In America, we tend to view sexual assault as a “women’s issue.” Child sex trafficking is no different; the most common portrayal of a trafficked child is a girl. But what about the thousands of boys who are being exploited every day? They are invisible, and that needs to change.
Research on the commercial sexual exploitation of children in this country is scant, which is one of the reasons it doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. The U.S. Department of Justice believes between 100,000 and 300,000 girls are being sold for sex right now in America. Yet aside from a few reputable sources, the extent to which boys are trafficked is largely unknown. The International Labor Organization indicates that 2 percent of exploited children in America are boys, yet an in-depth study of trafficking in New York City found a much higher percentage of male victims. These disparate assessments indicate we must get a better handle on the scope of the problem to equip the sexual abuse prevention community to solve it.
There are unique circumstances faced by boys who are imprisoned by sex traffickers. Many cases go unreported because law enforcement is not trained to identify them, and boys are hesitant to report for fear of being labeled an offender or gay. Boys don’t always see themselves as victims, which is a misconception perpetuated by their pimps (who, bear in mind, can earn up to $200,000 annually). Substance abuse and extreme poverty are other contributing factors.
One of the major impediments to tackling the commercial sexual exploitation of boys is the lack of specialized services. Fewer than 1 percent of the beds available for homeless victims are set aside for this hidden population. The first shelter devoted to the restorative care of boys is under construction (and faced an immediate backlash from the local community, which was fearful of crime, drugs, and declining housing values). Because victims need intensive services to cope with physical and emotional trauma, long-term shelter services are a must.
The solution? We can start by investing in comprehensive research on male commercial sexual exploitation. Law enforcement should be widely and intensively trained to spot boys trapped by pimps. Funds should be allocated to creating specialized services for male victims. And finally, the step that must not be overlooked: creating the political will for real solutions by expanding the public’s awareness of this issue.
Once recruited, the life expectancy of a trafficked child is seven years. This leaves a short and precious window of time to rescue youths recruited into and trapped in a life of sex for sale. Trafficked boys deserve equal support and protection. Understanding the extent to which they are exploited and helping them escape and heal should be one of the sexual abuse prevention community’s top priorities.