The LGBT Health & Development Program

Research Blog—Nowhere to Go: LGBTQ Youth and Survival Sex

Posted on April 22nd, 2015 by Sam in Featured, Research Blog. No Comments

young man standing in subway in New York City

Photo credit: Mateus Lucena “New York Subway,” November 17, 2013

What is survival sex?

Survival sex is defined as selling sex to meet subsistence needs such as food or shelter [1].  Unfortunately, LGBTQ youth are more likely to find themselves in situations where survival sex seems to be the only way to meet their basic needs. This is problematic because youth who participate in survival sex have higher rates of substance abuse, mental health problems, victimization and STI/HIV risk [1, 3, 5].

Who is selling sex to survive?

According to recent research, youth who practice survival sex differ from general samples of youth in many ways. For example, higher rates of sex work are seen among youth with a history of sexual abuse, physical abuse, injection drug use and homelessness [5].

The most staggering difference in survival sex is seen among youth who identify as LGBTQ.  LGBTQ youth are seven times more likely to participate in survival sex than their non-LGBTQ counterparts [2].  One source reported that 20-40% of youth sex workers identify as LGBTQ even though only 5-7% of youth in the United States identify as such [2].


Photo credit: Tanya Dawn “Warm Sun,” December 7, 2011

Homelessness is one of the primary reasons why youth sell sex to survive. A quarter of homeless youth have reported survival sex in the past 6 months, largely in an attempt to find a safe place to rest given a shortage in youth shelter beds [2].  A nationwide survey of agencies that provide drop-in resources, street outreach and housing programs for homeless youth reported that 30-43% of the youth they serve identify as LGBTQ.  A notable trend is that over the past ten years, the percent of these agencies who report serving transgender youth specifically has jumped from under 50% to more than 75% [4].

So, why are LGBTQ youth at greater risk for homelessness?  Of homeless LGBTQ respondents, the agency study found that:

  • 68% reported family rejection
  • 54% reported abuse from their family
  • 43% were forced out of the home by their parents

… all because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Rejection from home may cause some youth to enter the sex trade in an attempt to find a community or acceptance among peers.  One study done by the Urban Institute in New York City reported that 46% of youth who practice sex work were introduced to the trade this way. Legally, any minor participating in sex work is considered “trafficked”; however, only 15% of these youth cite an exploitative situation as their introduction to the trade [2].

In the end, 93% of the youth surveyed by the Urban Institute did not want to sell sex.  The young people interviewed suggested that improving access to housing, education and employment opportunities may help LGBTQ youth avoid relying on survival sex to meet their basic needs [6].  Given the influence of rejection in the home on LGBTQ youth involvement in survival sex, more research on improving family acceptance could also offer some relief for LGBTQ youth.


1. Keuroghlian, A. S., Shtasel, D., & Bassuk, E.L. (2014). Out on the street: A public health and policy agenda for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth who are homeless. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84(1), 66-72. doi: 10.1037/h0098852

2. Dank, M. (2015). Surviving the Streets of New York: Experiences of LGBTQ Youth, YMSM, and YWSW Engaged in Survival Sex. Retrieved from

3. Rabinovitz, S., Desai, M., Schneir, A., & Clark, L. (2010). No way home: Understanding the needs and experiences of homeless youth in Hollywood. Hollywood, CA: Homeless Youth Partnership. Retrieved from

4. Durso, L. E., & Gates, G. J. (2012). Serving our youth: Findings from a national survey of services providers working with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Retrieved from×75033

5. Marshall, B., Shannon, K., Kerr, T., Zhang, R., & Wood, E. (2010). Survival sex work and increased HIV risk among sexual minority street-involved youth. Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, 53(5), 661-664. doi: 10.1097/QAI.0b013e3181c3DDd7

6. Bekiempis, V. (2015, February 25) Why Are Homeless LGBTQ Youth Trading Sex for Shelter? Newsweek. Retrieved from


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