In the fight to end sex trafficking, oftentimes, a perception of what a trafficking victim looks like can jump to mind: young, foreign, and female.
She does exist, and there are many victims of trafficking like her, but she is not the only one.
Human trafficking affects all countries and genders. Most often, we associate men and boys being trafficked into hard labor and women and girls trafficked into the sex trade, but there is a risk in solely imagining these gendered stereotypes.
Similarly to how there is no single profile of a trafficker, there’s no single profile of a sex trafficking victim—child or adult, from a foreign country or your native city.
But most often, females are only imagined as victims. In the majority of scholarly literature around sex trafficking, females are described as the victim while men are either the trafficker or the buyer, and while that is often the case more often than not, another reality needs to be acknowledged: men and boys are victims of sex trafficking, too.
An under-reported problem
It’s generally reported that more females than males are victims of sex trafficking across the globe. In 2008, the International Labor Office estimated the number of women and girls sexually trafficked was 98%, implying men and boys made up as little as 2% of victims.
But that same year, researchers reported boys account for about 45% of child trafficking victims in New York City, while another study in 2016 found that boys make up about 36% of children in the U.S.-wide sex industry. Pretty significant stats, right?
The range of estimates comes down to underreporting, and the underreporting comes down to stigma. This is a problem because as organizations try to fight this industry, support services will continue to be in low supply for male victims simply because many people do not realize how they are involved and victimized.
The stigma around men and boys
Until the last two decades, research framed boys and young men as “deviants” with a desire for quick sex and money. They are more likely to be perceived as gay, promiscuous, exploiters, pimps, hustlers, or buyers, bypassing their need to self identify as a victim who can seek help.
In a research paper by ECPAT-USA, several informants said law enforcement had little understanding of commercially sexually exploited boys. For example, they believed boys are not pimped, and therefore not in need of services. See how damaging this line of thought can be?
One officer referred to a 15-year-old male found in a motel trafficking sting as a “sex addict” and to another who was “just doing it for the money.” When filing human trafficking reports, they would often ask, “Why couldn’t he get away? He’s a boy.”
Related: How Porn Fuels Sex Trafficking
This attitude prevents these young men and boys from being properly assessed for sexual exploitation and identification as victims.
The stigma that males should be strong enough to fight off traffickers and thus they cannot be victims also inhibits these men and boys from speaking up when exploitation does happen. Like many female victims of exploitation, they too run the risk of not being believed, and in countries like Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, they face a strong taboo of men having sex with another man, even in cases of force and rape.
Sometimes people associate male prostitution with being gay, instead of being trafficked. Steve Pricopio from Surviving Our Struggle—an aftercare center for young male trafficking victims—said this is incorrect. “It’s not an issue of sexual orientation… They think that the boys are in control of what they are doing. They don’t see them as victims.”
Porn drives the demand
Sex trafficking is an ever-present and growing issue in our society, but here’s the more uncomfortable side of that statement: it means more people are okay with supporting it with money, clicks, views, and downloads.
It’s difficult to imagine what could bring a person to believe their desires are reason enough to abuse. But chances are, the buyers aren’t thinking about their actions that way—it’s likely they have lost empathy and feel entitled to the sex they desire.
One of the ways this happens is through porn consumption. Such an escalating habit can lead consumers to become unsatisfied with digital over real, seeking more content that’s and more extreme, and sometimes justifying their desire to act out what they’ve seen in real life.
Essentially, porn is often the gateway to the purchase of sex from exploited humans—men, women, boys, and girls. The two are undeniably linked. Porn fuels the demand for exploitation, but it also legitimizes and normalizes the violence that trafficking victims often experience.
While much of research that exists focuses on how pornography influences male consumers to seek out trafficked females for sex or consume pornography made from exploited individuals—not that the consumer can easily tell if someone is exploited or not—we can assume a similar link is present in the trafficking of men and boys because the demand exists.
Knowledge is power, and being aware of the facts is an important step in decreasing the demand for sexual exploitation and porn, and helping to eliminate sex trafficking.
Anyone can be trafficked, regardless of gender. Just as a society we want to protect female victims of this abuse, we also need to recognize that there are men and boys who are victims too, who no longer should suffer in silence.