Male Labor Trafficking: The Invisible 40%

Under the subset definition of “human trafficking”, labor trafficking gets the least amount of attention.

In the United States, men make up 40% of labor trafficking victims. Of that percentage, 66% of victims are foreign nationals, while 20% are American citizens. The foreign national population is made up of immigrants (primarily from Central and South America) who dream of a successful future in the United States and are tricked into being promised a visa (Carroll). False recruiters feed on the desperation and hope of these men to lure them into the country. It is a tactic that enforces the sad reality of men being treated like animals and working in exploitative conditions; a Salvadoran man shared how he was forced to pick vegetables at gunpoint, work without pay for five months, and that he was beaten, raped, and burned with cigarettes (Carroll). In regards to Valentine’s Day, male farmers in places such as  Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana work overtime in cocoa fields to fulfill the Valentine’s Day consumer quota  – approximately $750 million in sales. That’s further proof (commercial) love was never cheap to begin with, anyway.

Do you know where your Valentine’s Day chocolate comes from?

Labor trafficking victims work on farms, in restaurants, nursing homes, private homes, construction sites, and factories. (Jones) While these work places appear “normal”, the treatment of the men inside them is questionable. Farm laborers are forced to absorb deadly chemicals, live without water and shelter, and “eat and sleep in their pesticide-contaminated clothes and chemically abused skins.” (Jones) They are threatened with deportation if they try to escape. Once men realize they are trapped in their abusive workplace, this induces shame on their part since they know – but are not willing to admit – they are being exploited.  A U.S. Department of State report states, “‘many migrant workers may see their trafficking as bad luck rather than a serious human rights violation.’ Men also feel bound by social constructs of masculinity: to admit to exploitation is to admit to one’s failure to provide for his family or stand up for himself.” (Clymer)

Fatherhood is an aspiration of masculinity desired and attained by a select few who want to have a family. Its responsibilities entail “being breadwinners, masculine role models, involved parents, and nurturing caregivers” to their loved ones, and ensuring that they practice good time management and decision making skills to satisfy their commitments (Duckworth).  Compared to colonial times “when good U.S. fathers made sure that their children could quote scripture and not be a burden to communities, fatherhood has shifted to being breadwinners, masculine role models, involved parents, and nurturing caregivers.” (Duckworth) Therefore, a father’s display of masculinity directly influences his line of children, particularly the males. If they do not fulfill the role expected of them, then they are left feeling insecure and inadequate.

While we regard our fathers with care and occasional annoyance, I don’t think we consider their pressure to provide for their family. Putting the “family first” holds various meanings, but a general meaning agreed upon is “prioritizing families in different ways – from mundane daily routines to major life and career decisions.” (Duckworth) Most importantly, fatherhood is a web of responsibilities to others but foremost to their children (Duckworth). The “family man” embodies the “family first” ideal that requires the man maintaining control over all situations. If the man does not have that, he fails in his role as “guardian” and “protector”, and his self-esteem deteriorates into feelings of frustration, shame, and anger in being viewed as weak and unmanly – which relates back to how men find it difficult to express their feelings. Male trafficking victims and survivors struggle with this loss of power and dealing with the idea that since society is perceived to be a dominant patriarchal society, men are expected to always have power. That aforementioned thought is attributed to feminism observing men in power.

“Men’s feelings are not the feelings of the powerful, but of those who see themselves as powerless. … They are the feelings of men who were raised to believe themselves entitled to feel that power, but do not feel it. No wonder many men are frustrated and angry.” (Kimmel)

Powerlessness is a crippling feeling. While some women are taught to overcome it, men are expected to know how to handle it. In the world of human trafficking where men are under-reported, they continue to thrive as victims because of their conflicted understanding of sexuality and masculinity. We must give male trafficking victims encouragement, power, and the belief that they matter. The invisible must become visible.

Carroll, Susan. “Traffickers force more men into servitude.” Houston Chronicle. Hearst Newspapers, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
Clymer, Beth. “Why Human Trafficking is a Men’s Issue.” Meet Justice. N.p., 25 May 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
Duckworth, John D., and Patrice M. Buzzanell. “Constructing Work-Life Balance And Fatherhood: Men’s Framing Of The Meanings Of Both Work And Family.” Communication Studies 60.5 (2009): 558-573. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
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.

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.