This past weekend I was at an anti-sex trafficking conference. While I am extremely glad there are events like this continuing to bring awareness to the issue of sexual exploitation, one thing remains obvious: we have yet to see boys and men as victims of sexual exploitation. I can count on one hand the number of times boys and men were mentioned as victims, and it was always in passing.
On the conference wrist band it said, “every person should be free.” Yet I had to ask myself, do we (advocates of abolishing sex trafficking) truly believe this? Are our actions and words portraying this belief? “Person” is an inclusive word, not an exclusive one. Yet the message conveyed was one of exclusivity. I didn’t feel like the message conveyed at the conference was that every BOY, GIRL, WOMAN, and MAN should be free from sexual exploitation. Only that every woman and girl should be free. The conference continued to paint this picture that only women and girls could be victims, while men and boys could only be perpetrators. Should the wrist band have said “every woman and girl should be free,” instead? What do we really mean when we say “every person should be free?”
My intention is not to bash this conference or the organization that put it on, because they are doing amazing work! In fact, this isn’t even about the organization or conference. It is about the anti-sex trafficking movement as a whole. Why are we so loud in advocating for female survivors, yet utterly silent for males? Why when we talk about this issue, do we never mention boys and men as victims? Why are we not sharing their stories, bringing to light the horrors they are going through day after day?
Some might argue, “well women and girls make up the majority of victims. They need more help than the few boys and men who are being exploited.” While it is true that many statistics show females making up the majority of sex-trafficking victims, there are studies showing that males make up a greater number of victims than previously believed. You might hear something like this at an awareness event: “Even if there was only one girl being trafficked, one girl is one girl too many.” Even with the argument that there are less male victims than female victims, I have yet to hear someone say, “one boy is one boy too many.” (Studies: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children In the U. S., Canada and Mexico , Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in New York City , Research on the Sexual Exploitation of Boys and Young Men .)
Maybe the reason why statistics on male victims of sexual exploitation are so low and so few is because we, as a society, do not believe males can be victims.
“We live in a society where ideas about what masculinity is, what a man is, what a boy is supposed to be or become, are influenced in many ways by very toxic, distorted myths, and one of the most damaging ones is the idea that a man can’t be a victim” -Chris Anderson
When a society believes that men must be strong, self-reliant and protectors, this can cause a lot of harm. This belief does not give space for males to be vulnerable about the suffering they have encountered. This belief silences and shames men and boys who have been sexually exploited. Many male victims say they remained silent out of fear, shame and rejection. Gender norms cause male victims to blame themselves. They won’t see themselves as victims, leading to a lack of self-reporting.
I have to wonder, is the anti-sex trafficking movement feeding into culture’s lies that boys and men cannot be victims? Are we part of the reason why male victims have remained silent? If the good and well-meaning people of anti-sex trafficking organizations don’t even care about or acknowledge male victims, then why should anyone else care about them. Is our silence, our omission, telling male victims that they do not matter, that they are alone? At one point in the conference, my heart absolutely broke for male victims around the world. In a very passionate prayer, one of the speakers prayed something along this line: I pray for the women and girls who are enslaved… and I pray for the men who are enslaved by their lusts. I wanted to jump up and shout, “What about the men and boys who are being raped and beaten every day? Why aren’t you praying for them? They need our prayers!” Brothers and sisters, let us not forget to pray for the men and boys who are being exploited.
This problem is something God has been convicting me of over the past year. I reflect on my own fight against sex-trafficking. I learned about this issue 8 years ago, yet if I am truly honest, for 7 of those years I omitted thousands and millions of voices that matter. I realized I was only giving half the truth, which really isn’t the truth at all. So I want to take the time to apologize to the men and boys who have been silenced and ignored for too long by myself and society. I am deeply sorry for ignoring your voice. I am deeply sorry for unintentionally feeding into culture’s belief that you cannot be a victim. I am sorry for adding to your fear of rejection. I am sorry for adding to your shame. I am sorry for not fighting for you for 7 years. I am sorry for not allowing you to be vulnerable. I want you to know that I see you. I care about you and you do matter. I am no longer fighting just for women and girls, but I am fighting for you too.
Sex-trafficking isn’t just a woman’s issue. It is a human issue.