The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Boys,
Adolescent Males, and Trans Youth
By Steven L. Procopio
In recent years, attention to the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) has primarily focused on girls and young women. Yet, sexual victimization is universal and not gender specific.
Traditionally we have been led to believe that 10 percent of men in the United States have experienced trauma as a result of sexual victimization, and at an average age of 17. But current research suggests that boys enter the cycle of sexual exploitation at the same age as girls or perhaps younger (11-13 years). And a study on CSEC in New York City (John Jay College, 2008) estimated that upwards of half of exploited children in the United States are boys.
According to the Young Men’s Project, LGBT youth do not receive adequate information about their sexual feelings and thoughts. And living in an environment where those thoughts are perceived as unwelcome topics of conversation leads to increased susceptibility to sexual exploitation, since queer youth may engage in ‘risky’ behavior out of curiosity. It is not uncommon for boys to report being thrown out of their house based on their sexual orientation, which exposes them to the exploitation of survival sex work. A study involving male sex workers in Canada found that 70 percent of respondents had experienced a history of sexual abuse prior to entering into sex work, and approximately 75 percent had been physically abused and were witness to aggression in childhood.
Even though we know that sexual exploitation of boys is common, a variety of factors have hindered attention to and reporting of this issue: homophobia, sexism, stigma, fear and shame, lack of screening tools and outreach, and a cultural predisposition to view men as perpetrators and not as victims. Indeed, adult male sex workers, when discussed in articles, tend to have their sexuality called to question, whereas their female counterparts were usually assumed to be heterosexual, as are the majority of boys who are sexually exploited. Our biased approach to this social problem has grave consequences for boys, cis-gender and transgender alike.
According to the National Center for PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), the sexual abuse of boys has been shown to impact self-concept, the development of gender identity, and enforces low self-esteem. Boys who have been sexually exploited have much higher rates of anxiety, depression, HIV/AIDS, STIs, PTSD, and increased rates of suicide attempts. These victims of exploitation were also exposed to a high level of violent injuries at the hands of their exploiters. In addition, self-mutilation, sleep disturbance, eating disorders, fire setting, difficulty maintaining intimate partner relationships, and increased episodes of risk-taking behavior may be observed in sexually abused boys.
Recent research on adolescent prostitution discovered that the majority of exploited youth were experiencing homelessness. While 44 percent of boys in the sample were homeless, only 24 percent of girls sampled reported living on the streets. More than half the boys reported living alone, whereas one quarter of the girls reporting living alone. The authors of the study reported, “generally, based upon how the youth described their living arrangements, boys seemed more solitary and disconnected from others, including family members.” The report also found that there are different paths of entry into commercial sexual exploitation: 68 percent of transgender youth were recruited by friends, compared to 46 percent of cis-gender girls and 44 percent of cis-gender boys. The cis-gender boys reported that one third of the time they entered into “the life” after “customers approached them” for the first time, whereas transgender youth reported this experience 10.55 percent of the time and girls 16 percent of the time. Whether victimized or not, homeless youth are not usually tracked or asked probing questions on their experiences at intake into the social service system.
The various systems that work with male youth both publicly and privately need to be aware of the factors that lead to sexual exploitation and the behavioral indicators that can identify males at risk for or actively exploited in our culture. Adverse childhood experiences, which include sexual abuse, domestic violence, family history of substance abuse, gang related activities in neighborhoods, homelessness/runaway behavior, war-torn communities, poverty, and multiple foster placements, lend themselves to victimizing experiences for children and contribute to multi-victimization experiences as they develop. For youth with these adverse experiences, behaviors that manifest will be key indicators of victimization. These behaviors include depression, anxiety, oppositional behavior disorder, self-mutilation, suicidal episodes, and truancy – behaviors that lead to relationship with the criminal justice system.
According to a report “And Boys Too,” published by ECPAT USA (2013), there are contributing factors as to why boys and young men are not identified or served as victims of commercial sexual exploitation: (1) the unwillingness of boys to identify as sexually exploited due to shame and stigma about their sexual orientation or perception of sexual orientation by their family/community; (2) lack of appropriate screening and intake by law enforcement and social service organizations based on the belief that boys are not victims; (3) limited outreach by antitrafficking organizations to areas or venues known for male “prostitution”; (4) the false assumption that boys are not generally pimped.
The scholarly literature finds that boys enter into commercial sexual exploitation in order to meet their basic need for money, food, shelter, drugs, clothing, and transportation. These young men also have histories, like their female counterparts, of physical and sexual abuse. As many male youth are thrown out of their house for being gay/bisexual or transgender, they are placed at high risk for sexual exploitation in attempts to meet their basic needs. Research suggests that the majority of sexually exploited youth are heterosexual. It is important to note that the commercial sexual exploitation of boys is not primarily a matter of gender or sexual orientation. Exploitation is about power and control, and every at-risk male youth needs to be equally and appropriately identified and supported through the various systems charged with protecting them.
National evidence on sexually exploited boys found that (1) male victims are difficult to identify or engage, as indicated in the above case, oftentimes not being recognized by many health, social service or criminal justice programs; (2) life on the streets for these youth brings high levels of risk for HIV/AIDS, STIs, substance abuse, violence, and other compromising physical and health challenges; (3) boys and young men that are at risk for or actively sexually exploited can be engaged and supported through outreach interventions designed to reflect the realities of their circumstances, needs, and desires.
In 2012, I facilitated a series of focus groups with at-risk youth and those who were being actively sexually exploited, which was organized for a non-profit in Boston with a history of working with marginalized, homeless and runaway youth, and many who had a history of commercial sexual exploitation. The groups were designed to collect data on CSEC boys and life on the streets. The two groups consisted of male youth between 15 and 22 years of age. I developed a series of focus group questions prior to administering the groups. Staff recruited the youth with incentives provided for their participation. Preceding each group, I discussed my work in developing services for exploited males and informed them that I would be seeking their counsel and expertise on life on the street and how males came to the commercial sex industry, as they knew it. Definitions and identification of exploitation included survival sex, hustling, sex work, tricking, stepping out, and making coins as traditional terms for prostitution/ exploitation. The participants were unfamiliar with the term commercial sexual exploitation and did not connect their experiences to that term.
I briefly summarize a few of the major findings of this study below:
The participants identified four categories of sexual exploitation, each with varying degrees of anonymity and regularity, and power dynamics: 1) escort services; 2) street work; 3) internet sites; and 4) clubs, particularly those catering to the gay community.
The ‘client’ community is defined generally as white males, 35+ years of age and older, married with children; this definition is true for female victims of commercial sexual exploitation as well. The majority of buyers are identified as professional, although many cross socio-economic lines. The young men define this community as doctors, bank presidents, politicians, law enforcement personnel, company CEOs – generally men who had great flexibility in their work schedules which made “hook ups” easy to maneuver. The participants stated that these men also had, at times, a preference for youth of color, as they often verbalized the wish to fulfill a fantasy of what it is like to be with a ‘black’ man. The participants also remarked that it is common to hear from buyers that they “can do things to them that they cannot do to their wives.” That being said, any male youth who is impacted by the risk factors mentioned above are highly vulnerable to exploitation, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Most participants agree that various venues should be considered when reaching out to exploited youth. They include (but are not limited to) clubs, “hook-up” internet sites, public transportation centers, noted cruising areas, hotel lobbies, and community areas where youth congregate. They identify five key services to support them: 1) adequate/ safe long-term supported housing with case management services; 2) educational programs that will support obtaining the necessary credentials that will lead to gainful employment; 3) job training/apprenticeship and/or vocational training programs; 4) compassionate healthcare from providers that do not make judgments about their lifestyle; 5) long-term behavioral healthcare by providers trained on the unique issues related to this population. Respondents identified housing as the most critical need among these.
The participants referred to themselves as ‘street wise’ people. Early life experiences with socially challenging families, disengaged or absent parents, limited socio-economic opportunities, and other adverse childhood experiences made them feel ‘older’ than their years. Many participants stated that they had experienced more adversity in life than people three times their age. No childhood and daily struggles with survival presented bleak outcomes for them. There were aware that their clients were using them but were in need of the survival money. They expressed an opinion that the system supports their exploitation, as many clients are in powerful professional situations.
Based on these focus groups and subsequent work by this author, we can now identify various ways in which boys are involved with pimps. First, the initial entry into sexual exploitation for boys may be prompted by family members. This usually occurs as a result of parental figures needing to feed their addictions. An additional factor of pimped boys relates to prostitution as the ‘family business’. It is not uncommon for male youth to be part of families where generational prostitution has been the family norm. Second, pimps have now been diversifying their workforce in order to maximize their ability to meet the demands of the market base. Third, community pimping entails a situation where youth engaged in survival sex will introduce homeless and runaway youth into the culture as a means of making ends meet. Fourth, older men and women will establish relationships with at-risk and vulnerable male youth and groom them with gifts, and then gradually begin to pimp them out to others as a way to get return for their economic support. These situations usually result in the pimp housing the youth at their home or in hotels. Fifth, the fee-for-service pimp connects with youth indiscriminately on the street and asks them if they are interested in making money for the evening. As the youth agrees, the pimp will drive them to strategic areas in a community, have him perform sex services for the clients and at the end of a night’s work, will drop the youth off. The particular youth may not necessarily see the specific pimp again, as fee-for service pimps abound.
With these various forms of pimping now identified, it is imperative that we dispense with the myth that pimps do not victimize boys. Officers and personnel of law enforcement, social services, healthcare, courts, probation, youth shelters and outreach programs, and many others must be cognizant of the dynamics behind the commercial sexual exploitation of boys, and support the development of intervention systems that treat males not solely as perpetrators but also as victims.
Steven L. Procopio, ACSW, LICSW, is a trainer, consultant, and clinical supervisor for local, state, and federal agencies. His expertise is in the area of childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, and commercial sexual exploitation of boys, adolescent males, and trans youth. He founded the first freestanding program to serve commercially sexually exploited boys and adolescent males in the United States. Steven is a graduate of the UCONN School of Social Work.