Can men be trafficked?

What is the role of adult males in trafficking? Are men predominantly perpetrators or victims of human trafficking? Can a full-grown man even become a victim of a situation in which he finds himself unable to free himself from exploitation through another person? If you are a regular visitor of this blog you will notice that (unintentionally) the victim stories on here so far are mostly dealing with the exploitation of women and children – with most acts seemingly committed by men.

All in all, the stories on here as well as the statistics in many research papers on human trafficking appear to suggest a higher prevalence of male perpetrators on the one and female victims on the other hand. Thus, what brings about this apparent discrepancy between the genders in terms of their numerical representation in trafficking? Is it a matter of males being in a stronger position to exploit due to physical strength and patriarchic societal norms? Are contemporary civil societies simply oblivious to or unsympathetic towards the plights of adult men suffering in exploitative situations? Is exploitation of adult males maybe generally under reported?

I am raising many questions here and none of them can be satisfyingly answered without being addressed in an encompassing and appropriate context. For instance: Clearly, a number of men are generally able to exert enough power to forcefully abduct and intimidate (and thus control) another person through their sheer strength, while the same likely cannot be said of an equal number of women. What global research on trafficking as of now suggests though, is that human trafficking, for the most part, takes place through deceptive recruitment, not kidnapping. Without wanting to start a discussion on which gender can be considered more deceptive, it can be asserted that manipulation generally is a game both men and women can play, thus indicating that both men and women should command about equal potential to be traffickers.

A probably very decisive factor to explain varying numbers of male and female trafficking victims within a given context is actually the market demand for the respective services and commodities a trafficker can satisfy through his or her actions. Just as is the case with legal services and goods, these demands and their supply vary on a local, state, national and regional level. Demand is furthermore subject to demographic, cultural and especially legal factors that limit the availability of the supply side.

This leads us back to patriarchal societal norms: For various reasons that are too numerous to address here, prostitution and pornography have historically been predominantly female dominated businesses, mainly due to demand created through heterosexual males. Similarly, certain other, non-sexual labor branches such as housekeeping are also typically more frequently carried out by women. When research teams explore these phenomena, they naturally find that women are more strongly affected by trafficking than men. This numerical overrepresentation then easily leads to the underrepresented side being marginalized in future research and funding to mitigate issues of human trafficking being diverted grossly towards one demographic group.

However, gendered job markets do not create a situation in which one gender (women) is being exploited and another (men) is strictly not. Surely, the vulnerability of men and women within their respectively dominated fields of labor as well as the prevalence of the particular forms of exploitation they are subjected to may vary. Yet, that does not mean that adult men cannot, for instance, fall victim even to sexual exploitation. In this respect, the practices that male victims typically encounter may also strongly differ from what is generally imagined to constitute sexual exploitation. However, sexual abuse comprises more than just a man or woman enforcing the performance of penetrative or receptive forms of sex from a victim. It can also comprise, amongst other things, various sadistic practices such as inflicting pain, as well as urination and defecation on a person’s body for the purpose of arousal through humiliation and degradation. Within such contexts, the victim’s gender can become secondary or maleness can even become an added value from a viewpoint of dominating an actually physically superior or equal person.

While such forms of exploitation present niches even in trafficking, sexual exploitation, as with women, may coincide with other forms of trafficking, such as for the purpose of labor exploitation. The reason why men then do not elude these sort of situation is often the same as with women and children: their lives or those of their loved ones are threatened, they are financially or otherwise dependent on the person who exploits them or they are held captive, to name just a few. In addition, there are psychological factors pertaining to male gender roles that may add to men opting to remain in exploitative situations. Examples include shame over not having received the expected monetary compensation, a sense of obligation to cater for the needs of the family at all costs and a general view of men having to go through hardship to get ahead in life.

There is much more to be written about the subject, which would however ultimately exceed the limits of a single blog entry. Bottom line, though, I want to express that I feel research organizations and civil society have to gear up to get men to speak out about human trafficking. In encouraging them to speak out, male survivors can help to de-normalize exploitation through other men. More male voices could furthermore aid in demystifying stereotypical gender roles and add to the understanding of exploitation and trafficking through women. Most importantly, in the end, they would do themselves and other men a service by ensuring to become acting agents rather than just staying victims of trafficking.

By Mario Schulze

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