Time after time, Charlie has been offered what seems to be generosity; but instead were veiled sexual solicitations. When he was 20, Charlie was approached by an older man who offered him five dollars an hour to clean his house. He agreed and accompanied the man home.
"He told me to take a break, and when I sat down, he started talking all kinds of oddball shit," explains Charlie. "'Have I ever had a dude suck my dick?'" he asked Charlie. "Then he starts offering me money." Charlie refused the $50 he was offered. "Then he started to get up a little too quick for my liking," he continues. "So I knocked him out and stole his TV and VCR." Not unique among Portland's homeless youth, Charlie's story is indicative of the hard choices that life on the street offers young people.
Although Charlie refused to barter sex, many street youth do not. According to a recent three-year study conducted by the Oregon Research Institute, 50 out of 600 homeless youth interviewed--or eight percent--had bartered sex in some form or another.
"A youth could be exhausted, hungry, have been in a fight, kicked out of the shelter, and then say 'OK, I'm going out and making some money," explains Tia Plympton, who works with Outside-In, an agency for at-risk and homeless youth. Plympton continues, "for the sake of instant survival they give permission (to engage in sex trade)." Sex trade within street youth culture--often termed "survival sex"--is difficult to pinpoint, adds Plympton. Moreover, the exact demographic of the perpetrators soliciting these youths for sex is not easily gauged. It can range anywhere from a rich "john" in the West Hills who lets a youth swim in his pool, Plympton believes, to an older youth who has an apartment and will offer a room in exchange for sex.
"There are a lot of really weird people out there with very strange sexual appetites," says Sargent Jim Powell of the Neighborhood Response Team. In a recent sting operation conducted throughout downtown Portland, police apprehended 38 "johns." They were all men, 20 to 60 years old. "All of them had money to spend," says Powell. "You're talking about a lot of money here, $300 to $400 a night," he says, referring to the incentive for homeless youth, many of who live hand-to-mouth.
Living on the streets for most of his teenage years, J.T. Leroy wrote Sarah at age 20, a fictionalized account of his life as a young prostitute. From the age of 10, Leroy lived on the streets with his mother, who was a prostitute herself. Leroy, who spent considerable time on the streets of Portland, said in a recent interview, "I'm amazed when I look back at the things I could do when I was high."
After several years, he claims he became numb to the idea of sexual bartering. Turning a trick, Leroy says, became "the same as going and eating a hamburger."
Nevertheless, Leroy now faces severe trauma caused by his bartering. He says there was a period of time in his early teens when he fantasized about being adopted by every "john" who solicited him. Now, he is often afraid to leave his own house.
Dr. John Noell from the Oregon Research Institute, one of the primary researchers on the study of Portland's street youth, recognized early in his research that although some youths see sexual bartering as a necessity, they are aware of the dangers which are involved. Questions such as "what do you plan to do here [on the streets]? turned out to be very emotional. The answers were overwhelmingly, 'really, I expect to be dead or raped'."