Written by: Katie Linn | Previous Executive Director of Exploit No More
As we look at a number of different types of sex trafficking that youth can fall victim to, there are some that are still hidden from view, specifically the exploitation of boys and homeless youth.
Child exploitation consists of more than just the traditional idea of sex trafficking – it can also include survival sex and the exploitation of boys, which can look different than the exploitation of girls. These two types of exploitation can be closely related, as can the exploitation of homeless youth and gang or pimp controlled trafficking.
Of all the factors that make youth vulnerable to exploitation, homelessness and running away from home are two of the most prevalent. Traffickers specifically look for youth who are missing the family connection and aim to fill that position in order to lure them in to be trafficked. Within 48 hours of being away from home, one in three adolescents will be sexually exploited.
In addition to runaway and otherwise homeless youth, many youth find themselves on the streets and in vulnerable situations due to being forced to leave home or prevented from returning by their own parents. These children are known as throwaway youth – those who have been thrown out of their homes. As a child often becomes a throwaway through conflict or discord with the family, many children who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) are at a higher risk for exploitation. Through their own journey to discover who they are, some families are not supportive and refuse to allow their child to live in their home, giving the child no place to go other than the streets and potentially to traffickers.
While living on the streets, youth typically tend to meet and stick with others their age who are in the same situation. They will work together in order to find food and shelter for each other, may travel to a new or different part of the city or state together, and form a familial bond between them – often calling each other ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. In the sense of relationships, traffickers also aim to create this sense of family among themselves and their victims, with girls calling each other ‘wifeys’ or ‘sister-wives’ and their trafficker ‘daddy’. Therefore, for youth who have their alternative family on the streets, coming into an alternative family of a trafficker does not feel out of the ordinary or different – it feels normal.
Many youth who find themselves with a home – whether it be from running away, being thrown out by family, or other factors – go without the basic necessities of shelter, food, and clothing. In order to fulfill these basic needs, some engage in survival sex, which is the exchange of sex for food, shelter, clothing, or money in order to meet those needs. Survival sex, while exploitation within itself, also forms greater vulnerabilities to being trafficked.
Exploitation of Boys
Despite the main focus on exploitation of girls, it is thought that boys make up anywhere between 10-50% of all exploited youth. This wide range of a possible percentage is due to the fact that it is much more difficult to identify male victims, due to a few key differences between the exploitation of boys versus girls.
The majority of exploited male youth are not trafficked by a pimp, but rather work independently. They often secure their own ‘dates’ themselves on the streets, online, or via magazine advertisements, giving themselves and others the illusion that they are in control of their own sexual engagement and transactions. These ‘hustlers’, as they may call themselves, often have a higher rate of drug addictions than other exploited youth, and typically do not self-identify as a victim or admit any involvement in the sex trade.
For those boys who are trafficked under a pimp, it is extremely difficult for law enforcement to identify the victims. Pimps practice a greater caution with boys, as they are treated more harshly in prison by other prisoners if arrested for trafficking boys. This often leads to the requirement of a buyer to perform the sexual act while the pimp is still in the room, which limits undercover law enforcement’s opportunities to successfully identify and rescue victims.
Another difficulty in identifying exploited boys is the lack of self-identification. Many boys hesitate to self-identify as being trafficked or exploited within the sex trade out of fear and shame that they may be labeled as gay. While the majority of buyers and exploiters of boys are adult men, in reality only 25-35% of victims self-identify as gay, bisexual, or transgender.