Cameron Conaway explores the global human trafficking of boys & men.
“My very first survivor was a boy. How many of us are looking for boys?”
~Sandra Morgan, Director, Global Center for Women & Justice at Vanguard University
His legs were thin as faded whispers and dangled like twisted ropes from his wheelchair, and his walk was a drag as he pulled himself along with worn-out school erasers clutched in each hand. Nadu was born this way and despite being 13 years old, he had just received his first wheelchair the day prior to my arrival. He hadn’t needed one for the past seven years. When he was five his family bent to the weight of foresight, tradition and circumstance. They sold him.
For seven years Nadu was stored like luggage in the back of a nondescript van and was taken from community to community for the sole purpose of being raped by anybody willing to pay enough to cover the driver’s fuel and food expenses. It’s called a mobile brothel and Nadu’s story is only one of countless many. He fought back the first week, but after being beaten nearly to death on two different occasions, he learned that living meant succumbing. And so it went day after day—when days felt like years and years like thick fog. When I met him he smiled but I couldn’t tell if it was a smile of courtesy, relief or something else altogether.
Like many Americans, I once lived under the impression that large-scale slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation (and the Civil War) in 1863. My travels both domestic and abroad have coupled with my attendance at conferences by organizations like Not For Sale and Slavery No More to show a truer picture, one that forced me to confront my Americentric worldviews and my absolute naiveté.
There are more slaves today than at any point in human history – 27 million worldwide(1). The best numbers on the subject reflect that 1-1.2 million children are trafficked every year, and 100,000 human trafficking victims are currently in the United States(2). After drug dealing, human trafficking (both sex trafficking and trafficking for forced labor) is tied with the illegal arms industry as the second largest criminal industry in the world today, and it’s the fastest growing(3). 80% of trafficking victims are women and girls.
These are huge numbers, but numbers rarely arouse emotion like personal stories. Of the personal stories we hear in the news or elsewhere, I’d guess 98% of them represent the 80%. This is not a complaint but an observation – human trafficking awareness is essential regardless of where it comes from.
What might be the reason for this discrepancy? Some have posited that children are the most vulnerable people in our community and as women are the more physically vulnerable sex their stories cut deeper and therefore make better media. Some have said that our world is still entirely uncomfortable with same-sex sex, especially with men.
Another person I spoke to said it could be the result of people being ignorant, willfully or otherwise, when it involves the possibility of men raping boys. This made me think of Joe Paterno’s quote in January 2012, “I never heard of… of… rape and a man.” We’ve thought on this quote plenty as it relates to the Penn State crimes and Paterno’s personal honesty, but what of its general validity? If true, it shows a total lack of awareness. If false, it shows a climate of blindness suggesting that it’s actually a valid excuse for some people to be unaware of the possibilities of the sexual abuse of boys. Either way is terribly sad.
On the taboo of man-on-boy rape, I’ve talked to several authors and filmmakers who address sex trafficking and they echoed similar sentiments in different words. It should be noted that though their goal is one of awareness it is also one of sales. The two are often intertwined. The more their book or film is talked about, the more buzz. And the more buzz, the more there is awareness and the money to help. That said, these are artists whose work is often shaped by their perception of the general public. Their art isn’t merely for art’s sake and as a result they often have their fingers as close to the public’s pulse as possible. One went so far as to say the following:
“Society can barely stomach the raping of young girls. I feared they couldn’t handle it if my story was about the sex trafficking of young boys. How comfortable would people be with telling others to check out the work? In one sense they could just say it involves rape and most people would assume it meant of a girl or woman. But if it were about a boy or a man could they just say rape and let it stand without adding any extra details? I’m not sure, but I felt that’s where discomfort would come in and I didn’t want to chance it. Great works involve some level of discomfort, but maybe that would be too much.”
Some of the best projects about sex trafficking include Her Story, a film produced by Aaron Au, whom we interviewed last October. Her Story shows how sex trafficking takes place not just in foreign lands, but right next door. It features a young girl enslaved in a brothel.
I recently screened the feature film Not Today by Brent Martz. Debuting in 2013, the movie follows an Orange County trust-fund college student whose travels unexpectedly show him the story of a young Indian girl sold into the sex trade.
Investigative journalist Julian Sher received much-deserved praise for his book, Somebody’s Daughter, which tells the stories of American teens caught in the sex trade.
While all of these pieces are exceptional and will surely combat trafficking in a way that helps all genders, they are all primarily, if not entirely, about the sex trafficking of girls. As the market becomes saturated with similar works, there’s a fear it may continue feeding into the machine that paints only in black and white: Men are monsters. Women are victims. This concept, in part, was addressed by Chris Anderson, Executive Director of MaleSurvivor.org, who explains:
“Ignoring the truth that millions of males are victims of abuse and violence alienates us, and effectively tells us that we have no right to hope, healing, and support for the harms we have suffered. The lasting message of this attitude is that men are the problem. This makes it far less likely that males who have been harmed will ask for the help they need to heal. Further, this attitude has focused our communal attention and directed the bulk of resources to programs and studies that focus primarily on women…”
Yes, men are the primary engines behind sex trafficking. We are the primary pimps and johns. As pastor Eddie Buyn said at the Not For Sale conference in Manila, “There are many slaves in the sex trafficking battle: The pimps who are slaves to greed, the johns who are slaves to lust, and those who are physically enslaved.” But when it comes to victimization, we make up an astounding 20% and that’s on the low end compared to other studies I’ve read. Yet all of this so far has addressed only sex trafficking, a branch off of the overall entity of human trafficking.
In many circles, the term “human trafficking” is believed to be a euphemism for modern-day slavery. The definition given by the U.N. Trafficking Protocol: “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, or fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation.” This exploitation is typically in the form of sex or labor, but as survivor Ima Matul recently pointed out, “It doesn’t matter which type. The sex side makes the news but all forms are inhumane. Trafficking is trafficking.”
From my travels and research I’d guess that men are trafficked far more than women. Still, because my mind and emotions are most crushed by the sex trafficking of children, I have been surprised when I visit rescue shelters and, when I ask how many survivors are men, the staff members look at me and say, “They all are men.”
Labor trafficking is a brutal business that offers a low risk for the criminals. The story of boys and men being tricked or forced into slave labor camps and then beat mercilessly once there doesn’t many capture headlines. Many still confuse it with separate issues. Make no mistake about it: These slavery rings are not synonymous with typical migrant worker rings whereby foreign workers enter a new country and are employed seasonally and paid meagerly.
We’re talking about the type of slavery most of our history books exposed us to, the stuff of movies, the stuff we think has passed, the stuff that can cripple cultures for generations or longer. I met one boy of 12 who was blindfolded and beat daily for three weeks so that he was sufficiently brainwashed by his “master” and would devote the rest of his healthy life to working for free. And it’s not all boys either. Most of the survivors I met are grown men – ranging from 25-45 – who, in an effort to better support their families, were sold a fake promise and then were sold into slavery rings. Many expressed embarrassment. Many said they could never tell their families what happened for fear of being regarded as weak, stupid and/or unmanly. Our soldiers (and men in general) have become notorious for not being able or wanting to open up about their mental disorders. The same can be assumed for male trafficking survivors.
Most of us are privileged enough to live only among the remnants, tasting it through museums or family photo albums or stories or by driving past the abandoned slave shacks, as I have, on my way to a vacation getaway in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. Sure having the beach to myself all day and falling asleep to the ocean’s lullaby stick in my mind, but so too do the images of the journey there: the rotting wood warped and rotting black, the unmown grass. It looks so long ago, and it is, but like any good business it has morphed and evolved to meet the times. I’ve learned a few lessons about its evolution throughout my recent research. Here are the two that come to mind:
- History paints not in the bold brush strokes of Van Gogh but in the curving and often circular pencil sketches of Klimt.
- If eyes could touch, the male survivors I’ve met would have reached out for a hug.
Part two will show some specific ways that trafficking is being combatted and what you can do to get involved in the fight.
(2) US Department of State
(3) U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services & International Justice Mission