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ARAT Takeaway: More Boys & Men Being Trafficked
July 20, 2023

This week, The Freedom Story had the pleasure of co-hosting the Asia Region Anti-Trafficking Conference in Bali, Indonesia, pulling together professionals from across Asia to discuss the latest developments, new knowledge and data, and brainstorm answers to questions affecting all of us in the fight to combat human trafficking and other forms of similar exploitation, from forced labor to child online sexual exploitation. One takeaway stood out in several panel discussions across the 3-day conference: we’re seeing a rise in the number of boys and men being trafficked, and early data suggests that boys and men are growing as a proportion of the victims detected.

Men and Boys As Trafficking Victims

The US State Department’s recent Trafficking in Persons report shared that boys are the fastest-growing segment of trafficking victims, and this finding was reiterated and confirmed by the experience of participants at the ARAT conference as well. Blue Dragon in Vietnam shared that pre-COVID, 93% of the victims they had worked with were girls; now it’s more like 76%, showing that girls are still the majority – but boys are growing significantly as a proportion of the victims they find. (The number of victims they’ve rescued has also doubled, and there’s a shift to a higher percentage of ethnic majority Vietnamese being trafficked – suggesting the problem is growing at an alarming rate and not only the traditionally “vulnerable” people are becoming victims, but also “average,” non-marginalized people as well.)

A21, which works in Thailand, Cambodia, and Australia, also confirmed a shift in the demographic profile of victims they’re seeing, with an increase in men aged 18-25, while in Cambodia, children under 13 now make up 38% of their caseload in that country – that’s become their largest demographic. Other panelists have mentioned that among children, the percentage of girl and boy victims is reaching parity.

The stereotypical view of trafficking victims is that of women and girls, especially with sex trafficking or forced marriages, or forced labor in the domestic work sector (labor trafficking, especially in predominantly male fields such as fishing, may be where people are more inclined to expect to see male victims). It’s unclear if the shift is because men and boys are increasingly targeted or if there has been a shift in their ability and willingness to identify as trafficking victims.

One clue, however, is that there are reports of more children being on technology due to the pandemic. Due to COVID and school closures, children were increasingly on tablets and accessing apps and the internet – children who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the internet and in areas where the internet hadn’t previously been accessible. This growth in exposure to strangers online has led to increased vulnerability to predators and a concomitant increase in online sexual exploitation of children and such materials being shared online.

A21 shared that, among boys, there is an increase in sextortion, which means a trafficker meets a boy online, develops a relationship with him, and encourages him to share sexually explicit imagery (such as photos or videos) of himself, which he does, believing it’s in the context of a relationship (or sometimes, yes, for money). Then the trafficker turns around and blackmails the victim, threatening to expose him to family or others unless the victim continues to do what the trafficker demands. These extremely distressing tactics have also led to a rise in death by suicide.

There is also the rise in trafficking in which victims are forced to commit cyber crimes, which of course contributes to the trends we’re seeing as well.

The Challenge of Helping Boy and Male Victims

For so long, the prevailing view of sex trafficking victims being female led to services and aftercare tailored to the needs of women and girls. This access to personalized support is fantastic, and none of it should be reduced or undermined.

However…

If you’re a 17-year-old boy who has been sex trafficked and all the materials you see portray ten-year-old girls, or if the aftercare shelter looks very feminine or childish, it’ll be difficult to see that as a place to seek the help you need. Or if all the staff are women and you need to discuss something involving private parts, it may be much harder to say what you need to say.

Suppose you identify as gay, trans, nonbinary, or other marginalized sexual or gender identities, and you’re in a culture that vilifies your identity or shames you for it, or blames you for your own victimization. In that case, it’s even that much harder to seek help. It can even be actively dangerous to tell people the truth about who you are and what has happened to you.

There can be so much shame and stigma around being a trafficking victim in the first place. There can be very specific and added layers of shame and stigma around being a male victim. It may be difficult for them to recognize what happened to them as sex trafficking, it may be difficult for front-line responders to recognize them as victims, it may be challenging to find appropriate service providers to refer them to, and it can add to their unwillingness to come forth and pursue prosecution of their traffickers.

Societally, we need to recognize that trafficking harms everyone. It can happen to girls, boys, women, men, and others – but that doesn’t mean a one-size-fits-all approach to prevention, rescue, or rehabilitation. We need solutions that are sensitive to people’s identities and all the complex ways trauma can impact people. Without that, we risk compounding trauma and pain.

At The Freedom Story, we welcome all identities and work with children openly and non-discriminately because all children deserve to be protected from this heinous crime.

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