We talk frequently about how youth who identify as LGBTQ+ are more vulnerable to trafficking, and we’ve even highlighted one of our students who agreed to share their story. In honor of Pride Month, it’s a good time to take a fresh look at what makes these youth particularly vulnerable to abuse, trafficking, and other forms of exploitation.
LGBTQ+ Vulnerability to Trafficking
To be clear, there is nothing inherent in identifying as LGBTQ+ that makes one more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. The vulnerability arises from the people around them: how much support they receive, how much love and understanding, or conversely, how much bullying, abuse, or exclusion they suffer. Coming from a loving and accepting home is a strong protective factor. But far too many LGBTQ+ people do not experience that. Too many experience shame or even physical or sexual abuse in the home, and/or bullying and violence outside the home. It’s the history of exclusion, neglect, and abuse that puts them at risk of trafficking. If they are a racial or ethnic minority too, vulnerability may be even further compounded.
Research shows that 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States identify as LGBTQ+. Ninety-one percent of those youth in similar situations in another study reported having been approached by someone offering them a way to earn income that was too good to be true – a sign of trafficking. (Source: Polaris Project)
When LGBTQ+ youth become homeless, perhaps because they either run away or are kicked out of their homes, they become even more vulnerable. If they struggle to find jobs because of discrimination, they also become further at risk. When the situation gets dire, they may turn to survival sex in order to meet their basic needs. Traffickers prey on this–offering shelter, offering promises of love and acceptance, offering money, while coercing these youths to engage in trafficking and other illicit activities.
“Boyfriend pimping” is a common way that traffickers will exploit a victim’s vulnerability with the use of psychological manipulation and emotional abuse under the guise of a romantic relationship (Nichols, 2016). The boyfriend pimp may provide the survivor with food, clothing, housing, and gifts intended to meet their needs or wants, therefore enabling a sense of trust between the victim and trafficker (Anderson, Coyle, Johnson, & Denner, 2014; Holger-Ambrose et al., 2013). The individual at risk will then be more willing to engage in illicit behaviors because of their relationship with their boyfriend, who has become their pimp.” (Source: Gerassi and Skinkis, 2020)
It’s important to spread broader cultural awareness that this is how trafficking happens, because while it is happening under the guise of a manipulative relationship, it can be incredibly difficult for the victim to realize what is happening. If the broader cultural message about trafficking is the stereotypical image of abduction (which is actually quite rare), then it’s even harder for victims to look at their situation and identify it as a trafficking scenario. Add in cultural expectations about gender norms (for example, beliefs that men and boys can’t be victims) or how society treats transgender people, and we begin to see the many ways abuse and exploitation can persist unrecognized.
Responding to LGBTQ+ Trafficking Survivors or Those Who Are Most Vulnerable
Providing social services to protect LGBTQ+ youth who are at risk or to provide rescue and rehabilitation for LGBTQ+ trafficking survivors means cultivating awareness about how to make those spaces truly inclusive for LGBTQ+ youth. This means attending to details as simple as having a Pride flag or as fundamental as using preferred pronouns, but also more thoughtful details such as inclusive deodorant options and other toiletries that help them feel more comfortable in their identity. Not attending to those details can run the risk of alienating these youth even further, especially considering the history of trauma they may already have suffered, and can resurface the very reasons they became vulnerable to trafficking in the first place. Unfortunately, service organizations that address both trafficking risk and LGBTQ+ identity can be quite rare. In a study of 186 service providers in the Midwest, for example, only 2 of 7 trafficking organizations explicitly stated they served people who identify as LGBTQ, and of the other 179 non-trafficking specific organizations, less than 12% said they offer these services. (Source: Gerassi and Skinkis, 2020)
The risk of violence that individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ face is very real, and trafficking and sexual exploitation is just one facet of what they might have to encounter. The more sensitive, aware, and inclusive society becomes to the needs, rights, and intrinsic value of people who identify as LGBTQ+, the better able we are to reduce trafficking and the better able we are to reduce harm in general.