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Shifting the Perspective: Boys & Men Sexually Trafficked in the United States

The plight of boys and men being sold for sex was made aware to Chris and I during our first year of founding Restore One. Once you know something, you can no longer not know. While I had understanding from my past experiences and years in the field, I did not fully grasp the weight of the issue until I came face to face with some of the bravest men and boys I know, my survivor brothers. While entrenched in this work I admit there are aspects to the nature of male sexual harm that I do not fully comprehend and probably never will. What we do know to be true is in the United States boys and men are being sold for sex every day and there little options for recovery care. Nearly five years into Restore One and we are still the only safe home in United Sates designated solely for boys who’ve been sexually trafficked. This reality is horrifying. In one of the most developed countries in world, we’ve been negligent, failing our men and boys. Males whom experience sexual harm are significantly overlooked and underserved. I’ve come to several conclusions concerning why this is the case in the United States.

Research is now showing that rather than being viewed as victims or survivors like sex trafficked girls, boys are often perceived as homosexual, deviant, promiscuous, exploiters, pimps, hustlers, buyers, and willing participants in “sex work” (Friedman, 2013; Jones, 2010; Rivers & Saewyc, 2012). Our culture communicates a false portrayal of the ideal masculinity, resulting in stigmas and shame. Stigmas paint an untruthful picture that boys and men who do endure sexual harm must be willing participants, bypassing their need to identify as a victim seeking services. In the field of abolition, males are seen mostly as the perpetrator, not a victim. Stigmas surrounding sexual harm are fueled by western culture’s ideals for males. Communicating to boys starting at a very young age that they are too tough, invincible, unable to be harmed or show emotion. Many care providers are influenced by their own biases which drastically impacts the ability for male survivors to form a therapeutic alliance and feel secure in obtaining services. Historically we’ve found that boys in treatment for sexual abuse receive less clinical attention than girls with sexual abuse histories (Douglas, Coghill, & Will, 1996) and adult males’ disclosure of sexual abuse to psychotherapists are often met with insensitivity and a lack of empathy (Alaggia & Millington, 2008; Tickner, 2014). I’ve told many front line workers that boys receiving care starts with you believing the survivors’ story and their need of services. Part of the cultural facade lures many to believe that male survivors of sex trafficking do not exists. Yet we know that as high as 50% of sex trafficked children in the U.S. are boys (Curtis et al., 2008). The antidote to under reporting is changing our mindset to recognize the equal vulnerability of both males and females.

More than anything the modern day field of abolition has been infatuated by the concept that only women and girls are victims of sexual trafficking. With that statement I want to acknowledge my personal gratitude for the awareness and education surrounding female sex trafficking. Many of my friends and allies in the field work for or are founders of organizations doing great work restoring the lives of many female survivors. And I want to challenge the field of abolition on the topic of discrimination of male survivors. If we keep our marketing, language, research and program implantation solely female centered we are not only failing male survivors but we are also feeding into the culture norms that create barriers we are bound in. Sexual trafficking knows no discrimination, neither should the field of abolition.

While I acknowledge these as our realities, I do believe change is happening and will continue to happen. Over the past few years it’s been encouraging to witness male survivors start to education at national conferences. Now many frontline speakers and educators include boys and men into their presentations. My hope is The Anchor House is just the beginning to safe homes opening up all across America. I believe that in the years to come more men will be empowered to offer their voice to educate us and change the mindset of our culture. Change is among us and freedom is more contagious than the constraints of society. Our innate ability to dream past our unsteady reality into a future full of hope will only propel us to trust that change is possible.


This blog was written by Co-founder & President of Restore One Anna Smith. To learn more about Anna click the button below. 

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