Commercially Sexually Exploited Youth & “Safe Harbor” Legislation

Commercially Sexually Exploited Youth[i] & “Safe Harbor” Legislation

A pdf of this documented can be found here: Fact Sheet on Youth In the Sex Trade 3_16

What is “Safe Harbor” Legislation?


“Safe Harbor” laws are developed by states to rectify the inconsistences between state laws on prostitution and statutory rape laws and human trafficking laws. Sen. Greenleaf has introduced Safe Harbor legislation in the form of SB 851[ii]. It effectively decriminalizes sex work for youth in the trade -however in its current form SB 851 reinforces and formalizes the relationship between the child welfare system, youth engaged in the sex trade, and the criminal justice system. By mandating youth to receive DHS services, this legislation will serve to re-cycle sexually exploited youth through the very systems which have already failed to protect them and meet their needs.


  • There is a lack of research around many elements of “Safe Harbor” laws, including the effects of connecting youth to DHS services.[iii] Thus, it has not been proven that mandating sexually exploited youth be connected to DHS is effective or beneficial in any way for these youth.
  • “Safe Harbor” laws blur the line between social services and the criminal justice system via the arguably unethical tactic of using arrests to forcibly engage youth in services.
  • While “Safe Harbor” laws provide immense benefit in the form of prosecutorial immunity from prostitution-related charges for sexually exploited youth, these laws do not provide immunity for offenses not directly related to prostitution, despite the well-documented facts that sexually exploited youth are more often arrested on charges unrelated to prostitution and are frequently harassed and targeted by law enforcement for a myriad of reasons.[iv]


The Child Welfare & Criminal Justice Systems


Child welfare and criminal justice systems too often fail in their purported mission of providing vulnerable youth with support, safety, and critical services, such as stable housing, education, food security, health care, and protection. For many youth, this failure contributes to entry into survival sex work and makes youth more vulnerable to future exploitation. It is thus illogical, unethical, and counterproductive to force youth to receive DHS services in connection with a prostitution-related arrest. Furthermore, youths’ experience of sexual exploitation within the criminal justice system and by law enforcement officers indicate that legislation making law enforcement personnel responsible for sexually exploited youths’ protection and safety will prove ineffective in serving these youth.


  • 85% of youth in the sex trade are estimated to have prior involvement with the child welfare system.[v] This indicates that the child welfare system has already failed to provide many sexually exploited youth with economic stability and a safe living environment.
  • Youth who have involvement with the child welfare system disproportionately experience the following (as compared to the general population): mental health problems as children and adults; physical health problems as adults; poor educational and employment outcomes; homelessness; engagement in sex work; and contact with the criminal justice system.[vi]
  • Many youth, particularly LGBTQ youth and youth of color, experience violence, exploitation, and harassment from the child welfare and criminal justice systems.[vii]
  • Sexually exploited youth commonly report suffering sexual exploitation at the hands of law enforcement officers, including being forced to perform sex acts on officers and officers ignoring or accusing of lying youth who report sexual exploitation.[viii]
  • Sexually exploited boys and young men are more likely than sexually exploited girls and young women to face criminal charges when arrested on prostitution-related charges.[ix]
  • The criminal justice system often portrays sexually exploited young women and girls as victims[x] rather than recognizing their resilience in their given environment, which disempowers these youth, reinforces their vulnerability, and makes them more susceptible to further exploitation.



Recommendations to Respond to the Sexual Exploitation of Youth in PA:


Safe Harbor Legislation:

  • Pass “Safe Harbor” legislation which provides prosecutorial immunity from prostitution-related crimes for sexually exploited youth but does not mandate child welfare intervention
  • Expand prosecutorial immunity in “Safe Harbor” legislation to include other crimes with which youth in the sex trade are routinely charged
  • Include a non-discrimination clause targeted at service providers that will help ensure LGBTQ youth not only have access to critical services, but that those services are safe, welcoming, and tailored to meet the needs of all youth.
  • Employ youth with experience in the sex trade to help develop and present law-enforcement training
  • Restrict use of funding to meet the material needs of youth, as determined by empirical research, data collection, and youths’ reports of what their experiences and needs are
  • Clarify and specify what “reasonable detention” means when youth arrested on prostitution-related charges are in police custody


Beyond SB851:

  • Address the institutionalized violence in the child welfare and criminal justice systems, namely the disproportionate representation of families of color and low-income families; as well as the lack of appropriate services for queer and transgender youth.
  • Fund voluntary, trauma-informed group therapy interventions for sexually exploited youth
  • Provide funding for programs and homeless shelters specifically for LGBTQ youth
  • Provide funding for programs which work with youth and their families to prevent foster care placement
  • Employ people with experience in the sex trade as youth to develop and implement programming.
  • Fund peer-education programming, developed and led by youth with experience in the sex trade
  • Support peer-led outreach in communities where sex work takes place
  • Involve youth who engage(d) in the sex trade in policy discussions
  • Youth-led trainings for peers and service providers
  • Compensate youth for their role in the above recommendations


For more information please contact Project SAFE:



Learn more about our take on SB851 here.

Young, trans and queer activists reminding us what really stands in the way of healthcare.
photo courtesy of radfag.com

[i] “Commercially sexually exploited youth” refers to youth who trade sex by choice, circumstance, or coercion (i.e., human or sex trafficking) and is used interchangeably with “youth in the sex trade” by authors of this document.

[ii] More can be found at http://tinyurl.com/z8qfhqn

[iii] Shields, R. T. & Letourneau, E. J. (2015). Commercial sexual exploitation of children and the emergence of Safe Harbor legislation: Implication for policy and practice. Curr Psychiatry Rep 17(11).

[iv] Dank, M. et al. (2015). Surviving the Streets of New York: Experiences of LGBTQ Youth, YMSM, and YWSW Engaged in Survival Sex.

[v] Gragg, F. et al. (2007). New York prevalence study of commercially sexually exploited children. New York: New York State Office of Children and Family Services.

[vi] Wildeman, C., & Waldfogel, J. (2014). Somebody’s Children or Nobody’s Children? How the Sociological Perspective Could Enliven Research on Foster Care. Annual Review of Sociology, 40, 599–618. http://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-071913-043358

[vii] Young Women’s Empowerment Project. (2011). Girls do what they have to do to survive: Illuminating methods used by girls in the sex trade and street economy to fight back and heal.

Young Women’s Empowerment Project. (2012). Denied help! How youth in the sex trade & street economy are turned away from systems meant to help us & what we are doing to fight back.

[viii] Berlatsky, N. (2016). “Child Sex Workers’ Biggest Threat: The Police.” New Republic.

[ix] Finkelhor, D., & Ormrod, R. (2004). Child pornography: Patterns from NIBRS. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

[x] Ibid


PA SB 851: A Fact Sheet for Legislators and Advocates


The following post has bee developed by: Kelly Sebetka, Project SAFE & SWOP-Philly and can be downloaded here: SB851factsheet 3_16


What is PA SB 851?

  • This bill is similar to “Safe Harbor” legislation that exists in states such as New York, which have been developed to protect sexually exploited children from prostitution-related charges, while providing specialized social services for youth.
  • If enacted, the bill has many assets, such as providing funding for much needed social services for youth who are trading sex in Pennsylvania.
  • SB 851 has been referred to the Appropriations Committee as of November 18, 2015 in the Pennsylvania State Senate.


The state of Pennsylvania has the benefit of research done in other states that have ratified similar Safe Harbor Legislation. This evidence should be unitized to revise the SB851 in its current form to better address the needs of youth.


Please find the key concerns we have with SB851 with recommendations for revisions.


  • 3082. Statewide protocol.
  • The bill calls on the Department of Human Services to “develop a Statewide protocol to efficiently and effectively coordinate the provision of specialized services to sexually exploited children,” as well as make these services known and available to youth.
  • Recommendation: Youth survivors of the sex trade, as well as at-risk youth, should be formally included in the development of this protocol to ensure the perspectives and priorities of those most impacted.


  • 3084. Safe house for sexually exploited children.
  • Currently, there are no protections of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer (LGBTQ) youth who are disproportionately at risk for commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Recommendation: The inclusion of a non-discrimination clause that will help ensure LGBTQ youth not only have access to critical services, but that those services are safe, welcoming, and tailored to meet the needs of all youth.


  • 3085. Law enforcement training.
  • In its current form, SB 851 names Pennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association as solely responsible for training law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and other appropriate staff on identifying, engaging and providing services to sexually exploited children
  • Recommendation: Law enforcement officers are not trained to provide services to youth, and experienced social services providers should also be included as in the development and provision of these trainings. Additionally, financing should be incorporated for youth survivors of the sex trade should to be included in the development and delivery of these trainings given their unique knowledge of this experience.
  • Recommendation: Youth and/or survivor led-organizations and social service providers should also be included as stakeholders in the training of law enforcement officers. These trainings should include evidence-based practices.


  • 3086. Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund
  • In addition to funding victim’s service, this fund can be used for “an anti-demand campaign and to protect sexually exploited children.” End-Demand approaches to human trafficking recognize youth only as a product to fit a simplistic economic analogy, rather than persons with rights, aspirations and unmet needs, as well as add to the stigma and shame associated with survival sex work. This approach does not have any evidence in changing the behavior of consumers.
  • Recommendation: Funding should be prioritized to meet the material needs of youth in the sex trade. In the event of surplus, prevention campaigns targeting adult perpetrators should be driven by research and evidenced-based practices.


  • 5902. Prostitution and related offenses.
  • Immunity from prostitution related offenses are available after “reasonable detention” for the purposes of investigation. Police investigations should not violate the rights of youth.
  • Recommendation: “Reasonable detention” must be clarified and specified, given the history of violence by law enforcement against youth in the sex trade, especially LGBTQ youth.

If you would like to take action and educate your elected official – find out who they are here.

Please find the complete text of PA SB 851 at http://tinyurl.com/z8qfhqn or contact Project SAFE for more information at 1-866-509-SAFE or safephila@gmail.com


Human Trafficking Bills No. 150076 & 150075 Have Lapsed

We are pleased to announce that City Council Bills No. 150076 & 150075 have lapsed.

We wrote about these bills in 2015. These failed bills are a part of a growing trend of initiatives that encourage individuals to identify and report people in the sex trade to law enforcement. We remain committed to developing legislation that addresses the direct and systemic violence faced by people in the sex trade and supports their individual and collective empowerment.

We would like to thank those who supported us in this effort including SWOP-USA, RSSC-PHL, Incarnation Institute for Sex and Faith and many more supporters committed to listening to and empowering our community.

A message from International Prostitutes Collective that inspires our work.

We will continue to work state-wide on HB262 and SB851. Please email safephila@gmail.com if you would like to learn more about our advocacy work.


Ep234: Project SAFE : Sex With Timaree @safephila

Our Community Educator, Ilza, and Community Organizer, Lindsay had a great time talking to Timaree Schmit, Ph.D. about the work we do and the rights of women surviving street economies.


Content warning for an emotional conversation that discuss direct and systemic forms of violence and stigma.

Sex With Timaree (The Podcast)

In this episode we are joined by members of Project SAFE. Project SAFE is an all-volunteer organization providing advocacy and support for women working in street economies, including sex workers. This was a very illuminating and emotional conversation.

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Want to know more about us?

Please join us for an Information + Training Session
Saturday, February 6
1-4 pm
@ GALAEI: 149 W. Susquehanna Ave, Philadelphia PA 19122

Project SAFE is an all-volunteer grassroots organization providing advocacy and support for women working in street economies. SAFE’s mission is to promote human rights-based public health among women working in the sex and drug trades on the streets of Philadelphia.

This event is open to all genders, all education levels, all professions – pretty much anyone who wants to learn more about harm reduction, sex worker rights, and the mission and practice of Project SAFE.

Please RSVP here. Can’t make it – sign up for future trainings here.

Questions? Send them to safephila@gmail.com or call 1-866-509-7233 x 4.

We hope to see you there!


Learn about PA HB262

We are grateful for Rep. Baker’s efforts to eliminate sex trafficking and commercial exploitation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with House Bill 262. At this time, HB 262 contains stipulations that cause undue harm to those employed at adult entertainment establishments and lack evidence-based approaches to ending trafficking and exploitation. 

Efforts to fight human trafficking in the sex industry should include sex workers as key stakeholders.

We can not solve the problem of human trafficking without investing in developing safe, equitable work options for women and girls.

Please find recent media coverage on HB262 below:








Research on human trafficking and exploitation in the sex industry:

Agustín, L. M. (2007). Sex at the margins: Migration, labour markets and the rescue industry. Zed Books.

Ahmed, Aziza. “Trafficked? AIDS, Criminal Law and the Politics of Measurement.” University of Miami Law Review 70, no. 1 (2015): 96-251.

Curtis, R., Terry, K., Dank, M., Dombrowski, K., Khan, B., Muslim, A., … & Rempel, M. (2008). The commercial sexual exploitation of children in New York City. New York: Center for Court Innovation.

Dank, M. et al. (2015). Surviving the Streets of New York: Experiences of LGBTQ Youth, YMSM, and YWSW Engaged in Survival Sex.

Gragg, F., Petta, I., Bernstein, H., Eisen, K., & Quinn, L. (2007). New York prevalence study of commercially sexually exploited children. New York: New York State Office of Children and Family Services.

Hyland, K. E. (2001). The impact of the protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children. Human Rights Brief, 8(2), 12.

Jana, Smarajit, Bharati Dey, Sushena Reza-Paul, and Richard Steen. “Combating human trafficking in the sex trade: can sex workers do it better?.”Journal of Public Health 36, no. 4 (2014): 622-628.

Koyama, E. (2011). War on Terror & War on Trafficking: A Sex Worker Activist Confronts the Anti-Trafficking Movement. Conference Publications.

Stoltz, J. A. M., Shannon, K., Kerr, T., Zhang, R., Montaner, J. S., & Wood, E. (2007). Associations between childhood maltreatment and sex work in a cohort of drug-using youth. Social science & medicine, 65(6), 1214-1221.

Young Women’s Empowerment Project (2011). Girls Do What They Have To Do To Survive: Illuminating Methods used by Girls in the Sex Trade and Street Economy to Fight Back and Heal. Retrieved from http://ywepchicago.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/girls-do-what-they-have-to-do-to-survive-a-study-of-resilience-and-resistance.pdf

Young Women’s Empowerment Project (2012). Denied Help! How Youth in the Sex Trade &  Street Economy are Turned Away from Systems Meant to Help Us & What We are Doing to Fight Back. Retrieved from https://ywepchicago.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/bad-encounter-line-report-20121.pdf


Philly’s Invisible Youth + Resources for Homeless Youth

Laura Rena Murray (who helped found Project SAFE!) is a journalist, as well as a former homeless young person in Philadelphia. She left home to escape violence, and unable to access shelter services and fearful of police and DHS, she walked the streets, slept in parks, stayed with teachers and friends – she did what ever she could to survive.

Laura eventually graduated from University of Pennsylvania and now works as an award-winning journalist. She recently traveled back to Philly to see what life is like for homeless youth – and it many ways it has only gotten worse. You can read Laura’s report in Al Jazeera here.

If you or someone you know is struggling to find safe housing, please find this resource developed by Laura and stakeholders working hard all over the city.