Boston-based GBH News Center For Investigative Reporting has been published an ongoing series called “Unseen: The Boy Victims Of The Sex Trade”—shining a light on the growing evidence of the thousands of young men and boys who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
The extent of this issue is far greater than previously understood by society, and we still have a long way to go before fully understanding it.
Eliza Reock, child sex trafficking program specialist at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, says the number of reported cases of trafficked boys has grown from almost nothing 15 years ago to 7% of the total in 2020.
Specialists say that too often male victims of sexual exploitation go unidentified and unhelped. But why?
Personal shame, stigma, and a world that has trouble seeing boys as victims of sexual crimes at all—particularly gay and trans youth and boys of color—keeps many victims silent and cut off from the resources they so desperately need.
Encouragingly, some have been brave enough to come forward, and we’re just starting to understand the reality and gravity of this issue that impacts young boys in every community.
Here are a few real stories from survivors that humanize this issue.
Thousands of boys exploited and overlooked
Growing up, Chris Bates was openly gay and living with his single mother who worked long hours. He found a community on Facebook and quickly gained thousands of followers. Chris says he first posted photos of himself on the beach which led to requests from adult men for nude photos. He was just 16 years old.
Their demands escalated to riskier requests—including hook-ups at local hotels in exchange for dinners, designer sneakers, and other luxuries. Chris says he was lured by the perception of easy money.
Two years later, he found himself living alone in a rundown apartment, selling sex to a “revolving door” of sex buyers to make ends meet.
Bates, now 26, says, “I really thought I was the bad person selling myself. I didn’t realize that I was a victim.”
At the age of 21, Chris started receiving government aid and was able to stop selling sex to pay his bills. He has since become an advocate for other victims and survivors, and remains vocal within the anti-trafficking community.
Chris says he was overlooked or ignored by doctors, teachers, family members, and police officers. He recalls being arrested as a teen with an older man and the officers didn’t think to ask him if he was ok. Among the men who purchased sex from Chris were teachers, cops, business men, and married men.
While stories like Chris’s are so rarely told, they’re not uncommon. Boys and young men are exploited in the sex trade in ways the public generally assumes apply mostly to women and girls.
While we’re just now seeing more data emerge on this issue, a growing number of anti-trafficking advocates say the number of victimized boys and young men is vastly underreported. There are more boys (and girls) out there suffering, even if they don’t show up in the data.
A national study from 2016 found that more than a third of young people involved in the U.S. sex trade were boys and young men. That same year, a federal study found that more than a third of male homeless youth said they traded sex for something of value—including money, shelter, and food. Of those youth, 85% were Black and brown.
Boys suffer from the same trauma, victimization, and exploitation, yet conversations often focus on girls or young women trafficked by pimps. Many females do go unidentified and underserved, but advocates say male victims get far less attention from the public, law enforcement, and social services.
“We are led to believe that men are perpetrators and women are victims and not the flip side. It’s very frustrating,” says Steven Procopio, a Boston-based social worker.
Gay, trans, Black, and brown males are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, advocates say.
Jose, a sex trafficking survivor who recently won a $1.43 million court judgment against his trafficker in 2019, shares how male victims are often overlooked.
“They are afraid that people are going to think they’re gay. They’re going to think that if they are gay, that maybe they wanted it. A lot of male victims decide not to come forward because of the stigma behind it,” he says.
The internet only compounds the problem—with a slew of misinformation and conspiracy theories about sex trafficking on social media, and trafficking rampantly present online.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic last year, nearly 38,000 reports of suspected “online enticement for sexual acts” were reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children—that’s nearly double the number of reports from the year before.
NCMEC also conducted a 2015 study that found boys are far more likely than girls to share sexually explicit content of themselves when directly communicating with predators.
The market for sex buyers is estimated at a whopping $5.7 billion a year in the United States, and 20% of men who are classified as “high-frequency buyers”—those who purchase sex weekly or monthly—said their last purchase was from a male provider.
To learn more about the young men and boys suffering unseen in the commercial sex trade, check out part 1 of the “Unseen” series, here.
Black, brown, and poor youth are most often trafficked and exploited
Many young men find themselves on the path of homelessness that leads to sexual exploitation—and Black and brown youth are disproportionately at risk.
A 2017 study by the University of Chicago found that hundreds of young people across the U.S are living without a roof over their head or surfing from couch to couch.
“You have kids that are alone, hopeless, don’t have a natural support system, don’t have a family, and that makes them at risk to trade sex for food, shelter, love, care. You’re going to see greater numbers of kids who have experienced sexual exploitation.”
According to a 2019 Massachusetts state report, Black youth are over four times more likely and Latino youth are nearly three times as likely to experience homelessness compared to the overall youth population.
Experts say getting male victims of sexual exploitation to come forward—especially in Latino and Black communities—is particularly challenging. Very few will admit to having been exploited or trafficked, often out of fear of facing rejection for being trans or gay, or being labeled as perpetrators rather than victims.
Too often, young boys are seen as choosing to have sex to survive. However, under federal law, any youth under the age of 18 involved in the sex trade is considered a trafficking victim.
To learn more about the unique vulnerabilities Black, brown, and poor boys experience as it relates to sex trafficking, check out part 2 of the “Unseen” series, here.
The prevalence of sexual exploitation on the dating app Grindr
German Chavez was just 14 years old when he started using the location-based gay dating app Grindr to find adult men to pay him for sex. Now 25 and out of the sex trade, Chavez warns other minors to stay away from the platform.
Grindr, self-proclaimed as “The World’s Largest Social Networking App for Gay, Bi, Trans and Queer People,” claims users have to be 18 or older, but also cautions it makes no effort to verify identities. Users can easily lie about their age to gain access to the service.
A 2018 study by researchers at Northwestern University found that more than half of sexually active gay and bisexual boys between the ages of 14 and 17 find sexual partners on Grindr and other similar apps, and that Grindr is by far the most popular dating app among teens.
Since 2015, more than 100 men across the U.S.—including police officers, priests, and teachers—have faced charges related to sexually assaulting minors or attempting sexual activity with youth they met on Grindr.
Researchers say that many LGBTQ teens are seeking connection in a world with few safe spaces. Some like Chavez use the app to find sex buyers to survive or support their impoverished families. GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting found that too often, the adult men they meet are dangerous and that their encounters lead to sexual assault, exploitation, and trafficking.
Jack Turban, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, says, “It creates an easy place for sexual predators to look for these kids. Grindr is also at fault for knowing that this is happening and not doing anything about it.”
Kathryn Macapagal, a research professor at Northwestern University, conducted several surveys to discover why teens use dating apps like Grindr and found that often gay and questioning teens go there looking for a community in a world where they don’t feel welcome.
Teens also told her why they decided to stop using the app: “There were so many teens that use that exact same phrase, ‘creepy older guys who just wanted to have sex.’”
Chavez says he first turned to Grindr in middle school in hopes of learning from others what it means to be gay. The first man he met, 60 years old, groped him at dinner then brought him home to sexually assault him.
“Just because I was introduced to this one guy who probably isn’t gay and just is a pedophile, it doesn’t mean that that’s how the community is,” he explains. “That’s the scary part about Grindr, that it can be, like, literally a guy who doesn’t identify as gay and just likes kids.”
Experts and advocates have varying strategies about how to approach the issue of platforms like Grindr. Some call for holding companies more account for their role in sex trafficking through reform to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields companies from legal liability for content created by others.
But not everyone believes stricter laws are the answer. Some believe that even with tighter restrictions, teens will likely find workarounds. So rather, the solution is to give them the tools to protect themselves and interact safely with people online.
Sex trafficking survivor and advocate Chris Bates says he wishes he’d been warned about sex trafficking when he was young. “There should be a responsibility on tech companies to make sure that young people are not on their apps. There are 14-year-old boys on Grindr right now.”
Grindr did not respond to multiple requests for comment from GBH News.
To learn more about the risks of sexual exploitation on Grindr, check out part 3 of the “Unseen” series, here.
How traffickers prey on drug-addicted young men
GBH News has uncovered the heartbreaking realities of sex traffickers utilizing young men’s drug addictions to force, trick, and coerce them into selling sex.
A GBH News investigation found that not only are far more boys and young men are victims of commercial sexual exploitation than previously understood, but also that drug addiction and treatment facilities present key recruitment opportunities for predators anti-trafficking advocates say.
“Little did we know that every time he would come out of a rehab facility, they were waiting for him to re-addict him so they could traffic him,” said Lin Marino, the mother of Samuel Marino. Samuel was a trafficking victim whose addiction to narcotics was leveraged again and again by traffickers.
“We thought he committed suicide because he was ashamed of his drug habit,” Lin said, “when I think in reality, he was ashamed of being trafficked.”
Anti-trafficking organization Polaris found that more than 2,200 people — or about 15 percent of those who called its National Human Trafficking Hotline between Jan. 1, 2015, and June 30, 2017—said that drugs or alcohol had been used to induce them into selling sex.
A 2016 study funded by the Justice Department found that out of 1,000 youth who acknowledged participating in the sex trade, 84 percent used drugs and alcohol and 36 percent were males.
“Substance use disorder is often one way victims are brought into or kept in a trafficking situation,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office for years has made human trafficking a top-tier priority. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen traffickers target vulnerable people struggling with addiction who have nowhere to go, no one to rely on, and feel they have no other option to survive.”
To learn more about how traffickers prey on young men with addictions, check out part 5 of the “Unseen” series, here.
Fighting for all survivors and victims
Effectively fighting the ever-prevalent global issue of sex trafficking requires having awareness of all of its contributors and facilitators—including the porn industry—and to all victims.
Boys and men are no exception. Their pain and their stories are real.
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