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


Rights Not Rescue: Oppose HB241/SB904 in MD

We stand in solidarity with Power Inside and other organizations who seek to challenge the criminalizing approaches to human trafficking.

Opposition Statement to Maryland HB241/SB904-2015

(To go directly to endorsement page: www.surveymonkey.com/s/P6HXV2Z)


 Across the country, there is a growing concern that laws designed to protect victims of trafficking are needlessly criminalizing people who have no role in forcing, defrauding, or coercing others into sex work or other labor. Even adult victims of trafficking are being arrested and treated in the criminal justice system as if they were perpetrators. We, the undersigned, are individuals and organizations who share this concern and believe we can create policy that holds perpetrators of violence accountable without violating the rights of victims and others.

Supporters of HB241/SB904 say this bill is only about making human trafficking a felony rather than a misdemeanor, but in Maryland, forcing, threatening, coercing, or defrauding children and adults into prostitution is already a felony. HB241/SB904 will go even further and make felons of people who may have nothing to do with an adult’s choice to be a sex worker, as well as applying felony charges to individuals who are involved in trading sex for safety or survival.

Those who will be most harmed by HB241/SB904 are those charged based on non-violent and helping acts, such as providing a ride or securing shelter for a consenting adult involved in prostitution. HB241/SB904 would escalate criminalization of vulnerable young adults involved in the sex trade with peers who often work together to further their mutual survival. Even victims of trafficking and intimate partner violence are not excluded from being arrested for and charged with human trafficking. This creates lifelong consequences to people by impeding their ability to secure employment, housing, and higher education. Read more here.

It is for these reasons we oppose Maryland House Bill 241 and Senate Bill 904. The potential for increased collateral consequences to victims, homeless youth, communities of color, and vulnerable women are too great. STATEMENT AND ENDORSEMENT LIST WILL BE SUBMITTED TO MEMBERS OF THE MARYLAND GENERAL ASSEMBLY, to endorse please complete the SM form here:www.surveymonkey.com/s/P6HXV2Z

 power inside


U.S. Sex Worker Rights Activists to Advocate Before UN Human Rights Council

Please see the press release below from our colleagues who are currently in Geneva. Project SAFE is proud to have contributed to Human Rights Violations of Sex Workers, People in the Sex Trade, and People Profiled as Such (2014). We will continue to hold the United States accountable for the violence against people in the sex trade.

                          FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

U.S. Sex Worker Rights Activists to Advocate Before UN Human Rights Council

~Advocates Call for Justice as the UN Reviews the U.S. Human Rights Record~

Geneva– Representatives of U.S.-based sex worker rights organizations will travel to Geneva, Switzerland next week, March 15-21st, to meet with members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), and to call for greater human rights protections. As the HRC prepares for a review of the U.S.’ human rights record later this spring, civil society organizations from throughout the U.S. are traveling to Geneva to educate members about violations of civil, political, economic and social human rights in the U.S.

For Monica Jones, a human rights advocate and transgender woman of color from Phoenix, AZ, the issues she will raise while in Geneva have directly impacted her own life. The target of discriminatory police profiling, Monica Jones was wrongfully arrested under an anti-prostitution police sweep program in Phoenix, called Project ROSE. After a long fight and an appeal, a judge dismissed Monica Jones’ charges earlier this month. However, like many transgender and gender non-conforming people of color, she is threatened by regular harassment by police, who use anti-sex work laws to intimidate and harm members of communities already vulnerable to discrimination. “As long as the police can target my community using these anti-sex work laws,” Ms. Jones notes, “we will never be safe from violence, including the violence of incarceration.”

Sex worker rights advocates participated in the prior review of the U.S. via the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, through which countries’ human rights records are submitted to scrutiny every four years. As a result, the U.S. adopted Recommendation 86, obligating it to increase human rights protections for sex workers. In advance of the review this year, advocates with Best Practices Policy Project, Desiree Alliance, and Sex Workers Outreach Project-NY submitted a report to the HRC, demonstrating that the U.S. has failed to live up to the promises of Recommendation 86.

The report, written in consultation with sex workers and their allies throughout the country, shows that criminalization and stigmatization of sex workers, and those profiled as such, exposes them to rape, extortion, assault, harassment, and discrimination at the hands of law enforcement. Criminalization and stigma can also lead to denial of housing, healthcare, parenting and other reproductive rights, education, incomes, and employment. The report demonstrates that the legal system frequently fails to recognize that sex workers can be victims of crime, and thus denies justice or support to sex workers who seek help. At a recent civil society meeting organized in advance of the UPR by the U.S. State Department, New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance member Janet Duran told officialsthat “most of the violence [sex workers] fall victim to is at the hands of the very people who should be protecting them.”

Advocates are concerned that the U.S. exports stigma and discrimination through policies such as the “anti-prostitution loyalty oath” attached to development funding. “We will ask the world to hold the U.S. accountable for making sex workers vulnerable to human rights abuses,” said J.M. Kirby of the Best Practices Policy Project. “Our country should be promoting human rights for all, including sex workers, not shaming people because of the work that they do.”



Our Letter to Councilman Neilson and the Committee on Licenses & Inspections: Have you sent Yours?

Councilman Neilson has proposed Bill Nos.150076 & 150075. In efforts to stop human trafficking, these bills would ban Philadelphia hotels from renting by the hour and also require employees at all Philadelphia hotels to be trained to recognize signs of human trafficking by the Philadelphia Police Department. Information can be found here fromPhilly.com and Councilman Neilson’s Website. 

Preventing human sex trafficking can only be done in collaboration with individuals who labor in the sex trade. We need more safe, affirming services, not more surveillance.

Please contact Councilman Neilson and urge him to reconsider this bill by leaving a comment on his website or calling his office at 215-686-3420 or Ed.Neilson@phila.gov as well as other members of the Committee on Licenses & Inspection who are now reviewing the bill.


Councilman Neilson and Members of the Committee on Licenses & Inspections:

Thank for your interest and commitment to combatting human trafficking in Philadelphia. I am writing you and other members of the Committee on Licenses and Inspections as the Executive Director of Project SAFE and Board Member at the Sex Workers Outreach Project. Trafficking and labor exploitation are compelling issues for individuals in the sex trade, however it is important to remember that the majority of human trafficking does not happen among those in the sex trade (Clawson et al., 2009; Free the Slaves, 2004).

Project SAFE has served women in the sex trade since 2004. We are a grassroots organization and 100% volunteer. Most of our volunteers work with us because they also have experience in the sex trade and recognize that there is a dearth in direct services for sex workers and victims of trafficking in Philadelphia.

The majority of the women we work with trade sex for money, housing or other goods because of their circumstances – because they are poor, because they need flexible employment to care for their children; some have arrest records preventing them working, or they find that the minimum wage is not enough to support a family. Many of these women are survivors of various forms of violence.

Initially, we served women in Kensington. Since the increase of policing on Kensington Avenue, we – at first – thought our services would be less necessary in the community. Now we know instead this community of sex workers have migrated all over the city, generating more of a need for advocacy and allied intervention.

Sex workers move indoors to work with managers or “pimps,” or online to work out of hotels or rented rooms. Women still needed to make a living, so sex work ensued, undeterred by law enforcement’s best efforts. We now serve women all over the greater Philadelphia area.

We provide health and harm reduction services for women – anything from clean socks to condoms to tampon (our most requested item) – all for free and 100% anonymous. We use a harm reduction approach as opposed to an abstinence-based or zero-tolerance approach. We find for many women sex work is not their first choice, but leaving the sex trade is a process. It takes time, options, and above all compassionate support for the individual.

We support those ready to leave the industry through referrals to shelters, recovery communities and other therapeutic services. For those actively working we help ensure they have access to essential health and safety provisions. We let sex workers know their lives matter because so many people treat sex workers with shame, indignity, and sadly even violence.

Councilman Neilson and Committee members, herein lies our concerns with both of these bills:

  • For those women who are trading sex because they have nowhere else to go, by regulating hotels, you are again taking away another low-cost option. These are not women who can jump on smart phones to look up low prices on priceline.com. Often, a $40 for a few hours of solace is all they can afford, and is the best deal in town when shelters are full, or for many people shelters are more violence, stigma, shame and abuse (Koyama, 2006).
  • While your focus is on regulating sex trafficking, sex workers face extreme amounts violence (see below for several US-based research studies). Hourly hotels, because of affordability and ease of access, are one of the few safe places individuals who are trading sex by choice, circumstance or coercion can go to earn money without going to a client’s private place of residence, where we find a number of violent transactions occur. This bill could potentially may force at-risk women to engage in dangerous and exploitative labor situations in areas where we can’t reach out to help them.
  • I am aware that sex work is illegal in PA. While our organization is supportive of sex workers we ultimately believe that most people would live happier, healthier lives outside of the sex trade. As it stands, however, there is no formal program to help sex workers exit the industry. For these women, their only choices are organizations like ours, or law enforcement. However, utilizing police officers as first-responders to rescue victims of trafficking has been unsuccessful, and tends to replicate the systemic racism of the criminal justice system (Red Umbrella Project, 2014; Strangio, 2014).

I look forward to collaborating about the many stakeholders that could and should be trained to identify human trafficking activities and human trafficking victims both within the sex trade as well as other vulnerable industries: domestic labor, agriculture, hospitality, food service and, sadly, much more.

I hope City Council will consider including the voices of survivors and sex workers. We have intimate knowledge of human trafficking, and how to best be supportive to those victimized by it. We – if possible – want to work in interdisciplinary teams with law enforcement to better the lives of those we all serve in our shared communities.

I encourage you to contact me regarding this issue. I am so grateful that your office and the Committee on Licenses & Inspections are tackling Human Trafficking in Philadelphia. I hope we can respond with evidence-based approaches grounded in data that support survivors and resist further stigmatization and criminalization of victims.



Executive Director, Project SAFE

Consulted Sources

Clawson, Heather J., et al. “Human trafficking into and within the United States: A review of the literature.” US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (2009).

Decker, M.R., Pearson, E., Illangasekare, S.L., Clark, E., and Sherman, S.G. (2013). Violence against women in sex work and HIV risk implications differ qualitatively by perpetrator.

Free the Slaves (2004). Hidden Slaves, Forced Labor in the United States. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20070830033751/http://freetheslaves.net/files/Hidden_Slaves.pdf

Koyama, E. (2006). Disloyal to feminism: Abuse of survivors within the domestic violence shelter system. Color of Violence: The INCITE Anthology, 208-22.

Hail-Jares, K. (Forthcoming) Bad Dates: How prostitution strolls impact client-initiated violence. Studies in Law, Politics & Society

Human Rights Watch (2012). Sex Workers At Risk. Retrieved Fromhttp://www.hrw.org/reports/2012/07/19/sex-workers-risk-0

Human Rights Violations of Sex Workers, People in the Sex Trade, and People Profiled as Such (2014). Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of the United States of America.

Hospitality. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2015, from http://www.traffickingresourcecenter.org/labor-trafficking-venuesindustries/hospitality-0

Murtha, T. (2013, October 30). Activists Campaign Against Philadelphia Judge Who Ruled Rape as Theft. Retrieved February 19, 2015, from http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2013/10/30/activists-campaign-against-philadelphia-judge-who-ruled-rape-as-theft/

Red Umbrella Project (2014). Criminal, Victim or Worker. Retrieved from http://redumbrellaproject.org/advocate/nyhtic/

Strangio, C. (2014, August 5). When Walking Down the Street Is a Crime. Retrieved February 19, 2015, from https://www.aclu.org/blog/lgbt-rights/when-walking-down-street-crime


Let’s End AIDS in Pennsylvania by 2020 – Call Gov. Wolf today!

From our friends at ACT-UP Philadelphia 

Governor Wolf could become the 3rd governor to announce that his state will see an end to the epidemic by 2020. Can you call on him today at 717 787 2500 to make a public statement that Pennsylvania can end the AIDS epidemic, and keep his promises on HIV?

Call the Governor’s Office at 717 787 2500 and tell them,

“Hi, my name is [insert your name] and I live in [insert your city/county], and I’m calling on Governor Wolf to End AIDS in Pennsylvania by 2020, like Gov. Cuomo of New York and Gov. Inslee of Washington have pledged. Pennsylvania has the resources to drastically reduce HIV transmissions and start bringing the AIDS epidemic to an end. I have admired the Governor’s public commitments to fight HIV in a number of ways, and urge him to make a public statement that he will pledge to end the epidemic by 2020, and convene a task force of people living with HIV/AIDS and public health professionals to make a concrete plan to End AIDS in Pennsylvania by 2020.”

When Governor Wolf was still on the campaign trail, his campaign met with members of AIDS service and activist groups across the state and discussed a platform of steps that we believe will pave the way to ending the AIDS crisis* in Pennsylvania by 2020.

Governor Wolf has already agreed to many of our points. Now that he has been sworn into office and is preparing his first budget, make his first legislative proposals, and crafting his first executive statements, it’s time for him to take the first steps towards meeting his campaign promises!

Thank you so much for all that you do to ACT UP, FIGHT BACK, FIGHT AIDS!

*We believe that the science and know-how are there to drastically reduce new infection rates and reduce the viral loads of those already infected to undetectable — if we can make HIV undetectable in the state by 2020, the end of AIDS will be right around the corner.”