Sex trafficking is a complex crime mired in shame and misconceptions. It’s also a local issue. More than 500 youth are prostituted in King County. Of them, nearly half are boys, according to estimates. Experts say the actual figures are likely to be much higher.
The average age of their entry into prostitution is 13 to 14 and more than 90 percent have a history of prior sexual abuse.
Stolen Youth, a local nonprofit helping to provide financial support to a coalition of direct-service organizations, is bringing the issue to the forefront of conversations. They are focused on the most vulnerable youth.
“The majority of the kids are coming from vulnerable situations like homelessness, like foster care, like abuse in their own families. There’s no question over 90 percent of the kids are vulnerable in one of those ways,” Stolen Youth President Patty Fleischman said. “The predators are incredibly sophisticated and these kids are incredibly vulnerable.”
Child sex trafficking is the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act” in which the person is under the age of 18 years. Federal law defines a commercial sex act as anytime anything of value is exchanged for sex. The exchange isn’t limited to money. It can be clothing, a cell phone, drugs, or a place to stay.
Recently Stolen Youth held an event at Town Hall Seattle titled “Boys Count” to highlight underage male victims of the commercial sex trade.
Tom Jones, a sex trafficking survivor, shared his personal story of abuse with about 150 people in the audience. He began with telling them how his life started out, describing himself as a murderer.
“My mom passed away from giving birth to me, and my dad never let me forget it. That was one of the things that he used to groom me into becoming a human-trafficking victim,” Jones said. “He was my first molester and he was also my trafficker. I was trafficked from the age of 6 to 15. During that time, I was beaten, strangled, starved. Mental abuse. You name it. I went through it.”
Jones said at 15 years old he turned his father in to the police. As a Black man living in Missouri during the late ’70s, the circumstances were complex. This was also during a time when society and law enforcement viewed sexual crimes differently. The criminal case stalled because of the trauma Jones had been through.
“They wanted me to relive a lot of the abuse that I’d gone through all those years and I just wasn’t equipped to do that,” Jones said. “There’s only so much I could do.”
Jones wasn’t the only male survivor who shared his story. Event moderator and Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess also opened up about the abuse he suffered at the hands of a person outside of his family when he was around 12 or 13 years old.
“I didn’t know what to do or who to turn to for help and it went on for way too long,” Burgess said. “I remember many times crawling under my covers and my bed thinking that I would be safe there, and I wasn’t. It was a devastating experience.”
Jones and Burgess both battled depression after the abuse ended but outwardly they tried to appear as normal as possible.
“Inside, I was dying and I was in this downward spiral of loneliness, despair, anger. Shame for certain,” Burgess said. “A friend of mine noticed what was going on and urged me to seek help, which I did. Professional counseling over many years saved my life.”
Burgess went on to say the shame was so great that he always paid for counseling sessions in cash despite having insurance that would cover the expense. Since joining City Council in 2008, Burgess has been focused on youth issues and sexual abuse.
After two failed suicide attempts and making plans for a third, Jones finally got the help he needed. Today he’s the founder and director of the H.O.P.E. project in San Diego, California (hope stands for “Healing, Outreach and Peer Empowerment”). The organization is a peer-led support network of men who have been sexually abused, exploited, molested or have been victims of sex trafficking.
Misconceptions surrounding sex trafficking keep victims from coming forward. Norene Roberts, a Commercial Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) Liaison for Washington’s Children’s Administration, shared her research. Roberts discovered boys often don’t come forward because they don’t want to be perceived as gay or outed as gay.
“People make that assumption all the time,” Roberts said. “We have come a long way but we are still a deeply homophobic society and that absolutely keeps boys quiet as well.”
Another stereotype she’s encountered is the belief that male victims must be small in stature. Noreen emphatically dispelled that notion.
“Whether we’re talking about boys or girls, this is not about a trafficker with a gun standing over their head 24 hours a day with them locked to a bed,” Noreen said. “What keeps kids stuck in this is so much more complex than physical force. That is across the board of youth of all genders.”
Toxic masculinity is also considered a contributing factor for why boys aren’t eager to share their abuse. Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood that places high regard on violence, sex, status and aggression. Phrases like “real men don’t cry” encapsulate toxic masculinity.
The problem of sex trafficking isn’t just on local roads like Aurora Avenue and Pacific Highway. The internet has also contributed to the growth of commercial sex sales. Last week, plaintiffs in four states including Washington sued Backpage.com, a site known for allowing illicit ads for sex. Backpage.com is accused of sex trafficking.
“People are being bought and sold like couches, chairs and lamps,” Fleischman said. “You can’t arrest your way out of this situation. We have to start talking to our men and boys.”
As sex trafficking slowly gains more exposure the approach of law enforcement and prosecutors is evolving. Locally there’s been a significant shift; victims are no longer viewed as criminal suspects. Burgess and Jones agree on the positive impact survivors can have when they share what they’ve gone through.
“I think it’s critically important that we unlock the secrets and release their power over us. I learned that in therapy,” Burgess said. “When I first told my story four years or so [ago] it was difficult to make the decision to do it but once I did I realized it was going to be just as helpful to me as it would be to anybody else. I hope people benefit from it.”
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the trafficking hotline at 888.373.7888.