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The Female Victim Myth: What About the Boys?

The Female Victim Myth What About the Boys

Typically, sex trafficking is presented as a crime primarily affecting women and girls. In data sets as recent as five years ago, researchers asserted that a whopping 97% of all sex trafficking victims are female. It is a narrative that has driven policy as well as justified the disproportionate allocation of funding and resources to programs focused on the prevention, rescue, and recovery of women and girls. While in no way is it appropriate to minimize the violence again females through commercial sexual exploitation, it is important to push back on the accuracy of those numbers. Are males really so rarely exploited as sex trafficking victims… or are we just not paying close enough attention?

As more research has been done, we have found that the 97% female victims statistic is a myth. In fact, boys and men may make up nearly half of the sex trafficking victim population according to a global study by ECPAT on the commercial sex trafficking of children in the tourism industry. Their findings were consistent with what many other organizations were noting: boy victims are a growing population in the demographic data.

As the anti-trafficking sector has worked to unravel why the female-only victim myth developed and how boys had been missed for so long, several possible explanations emerged.

  • Boys have been missing from the data because the way they are trafficked is often different from the way that girls are trafficked. The ECPAT study found that while girls and women are often trafficked into formal sex establishments like brothels and bars, boys are more likely to be trafficked in places like parks, bus stops, and on the streets. Boys are also more likely to experience sexual exploitation secondary to another form of exploitation. For example, they may be victims of forced begging or other forms of labor trafficking and be sold for sex alongside these other abuses.
  • Because of a greater stigma around being a victim of sexual assault, boys are more unlikely to self-report their exploitation. The reason for this is simply that most cultures around the world have socialized gender norms in which to be male is to be strong while to be female is to be weak. Therefore, the perspective is that females are victims while males are the perpetrators. While obviously flawed (in fact, a full 1/3 of traffickers are female!), it is understandable that boys are far less likely to report their experiences with sexual abuse. In addition to the pain of the abuse itself is the additional shame of emasculation.
  • Caregivers are less likely to report males as sex trafficking survivors. This reality is due in part to the fact that case managers and social workers are subject to the same socialization as anyone else in their cultures. If caregivers do not think of males as victims, they may not ask the appropriate questions, or they may report the boy as a victim of sexual abuse rather than sex trafficking because in their minds only girls are trafficking victims. Additionally, in places like Indonesia where members of the LGBT+ community are not legally protected and are often shunned by society, case managers may worry that acknowledging a boy as a victim of sex trafficking may have the unintended consequence of giving him a homosexual label. While it is completely erroneous that experiencing sodomization causes homosexuality, this common misconception does impact male victims of sexual violence in particular and may keep caregivers from correctly noting the reality of a male’s trafficking background in their files.


Why Does It Matter?

Aside from the simple importance of being truthful in our representations of the experiences of victims, accurate assessments about boys in human trafficking have practical implications. Funding is given when an organization or program can prove to the granting organization that there is a need for the organization or program to exist, and this is done using recent research. If our data does not show the existence of boys as victims, few resources will be dedicated to them. This is why there are vastly more programs and organizations for the prevention and recovery of women and girls in sex trafficking. In fact, one study in the USA showed that for every 150 beds available in aftercare programs for girls across the country, only 1 bed was available to boys.

In Indonesia, the needs for female victims already outweigh the capacity of the anti-trafficking community. There are very few programs at all, and in some places in the country there are essentially no victim services for huge populations. When we look at the needs of boys, this gap between need and available resources is even larger. Yet, we know that the boys exist. We see them in our outreaches in red light districts, and intersecting organizations such as those who work with boys in the juvenile justice system report how frequently they discover trafficking as a part of their beneficiaries’ backgrounds. As the Dark Bali coalition continues to grow, we hope to see more organizations and programs develop within our network to care specifically for these hidden victims.


(Dark Bali is committed to facilitating data collection and research in the anti-trafficking sector of Indonesia. With more accurate data, organizations within Indonesia are equipped to develop helpful resources in the most needed places. We connect researchers with practitioners and bridge the gap between Indonesian providers and the global anti-trafficking community, and we help disseminate good resources throughout the country. You can be a part of equipping those on the frontlines by joining our Monthly Impact Team or by contacting us to donate your own professional skills and services.)






Only recently has it become clear that worldwide, large numbers of boys are subject to sexual exploitation, including by tourists and travelers, and that the patriarchal societies in which they live, often prevents them from reporting incidents or seeking assistance.


“Girls have long been assumed to be the main target of sexual predators, but research for the Global Study reveals that boys are also strongly affected. The context that makes both boys and girls vulnerable is tied to social norms about gender, essentially the age-old stereotypes: girls are weak and passive and should remain in the home, while boys are strong and virile and capable of taking on the world… the gender myth that boys are ‘invulnerable’ and can take care of themselves has meant that they are far less likely to report incidents of sexual exploitation

and seek assistance.”


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