Invisible Boys - Men's Week

Written By Hannah Borenstein

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When it comes to sexual crimes, the immediate assumption is usually that the perpetrator is male, and the victim is female. Now, open-minded researchers are beginning to explore ideas that push against that general belief.

Child sex trafficking, though an incredibly pertinent problem today, is a relatively new issue in the United States. Meredith Dank, a research associate for The Urban Institute, focuses on international and domestic human trafficking to aid in the developing the field.

“[Child Trafficking] really only came to everyone’s attention in 2000,” Dank says. “Then it was looking at foreign victims. It wasn’t until much more recently that domestic victims came into play, and there has been a time lapse.”

Consequently, societal views towards the issue have created an association that makes “child” synonymous with “girl.”

Various sources, such as Stop Child Trafficking Now, report that young females are the primary targets of these crimes. The organization lists child trafficking statistics on its site, including a report from the U.S. State Department, which reveals that more than 80 percent of human trafficking victims are girls and women.

However, Dank assisted in a surprising and shockingly successful research project beginning in 2006 alongside Ric Curtis, the Chair of the Anthropology Department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Together they intended to meet and speak with youth victims of prostitution. When the several hours spent driving around various areas of New York City did not elicit immediate results, they contacted a service provider and were able to interview 249 under-age sex workers. They found that nearly half of them were male.

“We weren’t expecting any of this,” Dank says. “I think we were really shocked when we began getting the onslaught of boys. Most of the boys did not have pimps. There is a large survival sex population and a lot of boys and trans youth are using it to get by.”

Through their interviews they found that many of the boys were somewhat voluntarily engaged in the business. Unlike many runaway girls, who may have been physically forced into prostitution, the boys entered trafficking as a means to make money and survive.

Tana Hall, a Professional Counselor with Atlanta’s YouthPride, remarked on sexual exploitation amongst male youth in an interview with Public Square Atlanta, saying, “The number one thing we get on our helpline is ‘I’ve been kicked out and I don’t know what to do and I don’t know where to go.'”

Despite the unforced entry, roughly 86-87% of the boys in Dank’s study said they wanted to leave but needed to find stable housing before that could ever be possible. With fewer than 200 beds in New York City for all runaway and homeless youth, despite a population of several thousand, many children including boys have limited options. The question remains, if there is such a prominent male population among the child-prostitution market, why doesn’t anyone talk about it? In New York City there are no trafficking services specific to boys or trans youth and various studies do not even account for male populations.

Dank speculates the misconception comes from complexities in the victims’ psyches and the fact that law enforcement are not opening up many cases where boys are the victims.

“One of the issues is that law enforcement historically, and up until this day, [is that] the mandates they’re receiving from up above, are to focus on girls,” Dank said.

Also, she mentioned, “The difficult part is that [the boys] don’t identify to agencies as victims. I don’t know how they would react being labeled as that.”

The reality is, regardless of the way male youth have chosen or not chosen to enter the illegal sex market, voluntarily or not, they are still underage and the practice is illegal. The fact that so many were not only willing, but eager to speak with the researchers, shows a desire for recognition and change regarding the issue, for victims and investigators alike.

“There is definitely a need for focus on boys and trans youth,” Dank said. It’s a different picture; it’s not as clear-cut and it makes it more difficult.”

Although child sex-trafficking is currently receiving more attention from the media, male victims are in large part not being considered in the research and general understanding of the issue, despite their growing involvement. A thorough investigation into the factors of gender and sexuality of victims of sex trafficking has yet to be undertaken, and further exploration of this topic is proving to be necessary.