The Silent Victims of Sex Trafficking

When people discuss human trafficking, the usual stereotypical imagery is evoked: an international young woman trafficked across borders, a group of children forced to harvest distant crops, an inner city brothel exposed as exploiting dozens of young girls and women. But rarely do we read of the male victims of human trafficking. Men typically occupy the role of the perpetrator in these stories, but this does not mean that male survivors of trafficking should be denied their status as victims.

Yes, perpetrators of sex-trafficking usually target society’s most vulnerable members (women and children). However, research proves that men are forming an increasingly larger percentage of the victims. An alarming statistic in a 2008 US State Department report on human trafficking reveals that between 2006 and 2008, the percentage of adult male victims of human trafficking jumped from 6% to 45%. In the UK, it’s a similar story: men account for more than two-fifths (41%) of adult victims of human trafficking in England and Wales helped by the Salvation Army, contrary to the public perception that the crime almost exclusively affects women.

According to ILO and UNICEF, two percent of those forced into commercial sexual exploitation are men or boys, but the practice might be far more widespread than reported due to social stigmas associated with sex with boys. Most male victims do not report their abuse, as well as there being fewer services available to them, and virtually no concern for them either socially or from government-run organisations. A Canadian study found that sexually exploited boys were exploited at younger ages than girls, and remained in their situation longer. In addition, a US Department of State report on trafficking in Burma highlights that there were no shelter facilities available to male victims.

This lack of concern renders male victims invisible. This is evident in cases such as this article published on The Good Men Project blog, which claims its aims include the fostering of a national discussion centred around modern manhood and the question, “What does it mean to be a good man”? The article is written by the project’s founder, and despite the general title “Sex Slavery in America”, the focus remains solely on female victims throughout the article. One reader commented on the blog after having comments pulled, “It is unfortunate that it appears that The Good Men Project does not want to acknowledge male victims of sexual exploitation, and worse that it appears to now block anyone who mentions them.”

This underrepresentation of male victims of sex trafficking is most definitely due to the fact that sexual violence against males is a taboo subject; it happens but it is concealed by the victims who are too ashamed to speak out, and by a society that is not prepared to listen. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system, forcible rape is “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” To the FBI, the carnal knowledge of a male forcibly and against his will is considered a different (and lesser) crime: “assault.” It is instances such as these that prove men can suffer just as much as women do from gendered stereotypes and power-structures.

That men do not typically fit into the role of victims as women do, is not just a reflection on the stereotypes inflicted onto women but also a portrayal of the injustices suffered by men who do not conform to society’s ideal of masculinity. It is clear that more help must be offered to male victims of sexual violence, as invisible victims cannot be helped. But what is also clear is that in order to bring male victims into sight, attitudes must be adjusted and taboos need to be broken down. We need to stop being so squeamish and accept the realities that occur in our world in order to overcome them.

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