by Ashley Greve, Associate Director of Advocacy
If “male prostitute” is an uncommonly heard term, then “male sex trafficking victim” is rarer still. If you looked at the early literature, legislation and media coverage of sex trafficking, it would appear that the commercial sexual exploitation of men and boys is a relatively new concept, something that did not exist until recent years. In reality, men and boys are subjected to commercial sexual exploitation in many countries around the world, and they even outnumber female victims within certain subcategories of trafficking. To ignore these facts is not only inaccurate, but also dangerous – it has led to the oblivious abandonment of tens of thousands of victims.
The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000—the legal impetus behind the counter-trafficking movement in the United States—is actually split into three divisions, one devoted entirely to the Violence Against Women Act. It is an apropos attachment to a document declaring that “At least 700,000 persons annually, primarily women and children, are trafficked within or across international borders. Approximately 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States each year.” It goes on to state, “Many of these persons are trafficked into the international sex trade, often by force, fraud, or coercion…It involves sexual exploitation of persons, predominantly women and girls, involving activities related to prostitution, pornography, sex tourism, and other commercial sexual services” (emphases all mine).
While it is indisputable that the vast majority of survivors of commercial sexual exploitation are female (likely around 98 percent, according to the International Labour Organization), it is not true that women and girls constitute the vast majority of all human trafficking victims globally. The same source approximates that 42 percent of victims of state-imposed labor exploitation are male. That number increases to 60 percent when considering labor exploitation in private economies. When you add sex trafficking data, this does mean that more of the nearly 21 million victims worldwide are female than male. Nevertheless, the difference is not so disparate as to merit neglecting the men and boys involved.
And what about that 2 percent of victims of commercial sexual exploitation that is male? Are these 400,000 men and boys being overlooked? As awareness of male victimization has increased, so has recognition of the plight of individual male victims. Early versions of the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Reports—which are undoubtedly some of the most comprehensive sources of country-specific human trafficking information—have very few references to male victims of sex trafficking. In 2007, Japan, Malta and Slovenia acknowledged the existence of the problem. In contrast, the latest report (2014) contains references to this phenomenon in the narratives for Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Columbia, El Salvador, Eritrea, France, Ghana, Iceland, Israel, Kenya, the Philippines and Qatar. It is likely happening in many more countries, but expectations of who constitutes a trafficking victim, as well as culturally reinforced ideas of who can be victimized, prevent further reports of male sex trafficking from being made or taken seriously.
If a single victim is one victim too many, then human trafficking experts, first responders and service providers must first be aware of the very real exploitation of men and boys in human trafficking—both for labor and for commercial sexual purposes. They must learn to devote equal attention to all genders when screening potential victims and to provide appropriate and sufficient services for all those who are victimized, not merely those who fit a stereotypical description of a victim/survivor of human trafficking.
The mainstream media and well-intentioned but misinformed or inadequately trained professionals within the counter-trafficking movement have perpetuated the image of a young, foreign, female victim. Just as it is easier to believe that a foreigner is a victim of trafficking than a U.S.-born citizen because it helps to externalize the danger onto a separate population, it may also be easier to believe that only the “weaker sex” is victimized. This notion is wrong and it is harmful. While women and girls obviously deserve protection, correcting false perceptions is the first step toward ensuring that boys—and yes, men—are also safe.