The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2012 estimated that men accounted for 25 percent of trafficking victims globally. The Global Report on Trafficking in Persons stated that 27 percent of all victims detected globally were children, and that of those, one in three victims were boys.

An under-reported problem

There is a myth, or perhaps persistent bias, that male trafficking victims are automatically labor trafficking victims. The truth is that there is a significant number of male trafficking survivors that are sex trafficking survivors. We know, both from research and from Collective Liberty staff that have worked as direct service providers, that thousands of male trafficking victims face the same trauma and exploitation as females but are frequently overlooked.

Experts admit that reported numbers can be much higher because many male victims are unwilling to speak out, silenced by fear and common stereotypes like “men are supposed to be strong.” Or a more harmful myth - that all men have extremely high sex drives and must clearly have wanted it - or that somehow sexual abuse and exploitation is not as bad as for women. Men are therefore more likely to downplay the trauma they have endured. As one our team members, Meghan Carton, found in working with male survivors in the D.C. metro area, men were much more likely than women to insist that “it wasn’t that bad”, “I just needed to get through it,” or most common “I just want to move on and not talk about it.” Sex was almost a taboo subject because it was so difficult to untangle societal pressures, trauma, and the image they felt they needed to represent. In instances of pimp-controlled trafficking, like with women victims, it was common to hear “it was just for my boyfriend.” But unlike with women, whenever a man made that statement it was almost never questioned. That moment to understand whether it was a boyfriend or a pimp and to offer the critical long-term resources was often overlooked.

Boys and men who have been trafficked experienced the same vulnerabilities as women and girls: income, housing and job insecurities, abuse, and domestic violence. "These are all red flags," Steven Procopio, a Boston-based social worker, says, adding that many of the male victims he has worked with had a history of rape by a family member or a neighbor. In some cases, boys are trafficked by their families to raise money for drugs.

But despite vulnerabilities, we need to remember that all underage boys can be vulnerable and depend on people in power to provide care and support.

Online recruitment and gaming

An emerging way that traffickers in the U.S. can meet, and recruit, victims is through multiplayer video games. According to the Pew Research Center, almost every single teenage boy in America — 97 percent — plays video games. Today these games have become highly social, and developing relationships with strangers inside the game is normal. In some circumstances this can lead to developing friendships with children of similar age and interest around the globe - a modern-day pen pal. However, when children don’t know how to distinguish between children their own age and adults (e.g. why would an adult want to be friends with a 12 year old) and how to tell when conversations and questions become inappropriate, it can leave them vulnerable, especially those that are already struggling with things like strong family bonds, a sense of identity and belonging, stability at home, and most important, unconditional love.

In many instances, the abusive relationships start inside the games themselves when traffickers use built-in chat features. In other cases, criminals move conversations from gaming websites and chat rooms to platforms like Facebook Messenger, Kik, and Skype, where they can communicate more privately.

They start a conversation and gradually build trust. Their goal, typically, is to dupe children into sharing sexually explicit photos and videos of themselves — which they use as blackmail for more imagery, much of it increasingly graphic and violent.

Lack of services

Male victims get far less attention from law enforcement and social services than females. In many states, there are no programs or shelters focused on helping exploited males, and local government agencies often don't see the scale of the problem. For example, In Massachusetts, there is only one program that focused solely on helping sexually exploited male youth and trans females. Its revenue last year was less than half of its similar program for female youth run out of the same nonprofit. "We are led to believe that men are perpetrators and women are victims and not the flip side," said Steven Procopio, who has been striving for more than a decade to raise awareness about the problem. Only this year, the first "safe home" established for young men opened in Denton, Texas. "Bob's House of Hope" is the first shelter in the United States that will house sexually abused men between the ages of 18-24.

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