Part of the solution: youth engaged in sex work & the sex trade

September 17, 2010

Third Wave Foundation supports the work of young people to make powerful change in their communities.

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.

Posted in: Blog, Criminalization, Different Avenues, Leadership, St. James Infirmary, YWEP

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Melissa Gira Grant, Heather Corinna, StacyCat, SerpentLibertine, R Henderson-Espinoza and others. R Henderson-Espinoza said: RT @3Wave: Third Wave supports sex workers & youth in the sex trade/street economies. We oppose criminalization. Please share: […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Part of the solution: youth engaged in sex work & the sex trade | Third Wave Foundation -- — September 17, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

  2. Thank you, Third Wave, for this statement! It is extremely exciting to receive support for sex workers rights, and recognition of the diverse perspectives of young people. This is especially valuable now, when there has been a well publicized campaign to close ‘adult’ venues such as craigslist and Backpage.

    It is shocking to see the misinformation in society, quoting false, manipulative statistics about average ‘age of entry’ into prostitution as 11 years old, or that ‘decriminalization increases abuse and trafficking.’ Transactional sex is so stigmatized that people seem to believe the most sensationalistic claims. Hopefully this support from Third Wave indicates that the tide is turning.

    Please also sign this brief petition which addresses the issues above as well.

    Comment by Carol Leigh — September 18, 2010 @ 1:18 am

  3. Thank you ! Thank you !

    As a sex worker, since I was a youth, and a feminist, I am so excited that you exist ! Last year, our by-and-for sex worker rights and health group, Stella ( helped accompany women to come forward who were victims of 3 separate (alleged) serial rapists in our city targeting sex workers.

    It broke my heart, that there in front of the courthouse, where we rallied with the women as one trial began, to encourage and support our fellow sex workers, our colleagues and friends—we were counter-demonstrated against by a local ‘feminist’ anti-sex work group. ‘Feminists’ rallying against sex workers who had the courage to come forward after brutal violence and denounce it…

    Just as I feel most feminists have turned their backs on us, or worse, attack us at every turn, groups like you awaken my hope and help me go on. Thank you.

    Comment by Anna-Louise Crago — September 19, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  4. Thank you.

    Comment by Thierry Schaffauser — September 21, 2010 @ 5:52 am

  5. […] Read Third Wave’s statement on sex workers here. […]

    Pingback by Young women’s org: “Craigslist wrong target’ « ReelGirl — September 21, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

  6. Thank you Third Wave for publicly supporting the human rights of sex workers and calling for young people and sex workers to speak for ourselves from our own lived experiences.

    Comment by RJ Thompson — October 27, 2010 @ 3:49 am

  7. […] Third Wave has also released a statement (in September 2010) on why we prioritize the expertise of young people in the sex trade. […]

    Pingback by “No Simple Solutions”: Social Justice and the Sex Trade | Third Wave Foundation — May 3, 2011 @ 9:37 pm

  8. “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.”

    You should. Because as long as women’s bodies are commodities and women’s sexuality is a rentable service, the disrespect and disregard for women will continue. Get a spine and speak out against it.

    Comment by Zoe — May 26, 2012 @ 3:42 am

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