Male Human Trafficking: Unseen & Unacknowledged

In the world of trafficking, men are mostly regarded as the “bad guy” or the “predator” – the pimp who sells females between borders and brothels; the one who benefits off this business of selling bodies. Rarely have I seen an advertisement concerning human trafficking that did not show a man as the victim. Looking at the images below, you’ll notice that all but one of them feature women.

These ads were plastered on the streets and subways of New York City.

Amnesty International Human Trafficking Promotion: “Woman in a Suitcase”. Read more about the campaign here:

Labor trafficking advertisement of a man on a bus.

One thing that bothers me a bit about these advertisements is how women are mostly used at the forefront of these campaigns. While it is common knowledge that human trafficking targets the most vulnerable populations (females and children) it is still disturbing to note the gender disparity regarding this issue in the media. It’s as if constantly portraying women is a self-accepted bias or stereotype that has become “normal.”

It is understandable that sensationalized images sometimes make for great advertising to capture the viewer’s attention. But I find that in most cases, the truth of the situation becomes obscured. If we are to really understand the nuances of human trafficking, we need to take it upon ourselves to know the facts and evaluate them fairly. That being said, here are some statistics regarding male trafficking:

  • An alarming statistic produced by the United States State Department reports that between 2006 and 2008, the percentage of adult trafficking male victims jumped from 6% to 45%.

With those statistics in mind, human trafficking should be recognized as an issue that happens to both genders. However, the media focuses on the female and children perspective. That could be because the advertising tactic of using women and children generates an emotional appeal to viewers; men are perceived to be “contemptuous or condescending. Commentators note that ‘less than 20%’ of media descriptions of men are positive.” (Jones)

Our skewed perception on male masculinity contributes to the larger issue of human trafficking more than we know. Men are born and raised with the idea that they must display ideal characteristics of masculinity: one must display strength, wield power, show emotion (but not too much for fear of being ridiculed), and not act in a feminine way that would have someone question their sexuality. These stereotypical characteristics are strictly enforced in our society and pressure men in our life more than than they would admit. In the words of American sociologist Michael S. Kimmel, men are “under the constant careful scrutiny of other men.” One’s manhood is always under inspection and competition, unconsciously and consciously done by fellow peers and family members. We assume that men behave the way they do to attract people of the opposite gender; but in fact, they do that to evaluate their own masculinity. An argument that presents itself here is to say to claim “Masculinity as homophobia.” (Kimmel)

How can masculinity be homophobia? As stated by Kimmel, “Homophobia is the fear that other men will unmask us, emasculate us, reveal to us and the world that we do not measure up, that we are not real men. We are afraid to let other men see that fear. Fear makes us ashamed, because the recognition of fear in ourselves is proof to ourselves that we are not as manly as we pretend, … Our fear is the fear of humiliation. We are ashamed to be afraid.”

Being unmanly brings about undeniable shame. Nothing hurts a man more than having his pride damaged, displaying weakness, or losing power. “Like female victims, males are forced to participate in sex acts against their will, controlled through brutality, psychological manipulation, and routine drug use and addiction.” (Clymer) Through this exchange, dealing with repetitive accounts of losing power and/or control crumbles their self-esteem and has them doubt their masculinity. An ECPAT study revealed that boys are reluctant to declare themselves as victims or report incidents of exploitation to avoid the potential stigma associated with being viewed as gay.

It is interesting to note that while men are recognized to be trafficking perpetrators and victims, they are hardly ever featured as rescuers and activists. While we blame the media for having a large influence on this, the bigger problem is how masculinity is constructed in society. With the idea of a dominant patriarchal society in mind, we tend to view men on the violent spectrum of situations rather than on the nurturing side. Violence is associated as the prime example of displaying manhood. Being called a “sissy” or “faggot” carries gendered meanings open to interpretation and which become the case for judgment. There’s a certain type of stigma attached to being called a “sissy” or “fag”. For example, “When a boy calls another boy a fag, it means he is not a man but not necessarily that he is a homosexual.” (Pascoe) This fluidity of interpretation is something men can waver in between; but it is also a grey space they do not want to get caught in as it challenges their masculinity. Already, there is the strong stigma of emotional and physical expression that tugs on a man’s self-esteem and prevents him from expressing his feelings, especially accepting vulnerability. Men are trained to put on a certain act so that they won’t be deemed “unmanly”, or even worse – laughed at. (Kimmel)

Since men are taught to hide their feelings, male trafficking victims find it difficult to ask and get help. Male human trafficking is often unacknowledged that it comes to no surprise that there are a lack of services and attention for male victims. Men aren’t the focus of trafficking research or statistics; according to the United Nations 2009 human trafficking report, “Trafficking in males – adult men and boys is rarely represented in official national statistics.” (Jones) Even the Department of Justice recognized that “‘data on men, boys, persons who are trafficked for other work (e.g. agriculture, sweat shops, domestic work, servile marriage), and those who are trafficked within borders are excluded [from trafficking estimations].” (Jones) Admittedly, there is only a very small percentage of people who look for them and make them a priority in outreach and healing programs.

I find this interesting in how gender and society’s labels influence the male population. We are told to “be ourselves” and to not conform to anyone’s expectations, eventhough the opposite message is being portrayed. It seems like we are all slaves to something. As pastor Eddie Buyn said puts it,

“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.” (Conaway)

Clymer, Beth. “Why Human Trafficking is a Men’s Issue.” Meet Justice. N.p., 25 May 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
Conaway, Cameron. “Human Trafficking: The Other 20%.” The Good Men Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Dec.
Jones, Samuel Vincent. “The Invisible Man: The Conscious Neglect Of Men And Boys In The War On Human Trafficking.” Utah Law Review 2010.4 (2010): 1143-1188. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
Kimmel, Michael S. “Masculinity as Homophobia.” PDF.
Pascoe, C.J. “‘DUDE, YOU’RE A FAG?’ Adolescent Male Homophobia.” PDF.

4 thoughts on “Male Human Trafficking: Unseen & Unacknowledged

  1. I’ve read many of Kimmel’s works, heard him speak in a number of forums, and consider his contribution enormous. It cannot be overstated that human trafficking is an egregious human rights abuse that impacts everybody, male and female alike.
    Nonetheless, the overwhelming demand for sexual services from prostituted persons comes from men. Overwhelmingly they are the johns, the pimps and the traffickers. To me, that is all the more reason why human trafficking should be on the radar not only for those women who are most frequently abused, but of concern also to all men who reject the idea of being abusers.
    In the arena of labor trafficking, we see a more egalitarian paradigm for exploitation. Again, all the more incentive for men to join the abolitionist fray and renounce the abrogation of human rights by all those who seek to exploit poverty and desperation.
    Men are victims in large, if not equal measure. All people need to stand up and raise their voices against exploitation. It is an obligation that flows from being part of the human family.
    Peace, Justice and Freedom…

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