A new study conducted by D.C.-based think-tank Urban Institute in conjunction with food bank network Feeding America has uncovered an alarming and growing problem among teenagers across the U.S.: Many teenage girls are trading sex or engaging in sex work because they are “food insecure.” The study looked at groups of teens between the ages of 13 and 18 — divided along gender lines — in 10 poor communities throughout the U.S. Large cities, like Chicago and Los Angeles, were analyzed along with rural areas, like one in North Carolina and another in Oregon. The results astonished the authors of the study. Regardless of geographic location, similar responses were coming back from teens in the focus groups. The study, titled Impossible Choices found many girls responding that they are resorting to “transactional dating” arrangements with older men because they often don’t have the means to ensure that they eat regularly. Boys in the same age group, the study found, are likely to resort to shoplifting and dealing drugs, but some also resorted to selling sexual favors.
“Even for me, who has been paying attention to this and has heard women tell their stories for a long time, the extent to which we were hearing about food being related to this vulnerability was new and shocking to me, and the level of desperation that it implies was really shocking to me,” Susan Popkin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and the study’s lead author, said. “It’s a situation I think is just getting worse over time.”
The teens who took part in the study recounted similar tales of girls, some as young as 11 years old, dropping out of school to do sex work so they could help their families put food on the table. Many, the report said, rationalized their actions as being done out of strict necessity. One girl, whose identity was kept anonymous, said, “It’s really like selling yourself. Like you’ll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat.”