NEW YORK—One boy was trafficked with his mother by her husband and held in captivity for most of his life. Another was lured through video games into a family that forced him to have sexual relations with them and their friends. Yet one more, a foster care runaway, was picked up in the street and offered a place to stay—in exchange for sex.
These cases point to only a drop in the ocean of what many boys go through in the United States. Human trafficking, or “modern-day slavery,” is a broad term used to describe victims of forced labor, sexual exploitation or servitude, and forced marriages, among numerous other abuses. Trafficking is a problem that affects both genders, but many argue that among the victims, all aren’t receiving an equal amount of attention.
Boys who fall victim to human trafficking in the United States make up as much as 40 to 45 percent of the total victim population in some cities, studies have indicated. Despite this, men are severely neglected in an already hidden problem when it comes to resources, services, and public awareness campaigns—which focus predominantly on women.
Boys and men make up a “significant portion” of human trafficking victims, both in the United States and internationally, according to a 2019 annual report from the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. But due to them being overlooked, “many men and boys do not identify as victims or request services,” the report found.
The advisory council referred to a 2010 piece that tracked 222 institutions at the time that received funding from the government. Of those, only two were dedicated to combating the trafficking of males.
Interviews by The Epoch Times of trafficking experts—one a victim himself—reveal a stark imbalance of attention from each sector of society. Experts say male victims are ignored not only by the mass media but by law enforcement as well, contributing to the overall lack of care. Many have expressed outrage at the apathy.
There are also vast differences in how to handle cases. For example, girls often develop Stockholm syndrome—a trauma bond where they fall in love with their abusers—something that doesn’t usually happen with boys.
From Victim to Judge
In an exclusive interview with The Epoch Times, Judge Robert Lung, who was appointed in 2018 by President Donald Trump to serve on the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, explained how boys and men are “exceptionally” unlikely to report their own abuse.
Lung himself was trafficked by his own father between 1976 and 1980, from age 6 through 10. It wasn’t until he was in his late 30s that he accepted he had been a victim of trafficking.
The now-48-year-old judge—appointed in 2016 to serve on the 18th Judicial District in Colorado by Gov. John Hickenlooper—said there was no such term as human trafficking back then, only “child sex rings,” which he deemed offensive—”There’s no such thing as child sex,” he said.
“Boys are just far more reluctant” about revealing their abuse, Lung said. “It’s not supposed to happen to us, we’re supposed to be able to stop it, or we’re supposed to say no, or we’re supposed to be stronger than girls—and it’s preposterous.”
“When the message is, ‘It’s only girls,’ that message is received by law enforcement, that message is received by the public, that message is received by human services, that message is received by the victims who are told ‘Oh no, it’s only girls,’ so the victims don’t even believe that they’re victims.”
Lung learned he was being traded for sex when his father would leave the room to assault another child who was brought to the meeting spot. Lung was abused exclusively by other men.
“He was trading me for another boy,” he said.
Lung said his father started grooming him before the trafficking when he was around 2 to 3 years old. The trafficking stopped when he reached the age of 10, because of the discovery of AIDS. Lung said his father knew if he contracted AIDS, there would be no way to explain it. But it didn’t stop there.
His father continued to abuse him and later started torturing him. His father stopped it all at around the age of 13, but by then, someone else had started to abuse him. By the time he reached the age of 16, the abuse had finally ended for good.
Lung’s childhood centered around one main theme: helplessness. His father, whom he didn’t name, maintained a sense of chaos in his family that included his mother and older brother. He described how his father committed domestic violence against his mother and physically abused his older brother. No one could trust each other.
Looking back, Lung said his father used a common tactic used by intrafamilial traffickers, pimps, and gang-related traffickers alike: keeping the victim in an environment of chaos and disorder, with no sense of control.
This sense of chaos is especially common with labor trafficking victims, who are often told, “You can’t trust the government,” “You’ll be deported,” or “You can’t call the police because you’ll be arrested.” A “significant percentage” of all trafficking cases are victims of labor trafficking that include men and boys, according to the U.S. Advisory Council report.
Lung said his father even threatened to kill him if he told anyone about the trafficking. His father, a doctor, had access to drugs and he believed his threats.
“This is my father. He is the strongest, most powerful man in the universe, according to my perceptions,” he said. “So I didn’t question it. I feared it, but I didn’t question it.”
In his 20s, Lung started to receive therapy, and later got married, adopted two sons of his own, and made a career as a judicial officer. He came to the realization that he had gone through a remarkable experience of resiliency, recovery, and hope. Lung felt it was a duty of his to share with other survivors that it is possible to experience traumatic events and later, after a lot of help, reclaim your life.
“I realized after I started speaking out that there was just nobody out there talking about male survivors,” he said. “That’s what really bothered me a lot. There was just no message being sent. There was no message from the media that boys were victims.”
Lung recalled his therapist telling him in his 20s about the absence of books about boy victims and directed him to read a novel called “The Courage to Heal,” written by women for women. The book he said, portrayed men as the only perpetrator.
“It was incredibly difficult to accept that the only material out there is for women victims,” he said. At the time of his recovery, Lung said there were almost no materials for boys, however, some books later started coming out. Lung is currently in the process of writing a biography about his experiences.
Both boys and girls need to be treated for their trauma, he explained, but overlooking men as victims sends a message to traffickers that there is an entire segment of the population that society is going to ignore.
After being all over the country, Lung was aware of only a single organization in the United States that provides housing for boys who are trafficked. In the state of Colorado alone, he could name half a dozen organizations exclusively for girls.
“Why the public is not demanding that there be more services for boys is beyond me,” he said. “There’s no defining it, no explaining it, but it is exactly the circumstance.”
Lung said the thing that kept him going throughout it all was hope. He had it as a child, and still does as an adult.
The U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT) organization created one of the first safe homes exclusively for boys who are trafficked under the age of 18. It opened its first location in Florida, with more planned around the country. According to their website, the home offers a trauma-based care approach developed as a six- to nine-month program, but also allows children to stay as long as necessary for their proper care.
Geoffrey Rogers, co-founder and CEO of USIAHT, told The Epoch Times that boys are often forced into trafficking at a younger age than girls, on average by around 11 months, with most occurring around the age of 10 to 12 years old. He described how girl victims predominantly were lured by a trafficker or pimp skilled at targeting girls with low self-esteem, grooming them by acting like the victim’s boyfriend, and fostering a feeling of love.
For boys, Rogers said the cases were all different from each other, and rarely did the luring methods resemble those used on girls. He said it’s unlikely a Stockholm syndrome-type relationship would develop between boys and their traffickers, adding that there were also cases where the perpetrators were women.
But there was one thing in common between many of the boy and girl trafficking victims—they had come through America’s foster care system.
“We’ve seen studies that say about 70 percent of kids who are trafficked in America come out of the foster care system … but the way that they’re brought into it varies very significantly, per individual child,” Rogers said, referring to the cases of boys.
A study commissioned by the Department of Justice in 2016 found that boys made up about 36 percent of all children caught in America’s trafficking industry. One interviewee told the study that the narrative where most of the youth in the trafficking trade were girls, was “problematic.”
Rogers said they created the safe home out of necessity and had the idea about four years ago, while traveling the country learning about trafficking. He saw no services for boys, no safe homes for boys, and very few organizations even talking about boys. The safe home program in Florida is currently operating at capacity and the organization is looking into building more in other states that could benefit.
“Our goal is to have a safe home that feels like a house because, basically, most of these kids have never really experienced what I would consider being a normal home with love and care,” he said.
Rogers said one of the reasons there appears to be a lack of recognition and awareness of male victims is due to how different the cases were from those involving girls. Over the years, organizations and individual law enforcement agencies have been trained to spot potential perpetrators who are trafficking girls. The same can’t be said for boys.
The other reason is that boys will “almost never identify as a victim of human trafficking,” which makes it difficult for organizations or law enforcement to identify a boy they believe to be a victim.
“I would say almost 100 percent of the kids in our safe home has never identified as a victim,” Rogers said. “And they probably never will.”
He said USIAHT recognizes that to combat the problem of trafficking, there should be more focus on curbing the demand. Rogers said safe homes are needed to take care of these children, but they won’t stop the demand.
For traffickers, it’s all a business operation.
“They don’t care about the kids, they’re a commodity. They’re selling them for money,” he said. “That’s all it’s about for them. So it’s a business equation of supply versus demand.”
Rogers brought up another initiative, dubbed “Trafficking Free Zone,” which employs a community-based services engagement method, utilizing the different sectors within that community to fight the demand. This could involve working with the local government, the county commission, the city council, business, law enforcement, the education system, churches, and more.
Rogers, a former vice president for IBM, left the corporate world to fight for the nation’s children. He described the child trafficking problem in the United States as an “epidemic that’s continuing to spin out of control.”
“I’m outraged at the fact there’s over 100,000 kids in America that are sold for sex every single day,” he said. “What we are also outraged about is—where is the outrage?”
How Porn Grooms Children
One trafficking expert brought up what she called “another hidden epidemic” in the United States—how boys and girls are being exposed to pornography at a young age.
Lisa L. Thompson, vice president of policy and research for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, told The Epoch Times there are a range of abuses not on the popular radar, with pornography exposure abuse being a major one.
Thompson explained how boys, in particular, are exposed to pornography at increasingly young ages, citing the prevalence of the internet and connected devices. Pornography, aside from depicting graphic sex acts, can include abuse, violence, and even rape in some instances.
“Boys are seeing this even before adolescence in some instances and are growing up almost using this as their sex education,” she said. “It disrupts the natural child development.”
Thompson said their organization is working with groups across the country to raise awareness that pornography exposure is a public health issue.
“To us, it’s a form of grooming,” she said. “It’s a way of reducing the inhibitions of children before they are actually of age to participate and to be engaged in sexual acts.”
The extreme content can serve to basically groom children to potential exploitation and abuse later on in their lives.
A 2019 report prepared by the center conducted a meta-analysis of 59 different studies, comparing 3,855 male sex offenders to 13,393 male non-sex offenders, all aged from 12 to 18 years old. The report, “Confronting the Rise of Child-on-Child Harmful Sexual Behavior,” found exposure to pornography had some links to sex offenders.
“Adolescents who had sexually offended were significantly more likely to have had early exposure to pornography, report higher rates of exposure to pornography, have significantly more atypical sexual fantasies, behaviors or interests, and were more often diagnosed with a paraphilia than non-sex offenders,” the report found.
Thompson added that when children are exposed, it’s likely they could act out on other children.
“We are seeing a real connection with child-on-child sexual abuse,” she said. “Particularly where an older child will act out something that they’ve seen, maybe on a sibling or maybe in play with other children.”
Current federal law forbids the distribution of obscene material (hardcore pornography) through the internet or television, or common carriers such as FedEx and retailers, but the Department of Justice has not enforced federal obscenity laws against major distributors of adult obscenity for nearly a decade, according to a fact sheet by the national center.
Alaska, Maine, New Mexico, Vermont, and West Virginia don’t have statewide obscenity laws, while Montana and South Dakota have defective state laws, according to the fact sheet. The center called for new obscenity laws to be added in the states mentioned.