Male victims of human trafficking are often overlooked and underserved.
Lucas is a composite character whose story reflects the struggles of male survivors who are often not recognized as victims and face a lack of services. Lucas’s story is based on interviews with four male human trafficking survivors and an expert on runaway and homeless youth.
Lucas eyed the exit as the women took their seats. He didn’t belong there. His counselor, Taylor, told him he’d likely be the only man in the therapy group for survivors of sexual abuse, but he didn’t think he’d be seated in a circle of folding chairs with women he sensed were not comfortable with his presence.
Lucas had tried to forget the months he spent on the street and what he did to survive after he ran away from home. But lately, he was having nightmares—again. He lost his temper over small things like waiting for a friend to show up and jumped when he heard a car horn or siren. He had a hard time talking to people or looking them in the eye. He shut down when people asked about his family or where he grew up. Taylor thought it would be good for Lucas to hear from other victims of sexual abuse, to know he was not alone. So he agreed to attend the group therapy session at the community center.
But Lucas wanted to leave. He was the only man there. A poster publicizing the group to community center visitors showed a bruised woman, hands over her face. Books he’d thumbed through in the library and the pamphlets in Taylor’s office waiting room also focused on women—none seemed right for him. His friend Ray shrugged when he told him he thought he’d check out the group. “Why do you want to do that, man?” he said. “Those people don’t want you there. Just forget about it. Man up and move on.” But Lucas decided to give it a try. He was ready to go back to school, get a better job, and maybe start a relationship.
All of the women who spoke before him had been abused by men. They looked at him with suspicion as he started to speak.
Risk Factors for child sex trafficking
- Children who are chronically missing or who frequently run away
- Children who have experienced childhood sexual abuse
- Children who have experienced prior sexual assault or rape
- Children with significant substance abuse issues or who live with someone who has significant substance abuse issues
- Children who identify as LGBTQ and have been kicked out or who have been stigmatized by their family
Lucas grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, with his mom and older sister. His father left when he was two. His stepfather first sexually assaulted him when he was 12 years old and told him he’d kill him if he told anyone. The abuse continued for years. One night, when he was 17, his stepfather pulled a knife on him during an argument and told him to leave. Lucas grabbed some clothes and some cash he’d stashed in a drawer. He ran out, heading for the train station and then to New York City.
Lucas hated leaving his mother behind and thought of her on the train. As he neared Penn Station, his anger eased and was replaced by a wave of fear. Where was he going to sleep? How cold would it be tonight? He didn’t have a heavy jacket or blanket to keep himself warm. The weight of his situation started to hit him and so did the sadness of knowing he had no home to return to.
It was cold and past midnight when Lucas arrived. With no place to sleep, he wandered the streets for hours. As he walked through midtown to the East River he found a small park. He eyed a bench and thought of lying down but worried that if he fell asleep he’d be robbed or worse. So instead he walked the streets until dawn.
The next day he called a friend who lived in the city. The friend said he could stay a couple of days until his dad got home. Three days was not enough time to find a job, and with no money, he split his time between crashing at different people’s houses and the street.
One night Lucas met Justin, a wiry 17-year-old who had been living on the streets for about a year, ever since his mother kicked him out of the house. Justin got by moving from place to place, and he was more than happy to share what he knew.
He showed Lucas where people slept—behind abandoned buildings, warm corners in subway tunnels, and sometimes, when it was really cold, in cheap motels.
He told Lucas about the drop-in centers where homeless youth could go to could get something to eat, a shower, or medical help. There were also emergency shelters for youth, but there was no guarantee on getting in. Demand was high and they were unable to serve everyone who needed the help.
In New York, 48 percent of youth respondents who engaged in commercial sex activity did so because they didn’t have a safe place to stay.
What about money? Lucas wondered. Motels, food, cigarettes—how did Justin support himself? Lucas would find out a few nights later when Justin introduced him to Big Mike.
Big Mike was 35, a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier than Lucas. Justin said Big Mike hooked him up and that the money was pretty good.
When he met Lucas for the first time, Mike looked him up and down smiling and asked him if he worked out. Mike told him how much he could make in a night having sex. It made him feel sick. Lucas left, determined to find another way to get by. He didn’t need to sell himself to make it on the streets, he told himself.
Lucas did get by for a while. When his cash ran low, he begged for food from restaurant kitchen staff, shoplifted sandwiches, grabbed food from trash bins. He’d sometimes see Big Mike near a basketball court where he and Justin hung out. Big Mike would offer Lucas cigarettes and the chance to make some money. He always said no.
Then winter’s bitter cold set in. With $10 in his pocket, little to eat, and no place warm to sleep, Lucas became desperate. The next time Big Mike came by the park, Lucas gave in.
of young men surveyed across 13 cities reported experiences consistent with the definition of sex trafficking.
Big Mike told Lucas to meet a man at a rundown apartment building. Lucas did as he was told – he tried to block everything out of his mind as it was happening. After the man was done, he gave Lucas $40. Out of desperation, Lucas started to meet Big Mike a few times a week.
The money helped him get by, but each time, Lucas loathed what he was about to do. Some nights he was beaten by the men who paid for sex or by Big Mike for showing up late.
Then Big Mike started giving Lucas drugs. They helped him to escape for a few hours, and soon he needed a fix just to get through the day. Big Mike demanded money in exchange for the drugs, and he now had even more control.
Lucas hated what he was doing, and he feared he would be arrested. The few times he went into a drop-in center, if someone asked him questions about how he was getting by, he’d close up or just leave.
One night Lucas went to a drop-in center with a high fever. Amy, one of the center’s staff, told him about a transitional housing program that was expanding in the area. There were apartments, counseling, and other services for young adults like him who needed some support to live independently.
Lucas wanted to get off the streets. He was hungry, exhausted, and weak. Amy helped Lucas with his application paperwork but warned him that there were very few spots for the number of young people who applied. He stopped by the center every week to see if anything was available. On his fourth visit he found out he was approved for one of their apartments in Jersey City.
Number of beds for male sex trafficking victims out of 682 beds available at U.S. residential programs surveyed in 2012.
Lucas was eligible to live in the transitional housing for two years. He met Taylor, a counselor who helped him navigate the transition from the streets. He got into a substance abuse recovery program, learned some basic job skills, and started thinking he might have a future.
Lucas knew he was lucky to have found a place to live with the support he needed to pull himself together. He was determined not to waste this opportunity. He found a part-time job at a bike shop and enrolled in community college. He wanted to learn accounting so he could get a decent job and pay the rent when his two years in the transitional housing program ended.
Lucas’s determination and hard work didn’t erase the effects of trauma inflicted by his abusive stepfather, Big Mike, and the men he’d been forced to have sex with. He had nightmares. He would jump if someone tapped his shoulder or slammed a door. He had a quick temper and trouble concentrating on school work. He wanted to be like the guys he met in his classes, laid back and easygoing. But he felt alone, full of horrifying experiences and feelings he couldn’t talk about.
The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention hosts a list of resources on combating the commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth.
Taylor was an important resource for Lucas. She was the first person to suggest that human trafficking had been part of Lucas’s experience on the streets. Lucas had never even considered those words or that Big Mike’s control of him was a criminal act.
Taylor told Lucas he wasn’t to blame for what happened to him on the streets. He was a minor who participated in a commercial sex act. He was a trafficking victim. He had fled from one abusive situation in his home to another in New York City.
Lucas struggled to see himself as a victim. However young or abused, he thought he should be able to stand up for himself as a man. Even as he learned more about trafficking, it seemed that everything he read was about female victims.
Taylor encouraged Lucas to talk about his experiences and his feelings with others and suggested he join a sexual abuse survivors group at the community center.
That first night in the therapy group was a start. After sharing his story, Lucas felt better. People came up to him to say they understood what he said and to offer encouragement. They said they hoped he would be back the next week.
Lucas’s story is not unique. Men and boys are often overlooked as trafficking survivors, particularly as victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Since 2012, 15.4 percent of victims in cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline* have involved male potential victims of trafficking. However, trafficking of men and boys is underreported and less likely to be identified, and as a result, the real number of victims is likely much higher.
There is less known about the experiences of male victims and survivors, and there are fewer targeted services, including housing, available to them. Personal feelings about being a victim and the lack of information and services can create a cycle in which men and boys are less likely to seek help, according to interviews with male human trafficking survivors. This could be true whether they are survivors of sex or labor trafficking. According to the U.S. State Department 2017 “Trafficking in Persons” report, “[M]ale survivors often do not initially see themselves as having been the victim of the crime of forced labor. Instead they are likely to view their labor trafficking situation as bad luck, their own ‘gullibility,’ or a ‘normal’ consequence of labor migration. This is reinforced by commonly accepted or traditional gender roles or stereotypes in which men are expected to stand up for themselves and provide for their families.”
Additionally, homeless youth, including young men, are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. According to a 2016 survey of 641 Covenant House homeless youth by the Loyola University Modern Slavery Research Project, which was conducted across 10 cities, nearly one in ten cisgender young men and more than one in five LGBTQ young men had experienced a situation considered sex trafficking. In particular, the study recommended standardized screening protocols so that boys, LGBTQ youth, and foster kids can better access the care they need.
*Data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline constitutes one of the largest data sets on human trafficking, but it is not intended to represent the full scale or scope of human trafficking within an area or population. Hotline statistics are generated from information communicated to the National Human Trafficking Hotline via calls, emails, or online tip reports. The National Hotline evaluates information for evidence of potential human trafficking but cannot verify the accuracy of the information reported. Statistics are accurate as of June 30, 2017 and are subject to change as new information emerges. Public awareness and advertising of the hotline, and an understanding of who human trafficking victims are, affects utilization of the hotline by a community or victims themselves and may lead to over or under reporting.