Yoyo was 14 when he was thrown out of his house. He knew even then he was gay, but coming out to his family left him homeless and broke. He lost one job after another. He thought about suicide. He traveled around, voguing in ballroom dance events and looking for work. Then one of his women friends suggested they try to make money “escorting,” to use the popular euphemism. Soon enough, Yoyo was in “the life.”
A large, dark man with sensitive eyes and daisy tattoos on his arms, Yoyo, now 27 and a counselor for other young male victims of sexual exploitation, speaks in a reedy voice with a hint of his native Dominican Republic. He tears up when he describes, with disarming frankness, the years he spent being used for sex: the shame and self-loathing; the bouts with sexually transmitted diseases; the ever-present threat of violence from his “clients” or the older men who controlled him. He hit bottom several years ago in Miami’s South Beach. “I was sleeping on the beach, turning tricks for $20 behind the Dumpster,” he said. “I realized then, this life isn’t for me.”
In the past few years, the scourge of human trafficking has started to receive the scrutiny it deserves: States have passed new laws that treat prostitutes as victims instead of criminals; dozens of anti-trafficking organizations have been raising money and recruiting well-known figures like Demi Moore and Salma Hayek; public awareness ads ran during the Super Bowl. Last week the Senate added language to the Violence Against Women Act that allows child victims of sex trafficking to receive help through the law.
But the vast majority of the attention and support programs have been aimed at girls. Few address the sexual exploitation of boys and young men, and yet that business also thrives. Just last week two Connecticut men were arrested in a sex slavery case involving a 12-year-old boy. One of the accused committed suicide on Tuesday. Last fall, a New Jersey man was charged with running a male prostitution ring, including minors, out of his apartment. He allegedly solicited clients by posting nude photos of the boys on the Internet. Websites that advertise “dating” boys are getting plenty of traffic.
Law enforcement officers are not well-trained to recognize the signs of sexual exploitation among boys, according to Steven Procopio, project coordinator for Surviving Our Struggle, a new Boston program dedicated exclusively to boys who have been forced into commercial sex. Police may pick up a runaway kid for shoplifting or drugs, but “they are dealt with as delinquents, and no one ever does an assessment to find out the underlying abuse or prostitution.”
Partly for this reason, it is difficult to say with certainty how widespread sex trafficking is among boys. The Department of Justice estimates that boys are less than 10 percent of the victim population, but that only reflects the cases DOJ investigates. A footnote to an annual DOJ report on sex trafficking crimes forthrightly admits this: “Men and boys can also be victims of sex trafficking. However, cases involving men and boys do not make up a statistically significant portion of the sex trafficking cases we investigate or prosecute.”
Then there are cultural attitudes that refuse to see young men as victims; that somehow they should be able to defend themselves against exploitation. To this, Yoyo says it’s important to look below the surface. “Granted, I’m a man, I look strong, but inside I’m the weakest person ever,” he says. “If someone punches me I just go straight to the ground.”
Today, Yoyo is the first paid case manager for Surviving Our Struggle, with 15 clients. Operated through the long-standing social service agency Justice Resource Institute in Downtown Crossing, the program helps boys who have been driven into prostitution find housing, health care, GED training, and hope.
Procopio says there are many misconceptions about underage male prostitutes: that they don’t have pimps; that they are all gay; that they choose the life. In fact, he says most of the young boys on the streets are running away from domestic violence, drugs, or sexual abuse at home.
They can be helped. But first they have to be seen.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.