A male perspective

Nearly half the total number of human trafficking victims are men and boys

T-R PHOTO BY SARA JORDAN-HEINTZ Robert Dennis Jr., who serves as a male outreach advocate and prevention specialist at ACCESS (Assault Care Center Extending Shelter & Support), and Natasha Doiel, who works as ACCESS’s Story County sexual assault advocate, spoke on behalf of the work they do in aiding victims of human trafficking, during a recent LAST Watch meeting at St. Henry Parish Center. They noted how stigmas about masculinity can prevent male victims from seeking help and resources.

While females are the victims of about 98 percent of all commercial sex exploitation, recent global statistics suggest that males represent almost half of the total number of human trafficking victims when labor exploitation is taken into account. And these males (and people who identify as male), face additional barriers when it comes to access to resources and rescue.

In recognition of January being Human Trafficking Awareness Month, L.A.S.T. Watch (Labor and Sex Trafficking), a watchdog group based in Marshalltown, hosted guest speakers at its most recent meeting at. St. Henry’s Parish Center, who outlined the difficulties male/male identify victims face.

“Part of the research suggests that almost half of all victims are male or hold masculine identities,” said Robert Dennis, Jr., who serves as a male outreach advocate & prevention specialist at ACCESS (Assault Care Center Extending Shelter & Support). “Male victims are less likely to be referred to available services by the general public and by law enforcement. There’s a stigma attached, especially for sexual trafficking.”

Gender stereotypes about masculinity can create barriers in seeking help, and how and why males get trapped in trafficking presents complex questions.

“Men face a stigma about not being strong enough to leave their trafficker, standing up for themselves, etc,” Dennis said. “Up to 45 percent of the male victims, ages 12-18, that would participate to be surveyed, reported entry into trafficking was done to pursue basic needs,” Dennis said. “Most of the men are saying they were homeless or didn’t have any food, and I found someone to help, or they sought me out.”

Natasha Doiel, who works as ACCESS’s Story County sexual assault advocate, said many males and females who are being sex trafficked are engaging in “survival sex.” She explained that when a trafficker can provide food, lodging or other necessities in exchange for sex, it creates a dependency and imposes fear. In addition, people who are gay or identify as transgender are at a higher risk of engaging in survival sex.

“Survival sex is definitely more common for males than females,” she said.

“When it comes to human trafficking, it’s about taking advantage of someone’s vulnerabilities,” Dennis noted.

He said groups, including people in the LGBTQ population, anyone who has had a run-in with law enforcement, or people that have been the victim of violence in the home, may feel help is unavailable. For instance, according to 2016 statistics, an estimated 1 out of 6 runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims. Of those victims, 86 percent were in the care of social services or foster care at the point of running away.

“We know if someone is in the system, or maybe has a parent who is, they may feel like seeking help from law enforcement isn’t an option because of fear of getting into further trouble, or more likely, because of a fear of the police,” Doiel said. “We know that 2 percent of victims get out of human trafficking, and only 2 percent of that 2 percent are able to talk about it.”

How do advocates offer support?

“One thing that allows us to work with victims to move past trust issues is to validate their identity,” Dennis said. “If someone’s identity is torn down, that increases their vulnerability.”

Both advocates noted how they work to help victims on a case-by-case basis, and not let biases get in the way.

“We hear someone say ‘oh that person comes from a troubled family. That is just who they are.’ We can’t look at it that way,” she said.

L.A.S.T. Watch holds free public meetings on the third Thursday of every month at 4:30 p.m. at St. Henry’s Parish Center, located next to the church at 211 W. Olive St. All are welcome to attend. For more information, reach coordinator Lynne Carroll at: c_l_carroll@mediacombb.net or coordinator Wally Paige at: wbpaige@msn.com.

ACCESS serves Boone, Greene, Marshall, Story and Tama counties, with an office located at 16 E. Main St. in Marshalltown. The agency provides housing for victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and human trafficking, for both males and females. Dennis may be reached at: bobby@assaultcarecenter.org and Doiel at: natasha@assaultcarecenter.org

Resources are available by contacting the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at: 888-373-7888 or text “BeFree” (233733). For resources related to male sexual abuse or assault, visit: 1in6.org

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Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or sjordan@timesrepublican.com