Why Human Trafficking is a Men’s Issue

Article originally published on MeetJustice.org on May 25, 2011.

When people talk about human trafficking, stereotypical imagery generally comes up: an international young woman trafficked across borders, a group of children forced to harvest distant crops, an inner city brothel exposed as exploiting dozens of young girls and women. The usual place men occupy in these stories is that of the “bad guy” – rarely the victim, let alone the rescuer. It’s easy for men to feel disengaged or even persecuted by the movement to stop human trafficking. However, we should be careful not to deny male survivors of trafficking their status as victims, nor should we discount male activists in the fight to end trafficking or relegate them to well-meaning wallflower status. Human trafficking is an issue that harms both sexes. It’s not simply a women’s issue: it’s everyone’s. And everyone has a reason to be in on fighting it.

It’s common knowledge that human traffickers seek out the most vulnerable members of society, and women and children often fit into this mold. However, women and children are not the only ones who fall into the trap of vulnerability. An alarming statistic produced by the State Department reports that between 2006 and 2008, the percentage of adult male victims of human trafficking jumped from 6% to 45%. And according to the Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns report, “it is men especially who might be expected to be trafficked for forced labor purposes.”

Migrant workers are a group that is at risk of trafficking. Oftentimes, they come seeking financial opportunity and are promised a fair job in the United States, but when they arrive they’re instead faced with inhumane living and working conditions. They’re offered either meager or no wages as a means to pay off the impossible travel debt their traffickers tell them they’ve accrued. Because they’ve been smuggled into the country illegally, these men are threatened with deportation or law enforcement if they try to escape. (In reality, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act offers trafficked victims temporary visas and assistance). One survivor who escaped from a Texas ranch where he was forced to pick vegetables for long hours at gunpoint described being threatened, beaten, raped, and burned with cigarettes if he didn’t comply.

However, forced labor is not the only facet of human trafficking in which males become trapped. Another group at risk for exploitation is homosexual young men. Many gay youth are at an increased risk of becoming homeless by being kicked out of their homes or running away to escape abuse and harassment. Multiple studies have indicated that homeless and runaway youth are among pimps’ easiest targets. One pimp in an interview conducted by the DePaul College of Law confirms their ability to pick out frightened, hungry people: “You can smell the desperation.” These young men, forced to engage in “survival sex”, often are swept up into sex trafficking – and there’s not much said or done about it.

Straight males are also sexually exploited. Customers who pay to rape men do it for the same reason that they pay to rape women and children: according to Julian Heng, manager of a support project for men in prostitution, it’s about power and control, not pleasure or orientation. Paying for this transaction is simply another form of exercising power and control over the victim. (Kloer) Like female victims, males are forced to participate in sex acts against their will, controlled through brutality, psychological manipulation, and routine drug use and addiction.

Men and boys who are sexually exploited must come to terms with not only the physical and emotional trauma of repeated rape and abuse, but their own conflicted sexuality and masculinity afterwards. Amanda Kloer, anti-trafficking activist, writes that this added stigma prevents them from coming forward and seeking assistance, which further compounds the problem of a lack of information regarding the exploitation of men. Unfortunately, they also have an even more significant hurdle to clear: a general lack of knowledge and resources for their rehabilitation.

Those trapped in forced labor trafficking often don’t feel comfortable revealing the truth about their circumstances, either. Many don’t come forward, out of either shame or ignorance that they are being exploited. One U.S Department of State report states, “many migrant workers may see their trafficking as bad luck rather than a serious Human Rights violation.” Men also feel bound by social constructs of masculinity: to admit to exploitation is to admit to one’s failure to provide for his family or stand up for himself.

To say that human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation is a Women’s issue is certainly true, but it’s also a Men’s issue. And the best way men can fight sex trafficking of women? CJ Adams, male Polaris Project blogger and trafficking activist, offers his suggestion: “The best thing a man can do to stop sex trafficking is to respect every woman in his life as an equal.”

Men aren’t just pimps, johns, or even victims – their role can also be that of the hero (see the list below). Men wield enormous power- as much power as women- in the movement to stop human trafficking. Each victim of human trafficking, male and female, need a voice. And each voice, be it male or female, is a powerful opponent to the modern day slave trade.

Still don’t think that males face the dark reality of human trafficking? Below are some recent articles to prove you wrong.

Federal agency files large human-trafficking suit

Male Sex Slaves: Trafficking Victims Are Not Only Female

The Misery of Male Slavery

Men trafficked from Africa to Scotland for sex

More men victims of Human Trafficking
For male-centered activism groups and abolitionists, check out the following stories and organizations:

Men Against the Trafficking of Others

Men Ending Rape

Everyman Protecting Innocent Kids (EPIK)

Minnesota Men stand up to Trafficking (story)

A Conversation Among Men about Sex Trafficking (youtube)

The idea that human trafficking is a women’s issue is one of many myths. Read more myths about human trafficking here.

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