Whom do you picture when you hear the words “sexual exploitation?” How about “human trafficking?” “Prostitution?”
Research suggests you’re probably picturing a woman, as this is the image associated most strongly and persistently with victims of sexual exploitation. The media have been instrumental in perpetuating this stereotype, even though it silences and ostracizes an important demographic: men.
We may think of men as perpetrators of sexual exploitation far more often than as victims, except perhaps when it comes to prison culture. When society addresses sexual violence and exploitation, particularly in the trafficking industry, it’s usually addressing young women.
Besides the fact that men outnumber women in industries outside of commercial sex trafficking (such as labour trafficking), they also make up a not insignificant number of victims in the sex trade. After all, one victim is still one too many.
Focused as it is on hypermasculine ideals of manly strength and power, society’s reaction to the notion of male victimhood makes it more difficult for men to report their experiences. They may feel emasculated by what they have done and had done to them, believing their manhood has been compromised. While they generally have the same reactions women do when dealing with sexual violence, men may respond more readily with anger, and tend to turn to substance abuse to erase or at least manage the effects of trauma. As they confront these issues, they are left to do so mostly alone, with few front-line workers from schools, shelters and other social organizations available to offer support. For many front-line workers, sexual exploitation of males just isn’t on their radar.
Worse still, men can face resistance and stigma when they do choose to report. If they are believed, which is not a given, they may make themselves vulnerable to ridicule and shame. Enduring the victim-blaming typically aimed at women victims is hard enough: why didn’t they just leave? Was there any chance that they deserved to be abused? Was it really exploitation if they were “working?”
In addition, they must battle questions geared more toward masculinity: why did they allow themselves to be exploited? Were they not “man enough” to find a way out? Some victims even struggle with the physiological responses of their bodies—did they secretly enjoy what was happening to them? Has their victimhood been cancelled out by physical processes beyond their control?
So, what with prescribed gender roles, societal expectations, and a misinformed public, what can be done?
The consensus seems to be that barriers between men and crucial supports need to be removed. First responders and other Front-line workers who administer help and guidance to victims of sexual exploitation need to remain aware that men are potential victims. Men must have ready and barrier-free access to support as they navigate away from exploitation and toward personal freedom. Men must be believed, validated, and empowered. Most importantly of all, sexual exploitation of men must be studied more comprehensively so that the best possible support can be provided. The field is flooded with statistics about women; it’s time more research targeted men.
One of DECSA’s main goals is to help both men and women free themselves from sexual exploitation. We run a 20-week Transitions program, open to men, women, and transgender individuals who have past or current involvement in the sex trade. In January, two groups—one for those identifying as female, the other for those identifying as male—begin their journey in the Transitions program. While women participants have already begun, the men’s group will start on January 27th.
If you wish to exit the sex trade, we encourage you to contact us to see whether you qualify for one of our program groups. We welcome the opportunity to help, so please get in touch.
The sex trade is often shrouded in mystery, which is made still worse by societal stigma. Those who work in the profession do so out of necessity and face difficult decisions. With so much pressure from the general public to abandon this type of employment, we feel it’s worth informing that public of what it is like for a sex worker to leave the lifestyle and search for a place in a world that does not welcome them.
1. The stigma never goes away
Former sex workers expect hate speech and degrading treatment from others in the trade, but they often receive the most ill treatment from those on the outside. If they are outed as former or current sex workers, they are almost always faced with the threat of losing their mainstream jobs. Employers are not averse to dismissing former sex trade workers, even if they have not worked in the industry for decades. It is difficult enough to begin such a radical transition, and it is made still harder by the need to hide what they’ve done in the past. Regardless of how successful they become, they will always have stigma dogging their footsteps.
2. Judgment Abounds, but Support is Lacking
Since sex work is so heavily stigmatized, many are eager to encourage those in the industry to exit as quickly as possible. They heap condemnation on these individuals, insisting that their work devalues them and chips away at their self-respect. In other words, they’re not really respectable people until they change professions. Despite this, support for transitioning sex workers is lacking. Even if the initial process is smooth and they find work, they risk losing their jobs if they’re outed, and find themselves very much alone in their struggles. This is why DECSA established our Transitions program, to help these people start their new lives without judgment or disrespectful treatment. Transitioning may seem like a simple decision, but it is by no means easy.
3. Transgender Individuals are Uniquely Vulnerable
Being transgender is almost guaranteed to mean the world will be a hostile, dangerous place to live. Transgender people, especially women of colour, are often victims of socioeconomic barriers, and they feel that sex work is the only way to support themselves. Further, transition is very expensive, so financial pressures are even more debilitating. Sex work is demeaning, yet individuals may find that it’s the only viable way to keep themselves off the streets. Being a transgender individual is risky at the best of times—they are frequently assaulted and even murdered—and the sex trade necessitates a lifestyle that is less than ideal, both emotionally and physically.
Sex trade workers are a vulnerable and misunderstood group, who are caught between a dangerous profession and a hostile society. This is why DECSA dedicates much of our resources to helping sex trade workers exit safely, get back on their feet, and secure mainstream employment. One of our greatest accomplishments is preparing these individuals to take control of their lives and build a brighter, healthier future.