Close your eyes and picture an underage sex worker: a victim of abuse, a runaway, homeless, kidnapped, bought and sold. It’s a profile we know all too well, depicted in various on-screen portrayals, articles, and awareness campaigns. Is your imagined victim a girl?
If stereotypes about participants in the sex trade run the gamut, there’s one overarching one that is so ingrained it barely registers: gender.
Estimates by some advocates put the number of boys in the commercial sex industry at potentially equal to that of girls. And while the Department of Justice estimates that boys make up 10 percent of trafficking victims (at least, of cases they're involved in), with an estimated 300,000 children in the industry, that still translates to tens of thousands of young males. And not only are boys entering prostitution at a younger age on average than girls, they also are often victims of violence and abuse, and are consistently denied assistance by child protective services and the juvenile justice system.
A study called “And Boys Too,” conducted this spring and released to the media in late August, finds that this one-sided approach has pushed male victims to the fringes of assistance. Aiming to reverse the tacked-on phrase “and boys too” that often supplements discussions on sexual exploitation, the U.S.-based branch of international organization End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT-USA) launched a study examining 40 youth agencies and service providers. The report found that while thousands of young boys work in the illegal sex trade, only 16 percent of agencies surveyed offer any sort of services to male victims. Boys, often viewed as willing participants, face an uphill battle against stereotypes that push the blame onto them. One shocking incident cited in the report told of a police officer calling a 15-year-old boy found in a trafficking sting a “sex addict,” and saying another was “just doing it for the money.”
“Boys have been sexually exploited alongside girls all these years and nobody’s talking about it-—how can that be?” asks ECPAT-USA Executive Director Carol Smolenski.
The study’s completion was in itself a breakthrough. There have been only two major studies conducted that focus on boys victimized by the sex industry, one from the University of Pennsylvania in 2001 and the other from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2008. ECPAT’s was started by an intern in early 2012 and was fleshed out and completed by volunteers before being finalized by staffers and a professional editor. With no resources slated toward it, the report took a year to produce.
For those seeking to spotlight the issue of young men ensnared in the sex trade, there’s a Catch-22: With almost no strong research or solid numbers, programs have no foothold to get funding or attention. But without widespread awareness and support, there’s no leverage to get research into those needed numbers. As a result of this deadlock, the issue goes virtually unfunded, untreated, and unnoticed.
In a country that’s historically galvanized around child welfare, why have boys been ignored in the first place?
The sentiment around underage sex work has evolved rapidly over the past decade, says Smolenski. In the 1990s, she describes a society-wide assumption that victims of the industry were just bad kids selling sex. Gradually, American attitudes have evolved, especially since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, and law enforcement agencies have begun treating those arrested in commercial sex busts less as criminals and more as victims who have often suffered horrific physical and emotional violence.
But this mindset has applied mostly to girls. Boys picked up off the street are rarely screened—as girls now often are—for signs of involvement in the commercial sex industry, and are more likely to get thrown into a cell or released back into the cycle.
One reason, Smolenski says, is “[Boys] are often depicted as the perpetrator, trafficker, exploiter, or person in control of situation, rather than one something is being done to.” But the ECPAT study found those entering the commercial sex trade were likely abused, ran away from home, or were kicked out due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. It also showed that anti-trafficking organizations rarely penetrate the areas where boys are normally prostituted, and many boys are unwilling to independently seek help due to the stigma of their work.
“There is a mindset about males in this society and the public is not going to consider boys to be as vulnerable, and that also is going to impact willingness and ability of boys to ask for help,” says Ernie Allen, the founder and CEO of the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The assumption that girls are exclusively impacted in this trade, he adds, has “resulted in a dearth of services and resources for boys.”
Dubbing the issue “a public health crisis,” Allen and a new global coalition of partners have begun tackling it from the health angle. The first need is to identify the problem’s scope. “How do you do that with a problem nobody’s reporting and nobody’s counting?” he asks. “In America and most countries in the world today if you can’t prove it and can’t quantify it, it must not be a problem. Well, how do you quantify problem like this?”
ECPAT has been working to put this issue on the radar of legislators to press for a more encompassing description of sex trade victims to make its way into the books. Then, service providers can provide more inclusive and tailored services. The organization hopes to raise money for further research, begin conducting interviews, and publish a comprehensive report.
Whereas female survivors of sex trafficking readily occupy panels, law enforcement agencies, and policy-influencing organizations, boys are conspicuously absent. For all the women who have testified in support of various bills in D.C., Smolenski can think of one man who’s done the same. “We do need to have these young men becoming spokespersons,” she says. “When that starts to happen, I know the dam will break.” As a sign of the difficulty of locating and learning about survivors, ECPAT was unable to find any survivors willing to speak for this article. Smolenski says she doesn’t normally push for young survivors to speak publicly about their past trauma, but in this realm, it’s a necessary catalyst.
“There is a significant and virtually unnoticed, unrecognized population of boys who are truly hidden victims, for whom resources are virtually absent,” Allen notes. “There are victims America doesn’t see, who don’t get reported, who nobody is looking for and, basically, the world has missed.”
Steven Procopio began researching young men in the sex industry six years ago and found a gap in information. “When I first started getting into this some people said it just doesn’t happen to boys and I said, 'Have you ever looked for it?' And people said, 'No.' How do you know it’s not there if you don’t look for it? So I started looking for it.”
The Boston-based social worker and consultant says there is only one program he knows of that specifically addressing commercial sex exploitation of boys; the others he says, are fragments of what’s needed.
Procopio has been holding focus groups through various local youth-oriented groups, surveying them, and finding boys as young as 14 deep into a life on the streets, many using drugs just to get through a day’s work. By the end of the year, he hopes to begin going into organizations and implementing a public awareness campaign with training for criminal justice system, including child welfare groups. “We’re going to need to begin to have those folks ID a boy sexually exploited or ID a youth at risk and have key people in those organizations be able to act as advocates,” he says.
All the parties interviewed stressed that along with solid research, an all-encompassing solution, that includes law enforcement and medical providers, is needed to tackle this issue.
Allen is worried that the majority of services are offered by NGOs, which—heroic as they are—cannot be the most comprehensive and sustainable option. “The problem is silos,” he says. “Law enforcement deals with it, but doesn’t communicate with health care, social, or mental health services.” There are no diagnostic codes for child sexual exploitation, Allen points out, so a physician who sees it can’t medically identify the issue. At a recent pediatric conference he raised the issue, and afterwards, had top doctors lining up with the same queries: What questions do I ask? What should I do? Nobody in med school ever mentioned this, they said.
The Center has joined forces with eight global pharmaceutical companies, medical schools like Harvard, hospitals around the world from the Mayo Clinic to the Vatican’s Children’s Hospital, and other leaders in the field, with a goal to build a system of primary prevention. They will begin with four initiatives in 2014 to gauge the incidents of child sex abuse in 24 countries to create a global snapshot.
Allen remembers a trip he made in the 1970s as a local government official in Kentucky to bring a young male victim of commercial sex trade to testify before a Senate committee in Washington D.C. “This was a kid out on the streets selling what he had to sell in order to survive.” The boy agreed to tell his story to Congress, to show it wasn’t just girls affected by the sex trade. But nothing came of it.
Forty years later, progress is on the horizon. Allen views the ECPAT study as a catalyst, something to break that cyclical Catch-22 that the issue has been stuck in for decades. Smolenski at ECPAT trusts a momentum can build around protecting children quickly. But even years after stereotypes about underage female sex workers were shattered and the issue became a rally cry for activists and politicians across the board, the resources are still lacking.
Over the past few years Allen says he’s gotten calls from dozens of prosecutors, saying they have no shelters to house a young victim they’ve rescued and have no choice but to put her in secure detention or behind bars. “Now compound that and make the victim a boy,” he says.
“These are not someone else’s kids, they are our kids,” Allen says. “It’s not just the police’s problem, it’s our problem.”