Nola Brantley is a sex trafficking survivor and advocate in California.
Even though she primarily works with girls and young women, Brantley is concerned about another hidden demographic of trafficked children: boys and trans youth.
“Sex trafficking of young men and LGBTQ youth is just as prevalent as it is for girls, if not more,” Brantley said. “We shouldn’t be paying attention to one group more than the other.”
Despite the narrative that commercial sex traffickers prey on girls, advocates and survivors say that known risk factors – like sexual abuse, foster care and juvenile justice involvement, homelessness and childhood trauma – can affect all youth, regardless of gender and sexual orientation.
As they seek to fill their basic needs for money, food, shelter and acceptance, many system-involved young people fall into the hands of commercial sex traffickers, experts say. Survivors and service providers say transphobia, homophobia and other biases prevent a large but ultimately unknown percentage of trafficked youth – whether boys or girls – from getting the help, support and counseling they need to survive and thrive later in life.
Then and Now
Joel Filmore was trafficked more than 25 years ago, when he was 21.
Filmore grew up in a town of 1,300 people in rural Michigan. He refers to his childhood – rife with physical, verbal and sexual abuse – as the perfect storm that ultimately led to him being trafficked as a young adult.
When he turned 21, Filmore moved to Chicago where, as a young gay man from a small town, he was unprepared for the realities of urban life. Recognizing his naivety and vulnerability, pimps quickly preyed upon him.
“It was easy for me to get caught up in sex trafficking,” Filmore said. “All my trafficker had to do was be kind to me, because that was something I hadn’t received growing up: kindness.”
During his decade on the streets of Chicago, homeless and trafficked, Filmore identified as a transgender female, even though he never believed he was transgender.
“It was the only way I could explain to myself that I was attracted to men,” Filmore said. “If I was a woman, that would make it right.”
Filmore’s pimps used various forms of coercion to control him, including violence and drugs. He became addicted to crack cocaine and heroin, and he was arrested for robbery and sent to prison in 2001.
Behind bars, Filmore spent three years getting sober and thinking about what he wanted to do with his life. Three months after his release in 2004, he enrolled in college, where he remained for the next 10 years, ultimately getting his doctorate degree.
“Childhood trauma and abuse,” Fillmore said. “That’s what drives youth to enter this lifestyle.”
More Common Than Not
A 2008 study from the City University of New York estimated that roughly half of exploited children in the country were boys.
Child sex trafficking victims, regardless of gender, typically have a history of complex childhood trauma, rooted in domestic violence, drugs, or sexual abuse at home, and recent research shows that boys tend to enter the cycle of sexual exploitation between the ages of 11 and 13 years, which is the same age as girls.
Steve Procopio is the clinical director of MaleSurvivor, an international advocacy group and training institute for men who have been sexually victimized. His expertise is with trafficked boys, adolescent males and transgender youth.
He says the notion that boys are trafficked less often than girls is a universal phenomenon.
“Gender bias and sexism are keeping the doors closed to the plight of male victims of sex trafficking,” Procopio said. “We’ve been conditioned to think that men are perpetrators and women are victims, so we don’t really look at boys from a perspective of victimization.”
When boys are sexually victimized, there’s a lot of denial and shame associated with that trauma that prevents them from coming forward and seeking therapy, Procopio says. It is not unusual for men who have been victims of sex trafficking, abuse and exploitation to often wait years, if not decades, to come forward and speak about their experiences.
Case in point, one of Procopio’s newest clients. The man, now in his mid-40s, was trafficked in California when he was 16, but didn’t seek counseling until three months ago. It took him nine calls to national hotline before he found a therapist who works with male victims: Procopio.
“We’re dealing with a lot of PTSD, depression and anxiety,” Procopio said. “It’s a struggle for him.”
One of the reasons why men are often unlikely to talk about their sexual trauma is society’s skewed definition of masculinity.
“Our culture isn’t willing to see men and boys as potentially having been sexually victimized,” said Steve LePore, founder and executive director of 1in6, a Los Angeles-based organization that works with adult men who have been sexually abused, assaulted or exploited.
Letting Go of Labels
In addition to redefining masculinity, male victims of sexual trauma, including heterosexual boys, are often left to grapple with their own sexual orientation and gender identity.
According to a report called “And Boys Too,” by the anti-trafficking policy organization End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purpose (ECPAT-USA), boys are less willing to identify as victims of sexual exploitation than girls due to stigma and shame surrounding their sexual orientation.
But it’s not just girls and LGBTQ youth who are vulnerable to trafficking. Young, straight men are underserved by social service organizations, law enforcement officials and public health workers who generally believe that boys can’t be sex trafficking victims.
MaleSurvivor’s Procopio was quick to call out his peers who label certain youth “higher risk” than others, arguing that doing so is a disservice to already marginalized populations who require similar services.
“If I were a non-gay kid who was being sexually exploited and the only thing I’m hearing is that trans youth or gay kids or girls are the prime target, as a non-gay kid, that de-legitimizes my experience,” Procopio said. “I’m not going to come forward for support because I don’t fall into that category.”
He’d like to see a conversational shift amongst service providers and stakeholders so that sexual exploitation isn’t tied to gender or sexual orientation.
“It’s got nothing to do with [those things],” he said.