Transactional sex – survival sex, sexual exploitation, and trafficking – among youth can result in significant and lasting harms. It is illegal, dangerous, stigmatized, and hard to study. Most research uses non-probability samples because representative sampling is nearly impossible, and there is a paucity of population-based data. What is the prevalence of transactional sex among Minnesota high school students? How do rates vary by demographics, relevant experiences, and correlated health indicators? This research study uses data from the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey (MSS), a tri-annual surveillance program administered in public school districts. The analysis sample included 71,007 students who answered the question (y/n): “Have you ever traded sex or sexual activity to receive money, food, drugs, alcohol, a place to stay, or anything else?” Overall, 1.4% of high school students reported trading sex. Similar rates characterize cisgender girls (1.4%) and boys (1.3%); a higher rate distinguishes transgender students (5.9%). Rates vary by race/ethnicity, geography, other relevant experiences, and health indicators; e.g., among youth who reported substance use, 15% also indicated trading sex. Using the rate of 1.4% and Census data, researchers estimate that at least 5,000 Minnesota youth are involved in transactional sex. This is likely an undercount. The MSS is administered on one day during school. Students most likely to answer yes are also the students least likely to attend school due to bullying, expulsion, push out, and more. This data is a call to action and helps answer a long-standing debate about actual extent of transactional sex among youth people.
Lauren Martin is an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing. Trained in Anthropology, she conducts qualitative, mixed-methods, collaborative and action research on transactional sex, exploitation, and trafficking. In partnership with communities, her scholarship contributes to policy, prevention, and intervention, building on strengths and reducing harm.
Caroline Palmer is the Safe Harbor Director at the Minnesota Department of Health. Safe Harbor is a multi-sector, statewide response to human trafficking, with a focus on the sexual exploitation of youth. She is a Bloomberg American Health Initiative Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Nic Rider is an assistant professor and licensed psychologist at the Program in Human Sexuality, University of Minnesota Medical School and co-associate director for research at the National Center for Gender Spectrum Health. Their interests include identity development and exploring intersectional experiences, resistance, and resilience on sexual, physical, and mental health.