In 2002, Judith Levine wrote a prize-winning critique of sex-related laws called Harmful To Minors (Thunders Mouth Press). It provides a very carefully researched, clearly written argument that the laws we make in the name of protecting kids often does more damage than good. Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who was forced to resign her position as Surgeon General of the United States after acknowledging that it might be useful to teach young people about masturbation in their sexual education classes, wrote a foreword to the book. Somehow, 12 years on, the public policymakers in this nation still haven’t learned the important lessons that Levine’s book teaches.
Some times it’s important to shift perspective in order to really understand why a policy is wrong. Something that seems logical from the perspective of a protective and fearful adult might not really make sense to the young people in need of help. It’s important to imagine what it feels like to be in someone else’s situation, before imposing a policy. (It’s even more important to actually talk to the people you are trying to protect to find out what they really need). To take a first step in that direction I encourage policy makers to try the following mental exercise.
Imagine you are a 16-year-old Latina lesbian growing up with your 15-year-old brother and your mom in a working class Catholic neighborhood in the suburbs of a fairly large city. Your family is very conservative, and does not approve of the relationship you have with your girlfriend. They believe that homosexuality is sinful and they routinely harass and bully you about your sexuality. Sometimes your mother hits you when you talk back, defending yourself. You and your brother fight frequently, and sometimes those fights get physical. Your mother sides with your brother. He’s younger. You should know better. Plus, they both disapprove of you anyway. After one particularly nasty fight, you hit your brother hard, splitting his lip and blackening his eye. You manage to get away with a few bruises on your chest and sides, and you decide you’ve had enough. You pack some things and leave. You crash for a few days at your girlfriend’s house but when her parents see you kissing one day, they throw you out. They didn’t know and they don’t approve. You take the train to the city, heading to the neighborhood where the young queer kids hang out and you plan to find a party and crash there for the night. You fall in with a pack of young people who are essentially homeless. They sometimes sleep on subway trains and in parks, and a few of them have found shelters where they feel safe, but several of them often find “dates” who take them in for the night. Of course the dates expect sex, they tell you, but it’s a way to find a warm place to sleep, and sometimes the sex is okay, and often you get breakfast, too. You learn to find dates like this too.
There’s this guy who is a frequent date, and he is trusted by a bunch of the other kids. When he takes you home, it turns out he doesn’t want to have sex with you, but he just wants to worship your feet, and then jerk off on them. This is better than a bunch of the other dates you’ve had, and you look for him periodically. After you’ve gone home with him a couple of times, he asks you if you’d like to meet a friend of his. He tells you the friend also has a thing for feet, and you decide to take the risk and visit him. The day you go to the address you were given, there is a cop who arrests you. Another cop is escorting a guy – the guy you were supposed to meet, perhaps – out of the brownstone and into a police car. Through the grapevine you find out that the original foot fetishist was also arrested, and so were a handful of your friends. While ultimately you are not charged with a crime, you are sent to a juvenile detention center while the state figures out what to do with you.
Is this arrest really helping you? Do you feel rescued?
What if instead of being a 16-year-old Latina lesbian you are a 15-year-old African American trans young woman who was routinely beaten by a disapproving father. Would being arrested and sent back to your abusive family or shunted into foster care make you feel rescued?
Or what if you are a 14-year-old boy who has traveled by foot and on the roofs of freight trains from Honduras? Would you feel rescued if you were captured and sent back to the town from which you risked so much to leave?
A few weeks back, the eighth annual “Operation Cross Country” spread through over 100 US cities, resulting in the scooping up of 168 young people who were engaged in commercial sex along with 281 adults who were arrested as pimps. (I wrote about it here.) This was one offensive in the US criminal justice system’s stated attempts to combat trafficking. In the United States mainstream reporting tends to conflate “trafficking” with prostitution, and it also tends to imagine the “child prostitute” as a very young, blond-haired, blue-eyed girl who was kidnapped from her family and sold from one pimp to another. In reality, the story is much more likely to look like those I’ve described above. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, especially youth of color, are overrepresented among homeless young people. Young people who run away from home are often running from violence and harassment, and are also more likely to find themselves homeless for a time. These are the youth who are most likely to find themselves needing to exchange sex for cash, shelter, food, or affection and protection. Of course migrant youth, especially the undocumented and unaccompanied, are also especially vulnerable.
I am sure that the officers who rounded up the young people caught in Operation Cross Country’s nets care deeply about their safety. But the truth is that the criminal justice system is not well suited to keep anybody safe. In addressing concerns about young people who are engaged in commercial sex, instead of a punitive criminal justice approach, I support an approach called harm reduction. Unlike the punitive criminal justice approach, which begins from an assumption that our goal is to stop objectionable behaviors by punishing those who commit them, harm reduction begins with the assumption that our goal is to help people and their communities to be safer.
A 15-year-old who is exchanging sex for shelter, food, or cash does not need to be arrested, deported, held in a detention facility, returned to an abusive home, or separated from the friends who helped her find the dates she had sex with. A 15-year-old who is exchanging sex for shelter, food, or cash needs to be listened to. Maybe she needs a bed in a shelter. Or maybe she isn’t ready for that yet. Maybe she needs a place where she can shower, get some clean clothes and a meal, and someone to talk to. She needs access to condoms, to health care, to education. She needs to build trust, not to be forced into yet another situation she didn’t choose.
If we tell that 15-year-old that we can only help her by housing her against her will in a locked and guarded detention facility, or if we tell her that we can only offer her shelter if she will promise never to have sex or use drugs or skip school, or if we tell her that we are going to send her back to the parents who kicked her out in the first place, or the foster parents she ran away from, or the country that she fled, then we are telling her we care more about her behavior than her safety.
In the case of Operation Cross Country, news accounts, including this one from the New York Times, indicated that about 10% of the young people who were scooped up had been “missing from child protective services”. That means that 16 or 17 of the 168 young people had previously been in state care that they found intolerable. This should send a clear message that many of our current approaches to supporting vulnerable youth are not working.
If we truly want to reduce the harm experienced by minors, we need to take a three-pronged approach.
- First, we need to think differently about the problems. We need to understand that young people are human beings with minds and desires and rights. We need to understand their behavior and their decisions in terms of the social and economic contexts of their lives. We need to decide that what we want is to help them be safer, not to punish them for behavior we don’t like.
- Second, we need to fix the economic and social injustices that put people at risk of harm in the first place. An economy that depends on economic exploitation in the form of low wage temporary and part time work, racism, sexism, and homophobia, all increase the vulnerability of young people, their families, and their communities.
- Third, we need to provide resources in the smartest ways possible to the people who need them. We need to provide these resources in the least restrictive and most supportive ways possible, respecting the intelligence, resourcefulness and resilience of those we are trying to help.
Fortunately there are already people and organizations that have been working on all three parts of this approach for years. I encountered several such organizations at a recent meeting hosted by Detroit Youth Passages. These organizations, through the direct service work that they do, and through the research that guides them, are models for the rest of us to follow. Here are a few examples:
Alternatives for Girls provides after school programs, teen leadership programs and summer camp programs for girls between 4 and 18 to help reduce vulnerability to gang violence, drug abuse, pregnancy and truancy. They provide shelter, counseling and life skills training for homeless young women between 15 and 21, and their children. They offer outreach programs to teens and young women who are actively engaged in commercial sex, drug use, or gang involvement, and those girls and women can access Alternatives for Girls services whether or not they are ready to exit those risky activities.
The Ruth Ellis Center also provides shelter and street outreach. Their focus is on homeless or at-risk lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people between 13 and 21. Their shelter services provide housing, meals, health services, counseling and life skills training. Their drop in center and street outreach services provide basic survival resources like clothing, food, showers, referrals to support groups and counseling, and job and life skills training. The outreach program also serves as a conduit into the shelter programs.
The Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation offers young people leadership training, summer recreation and service projects, stipend-supported work experiences, arts and entrepreneurship training, and assistance with transitions out of gangs and prisons.
These programs understand what young people need in order to be safe. They need shelter. They need food. They need safe places to come in off the street, while retaining control over their lives and the power to make decisions. They need jobs, and they need opportunities for education, training and advancement. They access to counseling and health care. And they need respect and autonomy. They need to have the trust of the adults who are helping them, and they need to be able to trust those adults back. This can’t be achieved by further victimizing the young. We have to reach out and meet young people where they are, understanding the social and economic contexts that surround them, and then we have to address them as full human beings, with minds and desires and rights. Whether we are talking about migrant young people or those born in the US, the only way to protect young people is to take them seriously, listen to them, and let them lead.