Global inequities in the education of girls have led to a rise of organizations geared toward educating and promoting young girls in order to rectify that imbalance. However, the underlying patriarchal structure that causes that imbalance – and gives rise to human trafficking – affects everyone. “Patriarchy” is an oft-misunderstood concept, or even considered such a threatening concept it is shunned even before examination. However, it essentially describes a structure that values masculine dominance and feminine submission. It’s not exactly about men being at the top – it’s about a certain type of masculinity, or vision of what masculinity entails, that dominates, and the extent to which anyone does not fit the mold of alpha male, they are increasingly excluded from power and devalued. In the context of trafficking, it literally prescribes a person’s worth and who is entitled to buy, sell, or own whom. It’s not a woman’s issue or a man’s issue. It’s a human rights issue and those ideologies lead predominantly to violence on women and girls – but also does violence to men and young boys. This is because sexual violence is not about desire; it’s about power. And the way out of it requires reaching everyone.
Boys Can Be Victimized Too
While the majority of sex trafficking victims and survivors are women and girls, we need to take care to avoid making it a stereotype because boys can be victimized too. And the patriarchal mindset that gives rise to trafficking also teaches boys that they cannot be victimized by sexual violence. It is a threat to their own masculinity.
“Boys are brutalized in ways that girls are not in order to prepare them for positions of domination. As bell hooks says, ‘Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term ‘masculinity’) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.’ (bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love.)” (Source: Psychology Today)
“Being a man” means never letting anyone dominate over you, especially not physically. Being a victim of sexual violence, in this sense, is seen as such a form of weakness that one is no longer a man. It is not only physical violence, it strips you of your identity as “being a man.” In the context of sexual violence, trafficking, and exploitation, this means boys are less likely to admit they’ve been victimized, they’re less likely to report it due to stigma and feelings of shame, and they are less likely to receive help because others are also less likely to see them as victims, but are rather seen as themselves lacking.
Individual Solutions to Systemic Problems are Inadequate
If we want to change the patriarchal ideologies that cause these problems, it’s not enough to empower women – we have to change the culture. Everyone is socialized with the same patriarchal beliefs. We need to not only teach girls that they deserve equality and respect, we need to teach boys that too. As Brittney Cooper puts it in Eloquent Rage, “It’s not enough to teach women how not to attract violent men. We have to spend our time teaching young men how not to be violent men and partners….The violence that men do demoralizes them too.”
We need better, more expansive, understanding of the gender spectrum, to give wider freedom and value to everyone’s natural expression of themselves. We need to teach young adults what healthy relationships look like. And we need to provide a positive role for boys to step into. It’s not enough to just say: don’t be this. If we are only telling boys what not to be, what does that leave them with? What does manliness mean, if it’s not rooted in domination? The answer is not a system in which boys are just left feeling loss and unmoored. We have to delve into what positive masculinity looks like.
This is why, at The Freedom Story, we provide scholarships to boys – to help them avoid being victimized by traffickers and exploiters too. But we also broaden our scope and reach by holding workshops on healthy relationships. We teach widely about what true partnership in relationships mean, how to respect each other, and to be safe spaces for each other in a loving relationship. We also have held workshops for both women and men on domestic violence, to demonstrate how harmful (not just physically but also psychologically, and the long term impact) it is. And of course, our mentors often give our students advice on their relationships as well.
Bigger problems require bigger solutions. With a problem as expansive as trafficking, it is clear that we need to think more expansively about challenges to the underlying causes.