The ‘Would You Rather’ Question no one should answer

The ‘Would You Rather’ Question No One Should Answer

***Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual violence

Would you rather live with someone who is sexually abusive, or live on the streets?

Would you rather trade sex for some money to buy a meal and rent a motel room for the night, or live in such dire poverty that you don’t remember when your last proper meal or night of sleep was?

No one should have to make these choices, but unfortunately many youth experiencing homelessness do. Sexual violence is a common reason why many youth leave home, but also a frequent experience for homeless youth. Sexual violence is a broad term that includes any violence (physical or psychological) carried out by sexual means or by targeting sexuality, including but not limited to: sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, stalking, incest, trafficking and sharing sexual photos without permission (SACHA, n.d.)

Youth experiencing homelessness face increased risk of violence, including sexual violence, because they lack safe shelter. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 21-42% of homeless youth have reported sexual abuse, compared to 1-3% of youth in the general population (NSVRC, 2014). Young women, particularly racialized women, and individuals in the LGBTQ2S+ community experience disproportionate rates of sexual violence. Extreme poverty often leads homeless youth to trade sex for food, housing and money in order to meet their most basic needs. It is estimated that one in three homeless youth participate in survival sex. “Engaging in sex as a means of survival increases exposure to potential trauma for these youth and increases their vulnerability to violence, rape” (NSVRC, 2014, p. 8). Experiences of sexual violence can trigger or worsen mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and can negatively impact a youth’s ability to build trusting relationships in the future.

Image by Freeze Violence

Image by Freeze Violence

Many of the residents of Horizons for Youth experience sexual violence before living at the agency. Horizons for Youth’s Case Manager, Rob Chalkley, explains that many residents, particularly young women and youth in the LGBTQ2S+ community, ‘couch-surf’ before coming to the shelter. ‘Couch-surfing’ is a type of hidden homelessness where youth crash with various acquaintances to avoid coming into the shelter system or living on the streets. While ‘couch-surfing’ does not sound dangerous, youth in these situations face high rates of depression, suicide and sexual violence (Council to Homeless Persons, 2018). Rob says that many ‘couch-surfers’ are forced to trust people they normally would not because they are in survival mode. These homes often become unsafe and youth flee when violence and abuse escalate. In addition to ‘couch-surfing’, many young homeless women also have high rates of intimate partner violence and abuse. Unfortunately, at-risk women commonly remain in abusive relationships because they are scared of losing their homes (Gaetz, O’Grady & Buccieri, 2010).

Rape culture, an environment in which sexual violence is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture has caused many of Horizons for Youth’s survivors to internalize ‘victim blaming beliefs’, meaning that

survivors come to believe that they are responsible for the crimes committed against them

(Gaetz, O’Grady & Buccieri, 2010). Many survivors, therefore, do not ask for support to help them heal from past trauma. Rob also explains that ‘couch-surfing’ in unsafe situations can make women accustomed to violence and abuse and consequently, they are not always able to identify unacceptable or abusive behaviour.

When youth inform Horizons for Youth’s staff members that they have experienced sexual violence, there are a number of important ways that the agency supports these survivors. Firstly, Horizons for Youth ensures their physical needs are met including shelter, food, clothing and medical needs, so they are able to focus on their emotional needs and mental wellness. “If youth are worried about where they are going to sleep at night or if it is going to be safe, this adds to a lack of ability to focus on other things in their life — such as healing past trauma — because they are living through a current trauma” (NSVRC, 2014, p. 8). The provision of basic needs allows all residents, regardless of whether they have experienced sexual abuse, to leave survival mode and focus on their future goals and wellness.  

Horizons for Youth also uses a trauma-informed approach in their work in which staff members strive to create a caring, understanding, non-judgemental and safe environment where youth feel comfortable talking about their past and present experiences. Rob emphasizes the importance of respecting youth in all stages of their healing journeys. If they are still engaging in survival sex, it is important to not shame them for these behaviours. The National Sexual Violence and Resource Center advocates for social workers to honour the survival skills youth have learned, including denial, disassociation, over-pleasing, self-blame, lying that it was consensual or avoidance. It may take a long time before survivors are ready to learn healthier coping strategies, so in the mean time, it is critical to maintain an open dialogue. Rob engages youth in conversations about healthy and unhealthy sexual practices and abuse and encourages them to evaluate their own situations and draw their own conclusions.

In addition to helping survivors heal from sexual violence, it is also important for individuals, particularly cis-men, to become allies in the fight against sexual abuse. Rob has previous experience designing bystander training programs at Wilfred Laurier University, which teach individuals how to identify and intervene in situations that may lead to sexual assault. At Horizons for Youth, he is in the process of preparing a bystander intervention training workshop and has plans to begin a male ally group, which is intended to help men take pride in creating safe and welcoming spaces for everyone.

Sexual violence is fundamentally caused by inequitable power relationships. Young women and individuals in the LGBTQ2S+ community experience disproportionate rates of sexual assault and harassment because of their less privileged position in society. We can all help create a safer society for everyone by dispelling myths associated with sexual assault, being an ally to survivors and intervening in situations that could result in sexual violence.

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 Written by Stacey Murie