July 30th was World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, and the theme for 2023 that the United Nations chose is “Reach every victim of trafficking, leave no one behind.” Unfortunately, in recent years, human trafficking has been pushed further underground, making it easier for people to be left behind by well-intentioned anti-trafficking responses. This leaves us with the question, who is getting left behind? While there are multiple groups of people who fall through the cracks in the mission to eliminate human trafficking (i.e., male victims, LGBTQIA+ youth, victims of familial trafficking, etc.), this article focuses on male victims who get left behind, particularly young boys.
Dr. Sandra Morgan, director of the Global Center for Women and Justice, knows the importance of reaching male trafficking victims from personal experience: “As a night nurse on the pediatric unit, I admitted a 14-year-old boy who was being sex trafficked to support family members’ drug use. That early experience led to consistently reminding our community that we have to look for boys as well as girls. We find what we are looking for and we will miss the boys if we are only looking for girls.” When reading the following statistics, it is important to keep in mind that while female victims of human trafficking are identified more often than male victims, part of that is due to the tendency of some anti-trafficking organizations to only look for female victims; if we looked for male victims as much as we do female victims, we would likely find more of them. You can find Dr. Morgan’s Ending Human Trafficking podcast episode about the human trafficking and sexual exploitation of boys here.
According to the United States State Department’s 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report, “While women constitute about twice the percentage of identified trafficking victims as men (42 percent to 23 percent), the percentage of trafficking victims who are boys and girls is almost identical (17 percent and 18 percent, respectively),” and according to UNODC’s 2022 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, “the percentage of boys identified as victims of human trafficking more than quintupled between 2004 and 2020—a much larger increase than for men, women, or girls…males (including boys and men) account for 40 percent of all identified victims of human trafficking.” While males do make up a significant portion of trafficking victims, they are much less likely to be identified, self-identify, or be protected due to the assumption that males are supposed to be strong and can only be perpetrators, not victims. Another result of this assumption is that male victims of human trafficking have much less resources available to them, because most safe homes and resource centers for human trafficking victims offer female-centered services and do not focus on the needs of male victims.
So how can we start catching males vulnerable to trafficking before they fall through the cracks? The answer starts with changing the “gender norms and masculine stereotypes [that] hinder identification of male trafficking victims.” Anyone can be a victim of human trafficking, including men and boys. Once more people lose the societal belief that males are supposed to be strong and cannot be victimized, then more people and organizations will create more safe homes and resources focused on the needs of male victims of human trafficking. We also cannot forget the importance of more research and education in how male victims specifically are impacted by their lived experience with human trafficking, so that we may have best practices to catch male victims of human trafficking before they fall through the cracks. After all, “we find what we look for,” so it is time that we look for every victim of trafficking, not just the ones we expect to find.
Written by Emily Miller — Writing Intern and Administrative Assistant