Geoffrey Rogers: Boys are victims of sex trafficking, too

Several weeks ago, 58 people were arrested in an undercover sting operation in Minnesota for attempting to buy sex with children or for trafficking children for sex. While the gender of the children has not been disclosed, it’s important to note that it’s not just girls who are the victims of sexual exploitation in this country. Many Americans don’t realize that, across the United States, boys are also commonly victimized by the sex trafficking industry.

A 2016 study commissioned by the Department of Justice found that of the thousands of children trapped in the U.S. sex trafficking industry, about one-third are boys.

And according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the average age a boy enters the commercial sex trade is between 11 and 13.

BOYS ARE INVISIBLE VICTIMS IN SEX TRAFFICKING

Last month, the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking’s safe home for underage male victims of human trafficking – one of the first boys safe home in the country – admitted a new resident. He is 10 years old.

In our culture, we don’t commonly associate males – even boys – with being victims. Because of the shame and stigma associated with sexual exploitation, especially among males, most of the boys we’ve helped won’t identify themselves this way. But I can tell you that whether a victim is male or female, gay or straight, cisgender or transgender, the consequences are just as devastating.

There is no “common” trafficking scenario for boys. But in many cases, a boy who is forced or coerced into the commercial sex industry is desperate. He may feel that his participation is his only chance at survival, or that he has no other options.

There is no “common” trafficking scenario for boys. But in many cases, a boy who is forced or coerced into the commercial sex industry is desperate. He may feel that his participation is his only chance at survival, or that he has no other options.

Take Alex*. He was 13-years-old when he ran away from foster care. At a bus station, Alex met a man who offered to let him stay with him – in exchange for sex. Eventually, he forced Alex to begin having sex with other men to keep his room in the home.

Or take Jonah*. Jonah was 14-years-old when his parents kicked him out of their home for being gay. He was living on the street when two men offered him a room in their house. It wasn’t long before Jonah learned that their generosity was a ploy. He was only allowed to stay if he had sex with the men and their friends.

Kids like Jonah and Alex may sometimes believe that they are willing participants in these scenarios. But the reality is, they are children; they are being exploited; and the men who are exploiting them are, by definition, traffickers. Legally, when someone participates in a sex act with a child in exchange for something of value – whether it is money, food, shelter or drugs – he or she is engaging in human trafficking.

A boy who has been shuttled from one foster home to another for most of his life, or a boy who has endured circumstances terrible enough to run away from, is especially vulnerable. And unfortunately, these are the children who often become victims of trafficking. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that one in seven of the nearly 25,000 runaways reported to them in 2017 were likely victims of child sex trafficking. Of those, 88 percent went missing while in the care of social services.

These boys should have been playing video games with their friends, getting ready for school dances, or thinking about their next history test. Instead, they were having sex with adult men.

Alex and Jonah eventually made it out of the industry to a safe home. But in far too many cases, the trafficking of boys goes undetected, even when they come into contact with police.

Imagine that Jonah was, instead, caught stealing food at a convenience store. Imagine that the police officer arrests him for shoplifting and he is sent to juvenile detention facility – when the reality is that he was starving and had to choose between stealing or sex.

This may not have been Jonah’s situation, but it is the reality for many of the boys we have encountered. We need to train law enforcement in this country to ask the right questions during encounters like this and to understand what underage male trafficking indicators may look like, so that victims receive the resources they need for recovery, instead of punishment.

Victims of sex trafficking need safe, stable homes for recovery that offer experienced care. Our boys’ safe home in Florida, which offers a trauma-based care approach and allows the children to stay as long as necessary, is one model. But we need to replicate this model across the country.

Transgender victims of trafficking need extra support. At our safe home, we care for several transgender girls, born male. It is sometimes difficult to place transgender victims, because they are not allowed in many safe homes for girls. But the reality is that the suffering they have endured is often exacerbated by additional layers of abuse.

We need to end the stigma against male victimization. Boys need to know that they don’t have to be ashamed of what has happened to them. As a country, we need to embrace the boys who have been victimized by human trafficking. They may be runaways; they may be homeless; they may even be addicted to drugs. But they are also only children in desperate situations. Many have never been told they are loved or cared about.

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Acknowledging that boys are also victims, who face their own set of unique challenges, is the first step toward healing, hope and redemption.

When we talk about trafficking, we can’t leave boys out of the conversation.

 *Names have been changed to protect the safety and privacy of the survivors.