Homeless Youth & Sexual Behavior

In the past, formidable research has been conducted to study the sexual behavior of homeless youth which can be used to develop intensive and long-term services and programs which can provide alternatives for survival to the youth who are on their own. In this regard a study by Tyler & Johnson examined the circumstances surrounding a homeless youth’s “decision” to trade sex for food, money, shelter, or drugs (Tyler & Johnson 2006). Forty homeless youth in 4 Midwestern states participated in individual, in-depth qualitative interviews.

Interviewers recruited youth through both service agencies and street outreach. The findings revealed that approximately one third of the sample had some experience with trading sex, whether it was in the form of having traded sex, having been propositioned to trade sex but having refused, or having friends or acquaintances that had traded sex. Young people’s reports indicated that they had traded sex for things they deemed necessary in order to survive (i. e. , food, shelter, money, or drugs) and that they did not want to trade sex, but did so because they were desperate and lacked alternatives.

Additionally, others were coerced, manipulated, or forced to do so, indicating that the decision to trade sex is not always voluntary (Tyler & Johnson 2006). The study further adds to the literature by providing information on the circumstances surrounding trading sex, the nature of the interaction (i. e. , voluntary vs. coerced), and the role that partners and peers play in the youth’s decision to trade sex (Tyler & Johnson 2006). Future qualitative studies on homeless youth are needed to delve more deeply into the process of trading sex and to understand the nuances associated with voluntary versus coercive sex.

Many young homeless people are initially exploited in their families, as well as later within the context of life on the street. These early negative familial relations, in conjunction with the emotional and physical damage caused by homelessness in general, and trading sex in particular, may have cumulative effects on their later development, resulting in long-term physical and psychological problems (Tyler & Johnson 2006). Finally, given their lack of resources and their coercive relationships with partners and peers, trading sex is likely to remain a viable, although damaging, way for homeless youth to survive.

Another similar study by Greene & Ennet provide support for the assumption that survival sex is an economic survival strategy linked to the circumstances and duration of homelessness: (1) the finding that a higher proportion of street youths than of shelter youths had engaged in survival sex (although demographic differences between the samples account for some of the difference); (2) the finding that the behavior was more prevalent among shelter youths with previous street experiences than among those without such experiences; (3) the positive relationship between participation in survival sex and length of time away from home; and (4) the association between survival sex and economic criminal behaviors (Greene & Ennett 1999). Their results also suggest that factors other than homelessness may contribute to survival sex. Most notably, both street and shelter youths were twice as likely to report having engaged in survival sex if they also reported having been physically abused by family members. Among shelter youths, emotional abuse and family drug use were additional correlates (Greene & Ennett 1999).

Although the correlations were cross-sectional, they suggest that an abusive family environment is a risk factor for further victimization through participation in survival sex once a youth is on the streets. This study examined prevalence of sexual risks among homeless youth and described factors associated with those risks (Halcon & Lifson 2004). Community-based outreach methods were used successfully to access this difficult-to-reach population. The sample included 203 homeless youth aged 15–22 recruited from community sites. Questionnaire items addressed demographics, sexual behaviors, alcohol/drug use, STI history and testing, and pregnancy history. In cross-sectional analysis, 58. 7% of males and 75. 6% of females reported recent sexual intercourse (Halcon & Lifson 2004).

Of those, one third of males and half of the females used no barrier method with at least one partner. Both gender (female) and race/ethnicity non-Black) were associated with having intercourse without a barrier contraceptive method. Over one fifth reported a history of “survival sex” or receiving money, drugs, clothing, shelter, or food for sex. These results show disturbingly high rates of a number of sexual risks, reinforcing the need for targeted interventions with this highly vulnerable population (Halcon & Lifson 2004). The findings also imply that family abuse, including physical abuse, is a strong correlate of high-risk sexual behaviors among youth and that prostitution may be among the sequel of abuse (Greene & Ennett 1999).

It is also noteworthy that other studies have shown that survival sex is more common among gay and bisexual youths and that conflict over sexual orientation is a reason that some youths leave home.


Tyler, K. A. , Johnson, K. A. , 2006: Trading Sex: Voluntary or Coerced? The Experiences of Homeless Youth, Journal of Sex Research, 00224499, Aug2006, Vol. 43, Issue 3 Greene, J. M. , Ennett, S. T. , 1999: Prevalence and Correlates of Survival Sex among Runaway and Homeless Youth. American Journal of Public Health, 00900036, Sep99, Vol. 89, Issue 9 Halcon, L. L. , Lifson, A. R. , 2004: Prevalence and Predictors of Sexual Risks among Homeless Youth, Plenum Publishing Corporation, 0047-2891/04/0200-0071/0