Boys — the silent victims of sex trafficking

More than 1 million children, according to the International Labour Organization, are exploited each year in the commercial sex trade. IndyStar columnist Tim Swarens, through the support of a Society of Professional Journalists fellowship, spent more than a year investigating a lucrative business where children are abused with low risk to buyers or traffickers, despite tougher laws and heightened international awareness of the scourge. Google, Eli Lilly and Co., and Indiana Wesleyan University provided additional support for this project.
N DIEGO, Calif. — The silence nearly killed Tom Jones.
As a child, Jones was raped, abused and sold to men for sex. The brutality ended when he was 15. But, like many male victims, Jones didn’t seek help, didn’t tell anyone about the trauma he had suffered.
Instead, he buried his pain and shame deep inside, carrying the burden alone and in silence for another 15 years.
Silence did not equal acceptance. “I’m lucky, because I shouldn’t be here,” Jones says. “I put a lot of focus and energy into taking my own life.”
Two suicide attempts failed. And Jones says he was preparing for a third attempt when he decided finally to reach out for help.
Even then, years after the exploitation ended, it was difficult for Jones to acknowledge what he had suffered. “I was very ashamed to talk to a therapist who I knew cared about me,” he says.
“Key informants pointed out their belief that law enforcement has very little understanding of (commercially exploited) boys. For example, when filing human trafficking reports, they would often ask: ‘Why couldn’t he get away? He’s a boy.’ One informant said she was forced to explain to law enforcement professionals before filing a report that boys and young men can be bought and sold just like girls.”
Tom Jones’ tortuous journey — from male child trafficking victim to adult survivor — is far more common than is often acknowledged by anti-trafficking organizations, law enforcement and the news media.
“Boys hear that it only happens to girls,” Steven Procopio, clinical director of MaleSurvivor, a network of therapists and survivors,says. “This is seen as a gender-biased, gender-specific issue.”
The United Nations’ International Labour Organization reinforced that mindset in September when it released updated estimates on the number of human trafficking victims worldwide. The ILO reported that of the 4.8 million people forced to work in the sex trade in 2016, virtually all were girls and women.
As I reported on this series, some nonprofit leaders involved in the fight against trafficking in the U.S. delivered the same message. Boys, they told me, are rarely the victims of commercial exploitation.
“It makes me very angry,” Jerome Elam, a male survivor who is CEO of the Trafficking in America Task Force, said. “The UN and others are not acknowledging the problem. They’re just not getting it in terms of the sex trafficking of males.”
Multiple studies support Elam and Procopio’s contention that boys are exploited far more often than is commonly understood.
In 2016, a Department of Justice-commissioned study, Youth Involvement in the Sex Trade, found that boys make up about 36% of children caught up in the U.S. sex industry (about 60% are female and less than 5% are transgender males and females).
In 2008, researchers from the John Jay School of Criminal Justice reported that boys account for about 45% of child trafficking victims in New York City.
In 2013, an ECPAT-USA report concluded that the “scope of (the commercial sexual exploitation of boys) is vastly under reported.” The researchers also cited the need to better identify male victims, to raise awareness about the harm caused by commercial exploitation and to provide more services designed specifically for boys.
But years later, little progress has been made either in identifying or providing help for male victims.
The result is that tens of thousands of boys and men continue to suffer in silence. And like other victims of sexual abuse, they’re at greater risk of depression, suicide and chronic diseases. They’re more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. More likely to land in prison.
Relationships also suffer, with spouses and children frustrated and perplexed by their loved one’s bouts of depression, random anger and emotional numbness.
“They haven’t told even their families what they’ve been through,” Jones says.
“We were met with more resistance because we are helping boys. But we owe it to the world to see that boys are provided with the care they need.”
— Chris Smith, co-founder (with his wife, Anna) of Restore One, a North Carolina-based nonprofit providing treatment for trafficked boys.
Why do boys continue to be overlooked in efforts to combat trafficking? Male survivors and their advocates have strong opinions about the answers.
“We live in a culture where men are perpetrators and women are victims, and there are no gray areas,” Procopio of MaleSurvivor said. “There’s a lot sexism involved with this issue.”
Boys don’t fit the popular script of who is and isn’t a victim of trafficking. Liam Neeson didn’t bust through doors in the Taken movies to rescue his son. Journalists seldom write heartbreaking stories about 15-year-old boys sold on Backpage.
And even in 2018, Procopio notes, a dangerous myth persists that an adolescent boy who is exploited by an adult is somehow “lucky” to get the sex that every young male supposedly craves. In reality, male victims of commercial exploitation and sexual abuse suffer the same types of trauma as females. Their pain is just as devastating. There’s nothing lucky about it.
Elam points to another misconception that pushes boys into silence: The fear that the abused will become an abuser. A majority do not perpetuate the crime. Less than the general population. Still, an unfair stigma that they pose a danger to children is often attached to male survivors.
All of which makes it harder for boys and men to break the silence.
“We’re not inclined to come out and say we were raped as children because we’re afraid we’ll be ridiculed,” Elam says.
The reluctance to speak up is understandable, but it carries damaging consequences. Victims feel even more isolated. Government agencies and nonprofits are reluctant to provide services for an invisible population. Police, teachers and others in regular contact with youth don’t receive training in how to identify and help male victims.
In many ways, it’s a repeat of how female victims were treated a decade ago. Although we still have far to go, we’ve thankfully come a long way in better identifying, assisting and accepting girls exploited in the sex trade. But we’re failing our boys.
Procopio and others say another form of bias — discrimination against gay and transgender males — also helps explain why boys aren’t acknowledged as victims and offered help. “There’s a lot of homophobia. But this issue is not about sexual orientation,” Procopio says. “Trafficking is about power and control.”
Gay and transgender youth are more likely to become trafficking victims, according to the Polaris Project, in part because family conflicts push many of them to run away from home. Once on the streets, runaway kids, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Gay and transgender youth also are at significantly higher risk of physical violence than others working in the sex trade.
Yet, according to the 2016 Youth in the Sex Trade study and other research, most male child trafficking victims aren’t gay. The majority are heterosexual boys manipulated or forced into having sex with men. As a consequence, Procopio notes, it’s common for straight male victims to question their sexual orientation long after the abuse ends.
In Southern California, Tom Jones, after surviving what he calls his era of silence, now pours his energy into reaching other men struggling with the aftermath of trafficking and abuse.
Jones leads a loose network of male survivors who are at various points on the path to healing. He encourages the men to enter counseling, but many aren’t ready for that step. In fact, he’s met only about a third of the network’s members face to face. Many of the survivors are not yet ready to engage in anything more threatening than sending and receiving text messages.
One man, despite years of interaction with Jones, won’t acknowledge that he suffered the abuse he describes. “He says it happened to a friend,” Jones says.
For many victims, the shame and guilt are still buried too deep to speak the truth, to shatter the silence that holds so many men as emotional prisoners.
But Jones, Elam and others keep speaking out on victims’ behalf, keeps shouting the message that boys are exploited in the sex trade far more often than many want to admit.
“When you wake up to it, when you see how big it is,” Jones says, “I don’t know how you turn away.”








1 in 4 men are sexually abused or raped before they become adults,

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