Sex.” Urban Institute. February 2015.

Research and Resources.

Articles and Statements.