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Sexual Science: Adolescents Exchanging Sex for Drugs and Money

A closer look at survey research on teen "sex exchange" behavior

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Updated November 13, 2006

A recently released study in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections offers a glimpse into the frequency of adolescents exchanging sex for drugs or money in the general population.

While the results of the study are interesting, the paper also offers a classic example of the pitfalls of survey research, and the kinds of biases that impact how data is presented by researchers, how it is pitched to the media, and how the media in turn present it to the public.

Findings of the study

The major finding of the study was that 3.5% of the adolescents surveyed had at one point exchanged sex for drugs or money. The “surprise” was that the majority (67.9%) of those who had exchanged sex were boys. Other findings reported in the study included:

  • 14.6% of boys and 7.9% of girls who have engaged in sex exchange also said that they have had same sex experiences
  • African American youth and youth who are living in “non traditional” family structures are more likely to engage in sex exchange.
  • 10% of boys who had exchanged sex had also physically forced someone to have sex
  • 16.8% of girls who had exchanged sex had been physically forced to have sex
  • Youth who exchanged sex for money or drugs were more likely to use drugs, to have run away from home, to be depressed, and to engage in other sexual risk behaviors.
  • The median number of times youth exchanged sex for money was one.

Problems with interpreting the data: When is a same sex experience not a same sex experience?

Based on the finding that only 14.6% of boys and 7.9% of girls who have engaged in sex exchange also said that they have had same sex experiences, the researchers propose that the majority of the youth are engaging in sex exchange with members of the opposite sex.

There are several flaws with this interpretation. For example, while there is plenty of research describing male youths exchanging sex for money with older men, there is almost no documentation of male youths ever exchanging sex for money with women.

The researchers also fail to consider the possibility that when youth are answering the question about sex exchange they are not distinguishing who they do it with, and are only answering the same sex question in relation to their personal (e.g. not for profit) sex lives. [p[]Confusing the issues of sexual behavior for fun and sexual behavior for money or necessity is not uncommon. For example men who have sex with men while incarcerated often do not report those experiences as part of their sex lives and rarely identify themselves as engaging in same sex behaviors. Similarly male youth who regularly have sex with men for money may identify themselves as heterosexual, and not report that behavior unless asked specifically about having sex for money.

Reporting bias: which youth are at greatest risk for sex exchange?

Both the study and the accompanying press release highlight the race and family status of youth who engage in sex exchange in a particular way.

From the press release:

The likelihood of exchanging sex for drugs or money was higher among those who were of African American ethnicity, those who lived in a non-traditional family set up, and those whose parents had not gone on to further or higher education.

While the above statement is true, it is also true that the majority of youths who engaged in sex exchange were white (61%), and came from two parent families (67%). The statistic reported by the researchers does offer greater comparative context, and points to an area of greater risk that public health officials should address, but it also puts the focus on two groups who still represent only a third of all youth engaging in sex exchange.

The press release also offers misleading data about forced sex:

One in 10 of the boys had forced someone else to have sex with them, while around one in six of the girls had been forced into sex.

What the press release fails to mention is that boys were only asked about forcing girls to have sex, and girls were only asked about being forced to have sex, denying the existence of young men who are sexually victimized and young women who are sexual aggressors.

As a final note, it seems odd that the researchers chose to completely remove this study from a discussion of sex work. This may have been out of necessity based on the original data, but clearly some of these youth are engaging in sex work, yet the term is never used, and research from that area is only briefly referenced.

Reference:
Edwards, J.M., Iritani, B.J., & Hallfors, D.D. “Prevalence and Correlates of Exchanging Sex for Drugs or Money Among Adolescents in the United States.” Sexually Transmitted Infections doi:10.1136/sti.2006.020693, published online 10 Aug 2006.

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