Young men and boys are trafficked, too

David Heitz

Image courtesy Mat Reding for Unsplash

Many people believe that trafficking is something that happens mostly to women and girls.

But a staggering number of boys in the United States also are trafficked.

The male trafficking victims remain invisible for many reasons. They are traumatized, scared, and embarrassed. Many of them are as young as 10 years old.

Often, boys will not report their abusers no matter how bad it gets.

Their silence is deafening. Just because something isn’t discussed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

So why don’t exploited boys and young men make headlines?

Several factors have resulted in a nation mum about the trafficking of young men and boys. Slowly but surely, the truth is getting out.

What does trafficking look like in boys?

How do boys end up being recruited? Out of desperation, they attach to an adult who offers them the moon. Food, drugs, a place to sleep.

Most are homeless. A study of homeless youth conducted by the University of Pennsylvania showed that 22 percent were propositioned their first night on the street.

The study occurred in Phoenix, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Almost one in five homeless youths interviewed said they had been victims of trafficking.

Sharing a cell phone at first, and then a bed

The first thing the traffickers do is give their victims a cell phone.

But then they find out they must have relations with their “guardians” and their friends or they will lose their room.

Boys desperate enough to listen to someone trying to lure them away come in many forms. Most often, they are in the foster care system and don’t have a stable home life. Sometimes, they might have been thrown out of the house by their parents for being gay.

Most young victims of the male sex trade are not gay, according to a report on child sexual exploitation by the University of Pennsylvania.

Young men to sold to women often are looked upon with envy. But these men suffer the same symptoms of assault as girls and young women sold for their bodies.

There is no difference. To suggest otherwise is sexist, advocates for sexually exploited young men and boys have argued.

The statistics: Young men and boys increasingly exploited in U.S.

Depending on which statistics you look at, young men and boys represent between one third and 45 percent of all trafficking cases in the U.S. The United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking reported in its 2019 annual report that services are grossly lacking for trafficked boys.

Young men to sold to women often are looked upon with envy. But these men suffer the same symptoms of assault as girls and young women.

In a USA Today investigative report, Indianapolis Star reporter Tim Swarens notes that the establishment perpetuates the “only girls” theory of sex trafficking.

Some non-profits that assist sex trafficking victims told him boys are “rarely” the victims of sex trafficking, he reported.

Some cities are worse than others when it comes trafficking boys. A 2008 study by the John Jay School of Criminal Justice showed boys make up 45 percent of trafficking victims in New York City.

A 2016 paper published by EPCAT-USA, a think tank on child exploitation, said the problem of boys being trafficked is grossly underreported.

Where and how does the trafficking take place?

Much commercial exploitation occurs in hotels and motels, truck stops and strip joints. But it comes in other forms.

Some young men are forced to marry women and please them.

Perhaps the exploited person suffers from addiction or untreated mental illness. An addict will do anything for drugs, and the perpetrators keep the contraband coming. Some traffickers purposely addict victims to drugs so they won’t run.

Trafficking boys and men not always about pleasure work

Boys have something more to offer traffickers. They tend to be bigger and stronger than girls and make great laborers.

Forced labor is another common way of trafficking young men and even adult men. Sometimes the perps will tell their victims they must work off a debt.

At the end of the day, victims don’t see what’s going on as trafficking. Many of them don’t pay rent and have nowhere to go if thrown out by their abuser.

How many missing persons are trafficking victims?

According to the Department of Justice, many so-called runaways are trafficking victims. They are lured into going with their abductors with promises of a better life.

Once the perpetrators have their prey, they often move them as far from their old lives as possible. When the rubber hits the road, many trafficking victims don’t even know the real names of their abductors, only their street names. It makes turning them in to authorities difficult.

Trafficked children become so hardened and abused they stop acting like victims. This can make trafficking hard for the untrained eye to spot.

Police can’t always tell what’s going on. Sometimes trafficked young people end up being arrested for crimes committed under duress. For example, someone who shoplifts food may be doing so to avoid having relations with a john.

“While there has been some increased awareness about sexually exploited boys in the U.S. over the past several years, most law enforcement and services providers often miss them entirely or view them as too few to be counted or not in need of services,” the EPCAT-USA paper reported.

Yes, women are abusers, too

Women also exploit young men and boys. But in our society, women always are looked upon as the weaker sex.

Police often wonder if a boy is being trafficked, why can’t he get away? Sometimes the psychological abuse they go through is as disabling as being bound and gagged.

President Trump made cracking down on human trafficking a hallmark of his administration. Busts are being made all over the country almost every day. The FBI catches perps via the internet, also a popular way for traffickers to lure their victims.

According to the Department of Justice, it takes many jurisdictions working together to catch traffickers.

Neglect, disease affect trafficked boys

The Department of Justice reports that many trafficked children suffer from multiple health problems. Transmitted diseases, addiction, infections -- even tuberculosis runs rampant throughout this population.

A study published a few years ago in Annals of Internal Medicine concluded the healthcare establishment has no idea how to rehab human trafficking survivors.

And if that’s true of girls, who we study and talk about, think how true it is for boys. A study in 2010 brought to light that of more than 200 organizations nationwide helping trafficking victims, only two helped boys.

Shutting boys out of sex trafficking discussion: Sexism

Steven Procopio is clinical director of MaleSurvivor, a network of therapists who help boys and young men recovery from trafficking.

“Boys hear that it only happens to girls,” Procopio told the Indianapolis Star reporter. “This is seen as a gender-biased, gender-specific issue.”

Procopio told the Star it’s sexism, plain and simple. “We live in a culture where men are perpetrators and women are victims, and there are no gray areas.”

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO

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