By Sandy Skelaney, Open Doors Statewide Director
When I was a young woman surviving the streets of New York City, I knew a boy named Mark*. He was a homeless kid with a heroin habit that would couch surf and hang out with a group of us in the park every day. He was only 14, but to us street youth, he never seemed like a child. Looking at his picture now, his baby face was a dead giveaway.
Mark would sometimes tell us about the “foot guy” that he would visit in the East Village who would give him $100 in exchange for rubbing his feet. He never disclosed more than that, but he did offer to connect other teen boys to the man since he liked “young punk boys.”
It never struck us as strange at the time. We were all just surviving however we could anyway, and we took it at face value when Mark told us that he was in control and was hustling the adult man for money. It was only foot rubs, after all. We would have never called the authorities, either, not after so many of our tribe experienced years of mistreatment by parents, law enforcement, foster care, and the system in general. We did our best to look out for each other.
The Signs Were Clear as Day
Mark never did kick his heroin addiction, though. When I heard he had passed away young, in his early thirties, I couldn’t help but wonder about those early years. After decades of working with sex trafficking victims, the signs are clear as day now, but they weren’t obvious back then.
I often wonder if the “foot guy” was the one who had first introduced him to heroin, the other ways he was in fact coerced, and how far beyond foot rubs his visits went. I think about how many other teen boys, desperate for food, money, or drugs, he introduced to the man.
Mostly, though, I’m sad that he had not healed from his childhood; that our society never made his pain visible, never identified his needs, never offered help. It slipped right by us, too, those closest to him. Mark always played the tough, invincible, man in control, never the victim, and we just believed him. Because that’s what we are trained to believe about boys. Sadly, whatever trauma he experienced in his short life, that had been locked deep inside him, had ultimately buried him.
The More Obvious Victims
Girls and young women are often the first in mind for people learning about sex trafficking. Sexual violence against females holds an enduring place in our imaginations as being as fascinating as it is horrifying. Factual and fictional accounts of female victimization saturate our media and go hand in hand with accounts of rescue and healing. Not surprisingly, community responses to sex trafficking in the United States have almost exclusively focused on girls and women for mental health, advocacy, and outreach services, research, policy initiatives, and more.
But males are trafficked too. Some empirical studies conducted on boys and young men suggest that males may even account for up to 53% of all commercially sexually exploited and trafficked youth. One longitudinal study found that 68% of the 3.5% of adolescents that traded sex for money were male whereas the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported only 13% of sex trafficking victims in 2021 were male or gender-nonconforming victims. Estimates vary because boys are less likely to be recognized as victims by professionals who are able to identify them and call to make a report. Boys and young men are also more likely to minimize their own exploitation to avoid the perceived shame of being a victim and thus don’t self-identify.
Although any child can be vulnerable, the most vulnerable boys are children who have faced abuse or trauma, those in unstable living situations or families battling addiction. While the average age of trafficking for girls begins in the mid-teen years, global statistics suggest that boys are first trafficked at comparatively younger ages.
Cultural Beliefs and Sexism Feed a Skewed Narrative
Because many boys are raised and socialized in families and cultures that promote masculine role expectations such as being a provider and protector, being strong and not showing emotions, and being the sexual aggressor, people are often in denial about male victimization. It’s a common myth that boys and men cannot be victims of rape, or that they should enjoy any sexual interaction no matter what the circumstance or age difference.
Boys are also more likely to reframe exploitative situations as them being in control rather than answering to a trafficker to psychologically cope with feelings of disempowerment and perform socially acceptable masculinity for others.
Cultural beliefs that males are the aggressors and never the victims can prevent boys from speaking out about their experiences or seeking help. They can also make female exploiters invisible to us, preventing traffickers and buyers of sex from being brought to justice. Roughly one in five buyers of sex from exploited boys are women.
Challenging Myths is Essential to Changing the Narrative
There are few shelters and specialized services for trafficked boys and men due to the low recognition that they can be victims. Intervention for sex trafficked boys often first involves the juvenile justice system, as they may be arrested for offenses surrounding the exploitation such as drugs or loitering. Boys experiencing trauma could also be externalizing symptoms through threats or aggression, which would prompt system involvement, but as a defendant and not a victim. These strategies often reinforce the idea that boys can’t be victims and that they should be controlled rather than helped, which can lead to re-traumatization.
National estimates show one in ten boys in the juvenile justice system were also subject to sexual victimization while in custody, continuing the victimization. Once in the juvenile justice system, male survivors of trafficking are more likely to be labeled a “criminal” well into adulthood – and sometimes for life.
We must consider sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, especially of boys and men, a critical public health issue requiring a multi-disciplinary response. Lack of understanding or resources for assisting boys in healing from victimization should not be an excuse for resorting to the criminal justice system to manage the behaviors of vulnerable boys who are coping with their trauma. Bringing traffickers to justice is important, but it won’t help vulnerable boys meet their basic needs or keep them from being re-exploited. For that we need our communities to collaborate and create effective intervention strategies for boys. They may not look exactly the same as we have in place for the girls and women. We may be doing outreach to different locations, using slightly different language or tone, or bringing male-survivor leaders to the table, but if you’re not identifying boys, it’s because your intervention strategy is flawed, not because male victims don’t exist.
Ways Parents, Caregivers and Professionals Can Help
Parents are often advised to keep tabs on their sons’ social media and online game usage. This is a good tactic since these are common ways boys are lured into trafficking. But parents should also keep an eye out for their sons coming home with unexplained gifts or money, as these can be serious red flags.
Boys in the foster care system, homeless shelters, and juvenile justice facilities are especially vulnerable to being groomed by traffickers.. Ensuring these youth have access to well-coordinated, trauma-informed care, and healthy role models and relationships, is one of the best ways to shut down this easy “supply” for traffickers.
One of the key features of our Open Doors Outreach Network is utilizing survivor-mentors as key members of our treatment teams. Our experience shows having someone with lived experience can make a significant difference in helping children when they are ready to leave their trafficker for good.
The language that law enforcement, social services and health professionals use can either aid or hinder boys in seeking help. Since boys are often reluctant to admit being victimized, they may not respond to standard terms in many forensic interviews. Asking boys if they were subjected to “unwanted sexual contact or activity” may be better terms to use than “rape” or “sexually assaulted.” Those who work with vulnerable boys should aim for judgment-free language and understand their standard approaches for girls may not work for boys.
Treatment for sexually exploited children must also be approached from an angle of substance dependency recovery. Both boys and girls can be kept in the cycle of exploitation by use of drugs – either forced or willingly to numb their pain.
Finally, targeted intervention should also focus on the overlap of potential trafficking with boys who have HIV or sexually transmitted infections (STI). Boys who seek HIV or STI treatment may not be asked how they contracted these diseases. Without forcing upon them a narrative of victimhood, boys must be empowered in these treatment centers to discuss their experiences and be made aware of all treatment options and supports available.
Click here to learn more about Open Doors Outreach Network, Florida’s leading 24/7 trauma-responsive network of treatment for sex trafficked children and young adults.