The message shared with community members at a training event Thursday hosted by SOS, Inc. was straight and to the point: Boys are trafficked, too.
The training was led by nationally-respected human trafficking expert, Russell Wilson.
Dena Russell, director of SOS CASA of the Flint Hills, said many efforts have been made throughout the state to combat human trafficking. The Attorney General’s office has facilitated trainings for social service professionals throughout the state to recognize human trafficking and provide supports for survivors. Though much progress has been made, there is still more to be done.
“One thing we have noticed is, boys are often left out of those conversations about human trafficking,” Russell said. “I think even when we think about human trafficking, we think about young girls in our mind’s eye. But we know boys are also trafficked. Anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of trafficking victims are male. We know, in Kansas, girls enter trafficking between the ages of 12 and 14, but we know boys are entering slightly younger than that.”
In an effort to bring attention to the trafficking of boys and provide community members with needed education, SOS, Inc. arranged for Wilson to come to Emporia to present. He not only presented to community partners on Thursday afternoon, he also spoke to more than 700 students at Emporia High School Thursday morning. Students from Emporia, Olpe, Hartford, Chase County and Hamilton high schools were in attendance.
Wilson’s message was clear, “Boys are trafficked, too.” He knows it to be true all too well, because he experienced trafficking at a young age. He was first trafficked by his mother at 7 years old — she sold him to pedophiles to pay the bills. After being removed from his mother’s care, he was placed in foster homes, where he was also sexually abused.
To escape the abuse in his foster home, he ran away, landing on the streets by the time he was 11. Within 15 minutes of being on the streets, he was approached by a trafficker and soon found himself engaging in sex acts as a means of survival. Access to food and housing was tied directly to sexual abuse at the hands of adults.
“I’ve experienced all different aspects of how people are trafficked,” Wilson said. “It is something I obviously have an intimate understanding of. But that is not what makes me an expert. All that does is make me an expert in my story. What makes me an expert is, I’ve also spent many years studying, working with organizations, helping develop programs and curriculum, working with law enforcement and several federal agencies on helping to develop programs at the federal level. I’ve done a lot of work on this issue, and I feel very proud to be considered an expert.”
There are many myths surrounding the trafficking of boys. Wilson quickly tackled some of those myths head on. He advised masculinity has nothing to do with trafficking; the most masculine of boys and men can find themselves in vulnerable situations which make them easy prey for traffickers. Another myth is that boys and men cannot be raped. He said this is false, and reinforced the idea by saying, “an erection is not consent.” Rather, it is a physical reaction young men often have little control over.
Another myth dispelled by Wilson was related to the trauma surrounding the exploitation of boys. Some believe trafficking is not as harmful to boys as it is to girls. Others believe boys are “lucky” when they are preyed on by older women. Wilson said both myths are dangerous and false.
The final myth Wilson addressed is one he said can be particularly harmful as boys are trying to heal and move forward after being trafficked. The myth that boys are gay, will become gay or will become abusers is particularly harmful. Being exploited by a male does not make a person identify as gay. Just as being abused does not mean a victim of abuse will automatically become a perpetrator. Those myths can make survivors of trafficking feel more isolated and experience additional guilt, only adding to their trauma.
Current research in trafficking focuses mainly on the experiences of girls and women. Research studies all too often leave out boys and men.
Wilson said the stigma surrounding the rape of boys and men also contributes to skewed studies because male victims often do not disclose their abuse, even in research studies. One large-scale study involved surveying 40,000 households. Of those surveyed, 38 percent of men reported being raped, a number Wilson still thinks is low.
Risk factors for trafficking are numerous, and Wilson reminded attendees that they are working with many children who are at a risk for trafficking. Potential risk factors include being a previous victim of abuse, bullying, being in foster care and homelessness. Youth who identify as LGBTQ have an added vulnerability, according to Wilson.
“Traffickers are predators who seek out victims who are vulnerable,” he said. “Children in foster care, children who are runaways — they know these children have emotional and physical needs that are not being met and they use this to their advantage.”
Boys and girls can be trafficked in the same ways. The difference comes in the experience boys and girls have post-victimization. For girls, there are many programs, shelters and services to help them heal from their experiences. There are few programs throughout the nation focused on helping boys.
“It’s easier for women — not easy — but easier than men,” Wilson said. “The reason I say that is because, when a woman says, ‘I have been raped,’ there are 1,000 numbers out there they can call to get her the help and support she needs. If her husband is beating her, there are 1,000 shelters out there she can go to to get help and support. And those shelters and programs aren’t going to make her feel bad or responsible for why they got beat or raped. For all intents and purposes, there is almost nothing out there for men who say they were raped.”
Locally, SOS, Inc. strives to prevent human trafficking and provide services and supports to all survivors of human trafficking, domestic and sexual assault. For help, contact SOS crisis services by calling the 24-hour hotline at 800-825-1295 or 342-1870.
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