Two years ago, as I was sitting in the back of one of our prevention education classes, I watched as a young student raised her hand and asked, “Can this happen to boys, too?” This wasn’t the first time our facilitators had heard this question, and their answer had not changed. Yes, boys can be exploited, too. Despite this, I watched other students in the class respond to that answer with complete disbelief, and I began to feel unsettled.
So, doing what any good program manager would do when looking for answers, I went back to my desk and looked at our data. This time, I looked at it with a new perspective. Instead of concentrating on what was there, I began to look for what was not. I found that since the beginning of our prevention education program three years before, not one boy had disclosed any type of abuse or exploitation.
I knew I could not dismiss this with a simple excuse that maybe we just weren’t coming across male victims. Statistics approximate that 1 in 6 boys experience sexual abuse, and the growing body of evidence indicating that almost half of the young people that are commercially sexually exploited in the United States are male would not allow us that reprieve.
In that moment, I was faced with the reality that we were failing to properly address the sexual exploitation and victimization of boys.
Yes, we had evidence that our program was making a notable difference in the lives of girls. That should not be (and is not) dismissible. What we were teaching wasn’t inaccurate or even misguided.
But it didn’t provide space for boys to acknowledge their victimization, either.
We began to make incremental changes—changes which eventually led to an intentional shift that painted a picture of vulnerability and exploitation not based exclusively on gender. Our premise was that if we portrayed boys as children that deserve protection, who are not at fault for their abuse, they might begin to see themselves that way.
Within weeks, a young boy in a detention center shared that he had been sexually abused. This disclosure was quickly followed by another. To date, over a two dozen boys have shared their experiences—some past, some current—with us. With each bittersweet disclosure, our team’s determination to create a supportive environment for male, female, and trans* youth grew.
We knew that in order to be truly effective, we needed to know more. So, we asked Timothy Bastedo, a Love146 Prevention Education Intern, to develop a report, The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Male Minors in the United States: A Snapshot with Strategic Implications for Prevention Education.
His report provides three recommendations:
1. Prevention educators must reconstruct America’s concepts of “masculinity” and “victimization.”
The definition of “masculinity” that Americans are socialized to believe makes “male victims” seem like an oxymoron. In other words, it’s difficult for us to consider that boys can be victims of trafficking, too.
The discussion of victimization in the United States is a finicky thing. Blaming the victim is all too often the natural default. There has been no shortage of voices standing on top of the “victim blaming” soapbox—advocating for women who have been victimized. As we’ve begun to listen to male survivors, it is clear that this platform must be shared.
The shame that many male survivors feel, as well as the fear of how others perceive them, plays a large part in why many do not disclose what has happened to them.
“I’m supposed to want sex all the time.”
“They’d think I’m weak.”
“I didn’t want them to think I was gay.”
If boys do not feel safe enough to ask for help when experiencing significant forms of abuse and exploitation, it is unlikely that they will ask for help with the seemingly less extreme situations that often make them vulnerable.
The inability of service providers and American society in general to identify male victims of commercial sexual exploitation stems from a cultural inability to view males as individuals who can experience vulnerabilities. When hearing about a boy who was sexually exploited, people ask questions like: Couldn’t you have fought them off? Didn’t you like it? How can a male be raped, anyway? Often, the resulting judgment is that boys aren’t really victims.
2. Effective preventative work must address the intangible needs of male minors: needs for independence, self-sufficiency, and belonging.
Despite the physical, sexual, and drug-related trauma that young boys frequently experience, relational trauma is often particularly devastating.
Whether we wear the label of an introvert or extrovert, as humans, we are relational beings. We need to know that we can trust.
Male minors at-risk for commercial sexual exploitation, like all people, must be connected to supportive individuals and communities. When that is absent, boys often struggle in silence and work to fill the gaps in different and potentially unhealthy ways.
Helping youth develop healthy support systems, whether in their family or outside of it, is critical to safeguard them. Knowing someone who will pick up the phone when you call, who is willing to journey with you no matter what, is someone everyone needs. Especially kids.
3. Effective preventative work must address the tangible needs of male minors: needs for food, clothing, and, perhaps most importantly, shelter.
Homelessness is cited as one of the primary risks factors for male minors at-risk for commercial sexual exploitation.
Whether they choose to leave their homes voluntarily or are thrown out by their caregivers, the male minors at the highest risk for exploitation are those who find themselves on the street with little or no access to food, shelter, clothing, or other basic necessities. Resources for male minors are often extremely limited. Where they do exist, males minors are less likely than their female counterparts to receive them because they are less likely to be referred.
This can push them to engage in survival sex—meaning they are trading sex in exchange for basic necessities such as food and shelter. When hearing about someone who is engaging in survival sex, reactions can vary depending on the perceived vulnerability of the person. Since boys aren’t seen as vulnerable, and society is reluctant to see them as victims, the response they face might be that “he should have tried harder to find a job” rather than “he was doing what he had to do to survive.”
What was our response to learning this information? We completely redesigned our prevention education program. Instead of trying to include the occasional anecdote about boys, we intentionally constructed our curriculum, Not a #Number, to consider the vulnerabilities, challenges, and barriers that hinder disclosure of all genders.
Throughout this journey, we’ve had the privilege of listening to many male survivors who chose to entrust us with their stories.
This trust—their bravery and resilience—compels us to press forward. To do better.
We look forward to a day where all boys hear: “It’s okay to tell. You won’t be blamed. You won’t be judged. You won’t be ignored.”