The face of human trafficking, for the public, is typically female and young. There is an assumption that females are the victims and males are perpetrators. But is this mindset keeping boys and young men from getting the help they need to escape human trafficking?
The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange believes this is the case. While it appears that males make up about half of human trafficking victims, the numbers may be higher, especially for those involved in sex trafficking. This type of crime, when it involves boys, is often underreported, says one expert.
The percentage of male victims may be higher due to the underreported and subversive nature of the crime, said Summar Ghias, program specialist for the Chicago-based International Organization for Adolescents.
“We’re conditioned as a community to identify female victims more readily,” she said, “because that has been the more prominent focus of the anti-trafficking movement.”
When males who are being sex trafficked are arrested, they are often arrested for things like petty theft, and the trafficking is overlooked. Thus, they don’t get the help they need. Assumptions are made that boys are stronger physically, so they could leave a situation if they wanted, or that the boy is homosexual and therefore is not a victim.
Many people also mistakenly associate male prostitution with homosexuality, when a majority of the trafficked youths are not gay, said Steven Pricopio, program coordinator of Surviving Our Struggle, an aftercare center for young male trafficking victims.
“When people think about male prostitution, they think of it as gay phenomena, that [the boys] are in control of what they’re doing,” Pricopio said. “They don’t see them as victims … It’s not an issue of sexual orientation, it’s an issue of right circumstances which bring you to exploitation or the vulnerability that brings you into being sexually exploited.”
Male victims, like females, tend to come from dysfunctional or abusive homes. Often they leave home or are kicked out, and are simply trying to survive. Their sense of shame and a lack of education in law enforcement in identifying and helping male trafficking victims make it difficult for boys to get the help they need.
Victims are unwilling to come forward to service providers, which may include doctors, social workers, and probation officers, due to feelings of shame and stigma.
An 18-year old male from Bronx in the study reflected on the guilt he associated with his work: “My mother taught me a lesson. If you’re ashamed a sumpin’… don’t do it, you know? … but at the same time, when you’re in the position that I’m in, it’s hard to live by it.”
Others are concerned that the service provider will try to criminalize their social network, said Anthony Marcus, who helped draft the John Jay study [a 2008 study by John Jay College]. The paradigm of child sex trafficking is unappealing to many victims, who may have children themselves and use prostitution for survival, he said.
“A lot of them don’t see themselves as children and don’t see themselves as victims and don’t see themselves as having suffered abuse so it puts a damper on the desire to go to any service professionals,” Marcus said.
Even if males are identified as victims, there is a severe shortage of aftercare services for them. Many use homeless shelters as a place to stay, but homeless shelters typically don’t offer things like educational services, vocational training, help with housing, etc. Since sound statistics regarding males and human trafficking are hard to come by, it makes it difficult for organizations to get funding for programs. Not many people want to support a cause that doesn’t have definitive data.