Survival sex can occur anywhere shelter is unavailable for homeless women in need
In the Lehigh Valley, affordable housing is difficult to find. Due to unforeseen and often unpreventable circumstances, many people find themselves without assets or support and are forced out of their homes and onto the street. Although there are programs and organizations devoted to helping these members of the community, the available resources are often scarce, sometimes leading already-vulnerable women to become even more vulnerable.
One solution several of these organizations offer is emergency housing, but beds are not always available due to the high volume of those in need of shelter. Additionally, according to Brett Feldman, former director and founder of the Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) Street Medicine Program, the valley offers 120 beds for men but only 22 for women. Feldman added that when working at Lehigh Valley Hospital, he was part of a team that conducted research on homelessness, concluding that, statistically, the number of homeless men and women is equivalent, making the unequal number of beds an even larger issue.
“When you talk to the women and you look at the national data, you see that when you’re a woman, you always have one thing that you can trade for housing and food, and that’s yourself. We call that survival sex. It is not prostitution and it is extremely common in our population,” said Feldman.
Although the lines between survival sex, prostitution and human trafficking can seem indistinguishable, Executive Director of the Valley Against Sex Trafficking (VAST) Christi Domingues explained that there are slight differences.
“Survival sex is sex in exchange for having basic needs met,” according to Domingues. “This is what a lot of human trafficking victims are struggling with and doing the work for. In exchange for sex, their trafficker keeps their head covered, gives them some food and sometimes some perks. Eighty to 90 percent [of prostitution] is controlled by a pimp, which means force, fraud or coercion, which is the definition of human trafficking.”
In Feldman’s experience working with members of the homeless population, he found that many women would rather be sheltered and sexually assaulted by the same man every night than sleep outside and potentially be assaulted by a different man every night.
In the cases of women with children, survival sex can become a way of protecting a child. Though 22 emergency beds for women make shelter scarce for those who need it, there are no emergency shelters in the Lehigh Valley that keep families together. When families go to an emergency shelter, the men are sent to a male shelter and the women and their children stay at a separate shelter, Feldman said. In some cases where shelters may not be an option, women will engage in survival sex to give their children a safer place to sleep than the street.
Survival sex can occur anywhere shelter is unavailable for homeless women in need, but the Lehigh Valley is particularly susceptible due to its positioning on the sex trafficking highway and proximity to New York City and Philadelphia. The problem is enough of a concern that an agent from the Department of Homeland Security is assigned specifically to the Lehigh Valley.
Seeing a desperate need for change in this situation, Domingues said one way to start the process is through awareness, training and victim outreach, which is methodology in line with VAST’s mission: to empower survivors and encourage the community “through collaboration, education and advocacy.
“Movements of change [are] being initiated: be aware of this happening, examine why it’s happening, change social service provision for victims to make help more accessible, talk about the market demand for commercial sex [and] the lack of prosecution of people who buy sex,” she said.
In addition to acknowledging the need for more emergency shelter beds for women, Feldman echoed the beliefs of Domingues, encouraging members of the community to become aware and talk about these issues.
“People are talking to each other, people are trying to collaborate; it’s only a matter of time until things get better,” said Feldman. “It’ll happen.