Demystifying the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Boys - Our Forgotten Victims
Child sex trafficking is a phrase with which most of us are familiar and in many ways a fashionable topic to discuss in the media nowadays thanks to the publicity the issue has generated from celebrities and activists, as well as from websites like Backpage.com and Craigslist which have sparked furor for allegedly facilitating trafficking.
Yet, in thirteen years since the adoption of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) – which defined anyone less than 18 years of age induced to perform a commercial sexual act as a victim of trafficking and not a criminal – one group has been noticeably and consistently ignored in all of the research, policy and practice…young boys.
Just how many young boys fall victim to commercial sexual exploitation (CSEC) in the United States is a contentious issue, particularly because there is still a lack of sound data for both boys and girls and adequate ground-level research in the field to produce accurate numbers. Thus, the child sex trafficking industry to date remains largely unevaluated and misunderstood, according to an Institute of Medicine report released last month.
Moreover, the tendency for organizations and anti-trafficking groups to inflate trafficking statistics and focus attention on women and girls rather than other high-risk groups like boys and transgendered youth, hinders the ability to locate these hidden populations and ultimately results in the misappropriation of resources that should be better spent on actual evidence-based research and rescue operations:
Ronald Weitzer, Professor of Sociology at George Washington University and author of ‘Sex Trafficking and the Sex Industry: The Need for Evidence Based Theory and Legislation, explained to AlterNet how misallocating resources exacerbates the issue:
“NGOs have figured out that they can appeal to the public, donors and funders if they emphasize sex trafficking of girls. These organizations have a vested interest in defining the problem in one way over the other. Using the term women and girls frequently has a very clear purpose in attracting government funding, public and media attention but boys who are victimized are being ignored because most of the resources are devoted to girls,” Weitzer said.
In an increasing effort to address this gender gap, experts have begun to focus their attention on external factors that cause boys to fall under the radar, identifying a number of sociological and cultural reasons that contribute to the problem.
In the recently released study, “And Boys Too” produced by the anti-trafficking group, End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purpose (ECPAT-USA), researchers found through anecdotal evidence that boys enter a life of trafficking around the same time as girls at approximately 11-13 years of age. Of the 40 informants contacted in the ECPAT study, almost half (18) said they would serve boys.
This is consistent with the findings of a previous John Jay College and Centre for Court Innovation study in 2008 entitled, ‘Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in New York’ which revealed that as high as 50 per cent of commercial sexually exploited children in the United States are boys.
Perhaps the most shocking revelation to come out of that study was that while 87 percent of the 4000 sample of children interviewed expressed a desire to exit ‘the life’, a great number of youths perceived their ‘work’ as a curious and fascinating lifestyle, rather than being coerced into it by a pimp. In fact, most boys were not ‘pimped’ in the traditional sense but instead recruited by familial procurers or “friends” who didn’t manage their work per se but rather facilitated them by offering shelter or referring them to buyers in exchange for clients or a share of their earnings.
Such a narrative is certainly not one we hear about very often, particularly in the media, which tends to focus on the conventional pimp that preys upon and kidnaps children off the street. Nonetheless, it is one that licensed independent clinical social worker Steven Procopio who is heavily involved in developing CSEC programs for boys, is most familiar:
“These boys can have pimps, either men or women, but generally as the boy ages out into his late 20s, he may rent an apartment with several other boys in the life and in exchange for those younger boys having shelter and a room to sleep, they work for the older boy. The other scenario is the fee-for-service drive-by-pimp – a guy will drive his car, ask a boy if he wants to make some money for the evening, pimp him out and then at the end of the night he may never see that person again. In other situations, families may pimp out their boys to support their drug addiction,” he told AlterNet.
Similarly, sex trafficker survivor Tina Frundt, the founder of anti-trafficking non-profit Courtney’s House and Frederick Douglass Award recipient from Freed the Slaves says such accounts are in line with her own personal experience as a sex trafficking victim and street outreach service provider:
“Boys can have a 'mama', just like girls call pimps ‘daddy’. Usually the mama is a transgendered male, but it doesn’t have to be like that at all. In a family controlled situation, the trafficker may even be his grandma, who tells the boy ‘we all make money together, we’re in this household and you have to contribute. With boys/transgendered we find that most entered trafficking between the ages of 6 and 10, usually mislabeled as a child abuse case. My organization gets 8-11 referrals per week. How many are boys? I have an even number of everything [it’s 50-50]. The traffickers are online too all over Backpage.com and Craigslist and it’s like kiddy porn but we’re not even looking for boys online or offering them any services, so we’re missing it,” she told AlterNet at “The Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Trafficking on Minors” seminar hosted by Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Centre in New York last week.
Such findings, which illustrate that young males are equally as present as girls in this sex trafficking industry, raise the question - why aren’t we offering boys better protection? Or more importantly, why do they have such little contact with the anti-trafficking community?
According to the ECPAT-USA report, the answer lies in the fact that service providers and institutions incorrectly perceive boys as having more agency to take care of themselves in exploitive sexual situations with policymakers failing to even acknowledge the existence of male sex workers at all.
ECPAT-USA’s Executive Director, Carol Smolenski, who has worked in the industry for 20 years, explained this mindset to AlterNet:
“CSEC has evolved into a discussion about girls, while boys are virtually invisible in scholar discussion. There are cultural and gender reasons as to why we see females as victims of trafficking whereas males are viewed as the perpetrators and dominant in the relationship because they are seen as the primary engines behind sex trafficking as 'pimps' and 'johns'….But boys are also dominated in the same way as girls because of the imbalance of power between adults and children,” she said.
The ECPAT study also revealed that boys are more reluctant to declare themselves as victims or report incidents of exploitation to avoid the potential stigma associated with being viewed as gay.
“Years ago, to hear a young woman speak out against commercial sexual exploitation was almost unheard of and even now girls and boys are still so stigmatized or treated as figures of ill-repute. Over the years, however, we have seen how this has changed for girls and now females can be very outspoken and adamant to shine light on what has been done to them. We have the same trajectory to go through for boys in order to breakthrough the barrier. It is still hard to find young men who are survivors to come forward to discuss this because it’s traumatizing. It is important to support boys and their willingness to be thought of as survivors to bring this discussion along,” Smolenski said.
Likewise, male sexual abuse is still a taboo topic that many people don’t want to talk about let alone read about, as Cameron Conway explained in, “Human Trafficking - The Other 20%”:
"Filmmakers who document the horrors of sex trafficking [say] their work wouldn’t be accepted if it instead highlighted the abuse of boys. ‘The public isn’t ready for it,’ I’ve been told. Truth is, we only speak about the victimization of boys when it’s forced on us by breaking-news scandals like those of Jerry Sandusky or The Boys Scouts of America, he wrote.
The situation is further aggravated by the fact that there are fewer emotional resources and male-focused service providers out there for boys to access, as Anthony Marcus, Associate Professor of Anthropology who was part of the research team in the highly regarded John Jay College New York study and subsequent Atlanta study revealed to AlterNet:
“Boys don’t feel there’s a way or a place to tell their story – as a girl you can be a survivor of trafficking. If you’re a boy, you tend to keep it a secret and suffer in silence. Since we released the study, middle-aged men came forward and said ‘this happened to me and I didn’t know how to process it’. Some were struggling with gay sex or weren’t sure if they were gay whereas sexuality preference was never an issue for girls,” he said.
Procopio adds that most male victims of commercial sexual exploitation have a history of complex trauma that begins long before they even become trafficked, usually beginning with a dysfunctional or neglectful family. Moreover, the chief danger ascribed to boys is HIV rather than violence:
“These boys enter the system for various types of reasons - as a runaway they may come into the system for oppositional behavior or difficulties with the criminal justice system. But the underlying reasons are that they come from homes where they are subject to multiple traumas in their childhood, sexual abuse, substance abuse or domestic violence. In other scenarios, the youth is asked to leave because of gender identification. It is a long process to heal and then to attempt to find services that these boys need in order to get out of the system such as long-term stable housing, education, job-placement, compassionate behavioral health and medical care – is extremely difficult,” he told AlterNet.
Weitzer echoes that sentiment:
“In this country we do not have adequate services for those people who are homeless or otherwise on the street. There is not a lot of focus on harm reduction and few resources are invested into that area by the government. To the contrary, these hidden populations are seen as dispensable and have no clout to demand services. What fills the gap are NGOs but they are scattered around – they are not in every city and can’t handle the workload themselves. They are resource-poor and as a result these people on the street don’t get the services they need,” he said.
Instead, the government continues to focus its time and resources on attempting to criminalize commercial sex, which according to Marcus only aggravates the situation for boys by raising the stakes:
“Boys, under duress from pimps, are much less capable of knowing how to deal with it than girls. If a pimp is coercing a boy, it is much harder for that boy to report it to authorities, particularly if the boy is not certain of the extent of the relationship in the first place. His facilitator may have helped him, or he may have got into it on his own accord. If he goes to a social worker, he’s probably going to have to go to trial and make a clear case that he was kidnapped and it is never a clear-cut case like that. “This ‘all or nothing’ approach is not the best way to coax a victim into the yogurt,” he said.
A better approach to solving the situation, Marcus says, would be to normalize sex work in general in order to gain better access to these high-risk populations:
“For children being controlled by predators who are selling their body for money, the only way people find out about it is by getting information from those in the market. The solution is not increasing punishment or more policing or stricter penalties. Addressing the real life needs of the young people who are mostly aged between 16-22 is the answer. There is no bridge between 16-17 years old who are doing it by choice and the person who is held captive. It makes it harder to find out who is coerced because everybody is afraid of the police,” he said.
...And perhaps with good reason. According to Kate Mogulescu attorney at Legal Aid Society, our police services nation-wide have been dictated by a vicious assault on poor people, which has to also be addressed when looking to resolve the issue of commercially sexually exploited boys:
“Our criminal justice is deeply, deeply flawed. We have to look at this as an arrest and policing issue as well as the underlying issues, rather than deploy the courts to solve the problem. If we’re not thinking about what our policing looks like, we can’t make any progress. Most arrests of minors are made under institutionalized pressure without any training,” she said at the Mount Sinai conference.
Such observations were mirrored in the Juvenile Justice Bulletin of the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that law enforcement officers are more likely to arrest boys engaged in commercial sex rather than refer them to social service providers, as they do with girls.
Procopio says this could be avoided simply by increasing the number of male outreach workers and services, while at the same time educating service providers and law enforcement personnel that males working in this industry are additionally burdened by that constant fear of shame, which prevents them from reaching out.
“In my trainings on this topic, a third of the people I encounter have never heard about it, a third know it's happening but don’t know what to do about it and the other third know it's happening, but don’t have the resources to deal with it,” he said
Clearly, there are a number obstacles that must be overcome before we can adequately address commercial sexual exploitation of boys. In the meantime, it is important we avoid getting caught up in the sensationalist sex trafficking narrative depicted in popular culture which detracts from our efforts to identify and help young boys, transgendered youth and those children of any gender who aren’t enslaved by the traditional “pimp” but sell sex on their own accord.
The global sex trade is ultimately fueled by demand and as long as there is demand for sex-for-hire, it will continue to thrive. Fortunately, because the issue of CSEC is currently enjoying its moment in the spotlight, we have an opportune moment right now to continue to focus our efforts on prevention and increase awareness so that this discussion remains at the forefront while people still care to listen.