Unseen victims of sex trafficking

While most people think of women and girls as the victims of human trafficking, men and boys are also at risk


By Rebecca Fairley Raney


A few years ago, social worker Steven Procopio was listening to a discussion among a group of middle-aged homeless men at a Boston health-care agency when he recognized that his group had a terrible secret in common: Many of these men, at some point in their lives, had been trafficked. For Procopio, the realization led to a wholesale shift in context for working with men and boys who suffer from complex trauma.

The prevailing wisdom, both then and now, he says, is that sex trafficking is a women's issue. But as Procopio looked at the homeless men, who were beset with medical, addiction and psychiatric problems, he realized that "if we don't get to kids while they're young, they're going to end up like the men at this table at age 40 or 50."

Now, mounting evidence, along with the accounts of front-line psychologists and social workers, show that men and boys make up a significant proportion of victims of trafficking, validating Procopio's realization. A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2012 estimated that men accounted for 25 percent of trafficking victims globally. Further, the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons estimated that 27 percent of all victims detected globally were children and that of those, one in three victims were boys.

In addition, staff at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline identified more than 24,000 cases of human trafficking in the United States from 2012 to September 2016. Of those, 13 percent—or more than 3,000—were men.

Boys and men who have been trafficked present with issues that are similar to many victims of complex trauma: poverty, sexual abuse, violence or living in a home where substance abuse takes place. Behaviors can include drug use, running away, depression, anxiety and oppositional behavior disorders.

"These are all red flags," Procopio says, adding that many of the boys 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.

Psychologists and others say it's hard to overstate the stigma that surrounds the issue—for victims and for society. "When we think of men, we typically think of men as aggressors," says Joel Filmore, EdD, a clinical counselor and victim of trafficking in Sycamore, Illinois. "So we have the idea that we can't think of men as people who can be coerced."

Filmore has a unique understanding of this population. As a child who had endured years of racism and sexual abuse in his small-town community, he started drinking at 12 and said he was "primed" for recruitment by his trafficker. He met a man who showered him with affection. With that friendliness came "a lot of drinking and cocaine use," and the man, who turned out to be a pimp, introduced him to crack. "Within a week, he had me turning tricks," Filmore says.

His experience is not unusual. He pointed out that this type of coercion by a trusted companion can lead victims to distrust therapists as well. "They don't believe in altruism," he says. "You can expect pushback. You can expect resistance. You can expect anger."

Clinicians who have treated trafficking victims and survivors say that the need to build a relationship is the top priority for anyone who is working with this population. Once he has built rapport, Filmore asks his clients to "tell me one thing, just one thing, that happened to you that you have never told anyone," while being sure not to retraumatize the individual. "It's a very delicate dance," he says.

Another obstacle in treatment is how exploitation and abuse compromises victims' sense of manhood, says Bonnie L. Martin, LPC, a clinical supervisor and consultant in Alexandria, Virginia. "My male clients often believe they should have been man enough to stop the trafficking and abuse from occurring [even if they were a child or teen at the time]," she says. As a result, she focuses on resilience, helping clients "adjust to life without chaos," including helping them get jobs and finding places to live—a particularly difficult issue for this population since the vast proportion of emergency beds available for victims of trafficking are for women and girls. To get more beds for men and boys, policymakers need to quantify the problem, yet the underground nature and reluctance of victims to divulge the problem leads to insufficient data to describe the scope of male trafficking, according to Irma Barron, PhD, a professor in marriage and family therapy and a coordinator in the master's program at Albizu University in Miami.

"We don't have that data," says Barron, who has organized human trafficking conferences in Miami. "[And that means] there are no shelters for men and boys. Say we do rescue some boys off the street. Where are they going to go?"

Help stop human trafficking The U.S. State Department offers insights on how to stop such abuses. Go to www.state.gov/j/tip/id/help.