Part of the Solution: Youth in Sex Work and the Sex Trade


In response to increased calls for prohibitions on sex work at last week’s House hearing on trafficking, as well as intensified campaigns against the internet sex trade, Third Wave Foundation released its position statement on young people engaged in sex work and who are impacted by the sex trade.

“All too often in national political conversations, the agency of young people is undermined,” said Mia Herndon, Executive Director of Third Wave. “As a result, their work goes under-supported and we lose opportunities to strengthen young peoples’ leadership. Our strategy is to center those who are most impacted by inequity and oppression, which is a core community organizing practice. There is nuance, difference, and emotional charge to discussions of sex work and the sex trade, and we take complicated but critical positions — which aren’t always in line with where our allies position themselves around these issues.”

The statement was originally published on Third Wave’s website, and is reproduced below:

As a progressive philanthropic institution, we are committed to strengthening organizations led by-and-for young women of color and transgender youth in low-income communities. Our grant partners work on a broad range of issues and employ myriad strategies, including challenging violence and gender-based inequity and claiming rights to economic opportunity, education, and health care. Through the work of our grant partners and through our philanthropic advocacy, we seek to shift historic and systemic forms of violence and oppression that are rooted in gender, race, and class inequity.

We do not believe that sex work is a cause of that violence or oppression, nor do we believe that seeking to prohibit safe and consensual sex work or the demand for it is the solution to eradicating gender-based inequity or violence. In fact, these attempts to criminalize sex work often have the unintended consequence of leaving young people even more vulnerable. Prohibitions on sex work — even when targeted at third-parties such as customers and advertising venues — criminalize young people and force them further underground in order to meet their survival needs. As a result, they are more vulnerable to violence and isolated from one another and from rights advocates.

Third Wave supports young people engaged in sex work and impacted by the sex trade as critical partners in ensuring health and justice.

We at Third Wave are deeply concerned about the ways in which young women and transgender youth may be subject to abuse and violence in any aspect of their lives. Over the last decade of supporting this work, we have learned that young people come to sex work and the sex trade through a wide range of experiences that include choice, circumstance, and coercion. Our community of grant partners and allies includes sex workers, people involved in the sex trade and street economies, and people who have been trafficked. Regardless of how young people are involved in or are impacted by the sex trade, they must be considered partners in the work of advocating for rights and achieving justice.

We recognize and affirm a difference between sex work and trafficking, and urge policymakers and allies in human rights advocacy to approach these issues with respect for that difference.

These are nuanced and deeply complex concerns. Pursuing a plan of action to address violence, coercion, or trafficking without considering the needs and leadership of young people with direct experience in sex work and the sex trade will result in solutions that do not fully address the harms that young people face. Nor will advocates benefit from the depth of their expertise.

With our support, young people engaged in sex work and who are impacted by the sex trade are organizing in their communities and achieving wins.

Across the US, our grant partners are supporting one another to create smart solutions that are rooted in their day-to-day realities.

  • They conduct research on the needs of their own communities, mapping the complex social service systems that they must navigate successfully in order to seek support.
  • They operate their own health care clinics with state and city-level health partners.
  • They advocate for and participate in city taskforces that address youth housing needs.
  • They have developed their own programs to secure legal advocacy for their communities.
  • They organize and train one another to work within criminal/legal systems to advocate for their rights.

Together, they create innovative new models for peer support and education rooted in harm reduction principles and respect for young people’s power to make change in their own lives.

We value the full range of experiences of young people who do sex work and are impacted by the sex trade, and support work that builds their power and agency.

It is a step forward for policymakers and advocates to recognize that young people who do sex work or who are impacted by the sex trade are not criminals. We must also recognize that not all young people who do sex work and who are impacted by the sex trade are victims.

Partnerships between young people and adult allies must support the vision and leadership of young people. We work in collaboration with young people to secure the resources they need to continue creating a healthy and just world. We urge policymakers who seek to protect young people from violence to include young people’s expertise at every level of their decision-making. We also urge our community partners and allies to center the voices and experiences of young people who do sex work and who are impacted by the sex trade when advocating for their human rights.

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