Gendered Understandings of Forced Sexual Exploitation
Disclaimer: As the author of this piece, I would like to highlight that there is an intentional inconsistency in the usage of terms to describe the gender identity of individuals. In previous work, the terms “transgender female” and “transgender male” (as well as “cisgender female” and “cisgender male” were used. However, I have made the intentional decision to instead use the terms “transgender woman” and “transgender man”, as well as “cisgender woman” and “cisgender man”. This is because, since the time of publishing my original briefing, I have had time to consider the implications of using such binary terms. It is important to me that this work is as accurate and inclusive as possible, and for this reason I have chosen to use the terms “transgender/cisgender woman/man” in order to more fully encapsulate the spectrum of gender identities. This work is very relevant to any and all gender expressions, including ones that do not fit inside the binary of “male” and “female”, such as gender non-conforming, genderfluid, non-binary, and agender, and I strongly believe that this change in terminology is more inclusive and helps to reflect as broad a range of gender identities as possible.
While the Global Slavery Index estimates that women and girls account for 99 per cent of those forced into commercial sexual exploitation, research shows this figure is worryingly inaccurate. Cisgender men and boys and transgender victims are largely ignored by policymakers and researchers, despite data suggesting that approximately 30 per cent of individuals trafficked for sex are cis men and boys or transgender individuals. As a result of this, many cis men and boys and trans individuals fall into cycles of exploitation, with a lack of resources and appropriate support available to them.
What factors contribute to the vulnerability of cis men and trans people to sex trafficking?
Data and societal norms identify cis men and boys as the perpetrators of violence rather than victims, but a combination of factors often make them vulnerable to human trafficking. Cisgender men are more prone to homelessness than cisgender women, which leaves them vulnerable to coercion into forced sexual exploitation through offers of shelter or income.
Trans individuals are even more likely to suffer homelessness than cis men and women. Homelessness is common among rans communities worldwide, in part due to social and/or family rejection. Research indicates that in the United States, up to one third of trans individuals have experienced homelessness in their lifetime. Lack of access to appropriate housing and shelter means trans communities are easily exploited by traffickers, who actively seek individuals who are both transgender and experiencing homelessness and who lack support networks — which means that fewer people notice if they go missing.
While homelessness occurs for very different reasons among cis men and trans individuals, the result is the same. The desperate need for shelter, food and income is exploited by traffickers who know that offers of work or accommodation are too good to decline.
Moreover, the evidence suggests that trans individuals, particularly trans women, face increased levels of gender-based employment discrimination and, in order to make ends meet, are forced into “survival sex”, where sex is traded for money, food, shelter or other essential items such as phones or clothing. Studies suggest traffickers take advantage of these survival sex situations and offer vulnerable individuals false promises of alternative work.
Why is it so difficult for cis men and trans individuals to escape trafficking?
The vulnerability to trafficking for transgender individuals stems, in part, from social and family rejection, abandonment or emotional and physical abuse by guardians, all of which are exacerbated by systemic discrimination. Research also shows that many are denied services, and are discriminated against by law enforcement, healthcare providers and social services. Some are therefore forced to return to survival sex and/or their “pimps” as they have no sustainable means out of cycles of exploitation. Systemic discrimination as well as the lack of access to and failings of social services to accept and adequately support cis men and transgender survivors of forced sexual exploitation reinforces their vulnerabilities and traps them further in trafficking circles.
Systemic issues in law enforcement also often prevent recovery and rehabilitation for cis men and trans survivors of forced sexual exploitation. Societal expectations of masculinity can prevent cis men from being identified as victims of sex trafficking by law enforcement, as many officers assume that sex trafficking and sexual exploitation only impact cisgender women.
Moreover, these societal expectations of masculinity also play a role in preventing cis men from seeking help, who report that it is difficult for them to accept that they have been sexually exploited without feeling emasculated. Not knowing whether authorities will believe them also exacerbates this issue.
Transgender survivors have also reported similar issues in their experiences with law enforcement. An expectation of discrimination and transphobia within law enforcement also contribute to underreporting by transgender victims, with more than half of the respondents to the 2016 US Transgender Survey reporting mistreatment by the police, and 57 per cent confirming they were uncomfortable reporting their exploitation to the police. Research on transgender experiences in the US sex trade reveals that trans individuals have been groped to “determine their gender”, had to utilize fake documentation due to the difference between perceptions of gender presentation and gender markers, and that trans women have had gender-affirming items such as wigs removed publicly. Reports of police abuse among transgender communities contributes to mistrust in the authorities.
The same research reveals that mistrust is even greater for black trans women, with 51 per cent of black trans women having experienced verbal harassment by police, 46 per cent having experienced physical harassment, and 37 per cent having experienced both. This uneasy relationship between trans women and the police has led to mass underreporting of transgender victims of sexual exploitation.
The barriers encountered by cis men and transgender individuals in their engagements with law enforcement raise further issues for survivors. Given the mistrust of police and subsequent reluctance to report their experiences, many survivors are unaware of services available to them to aid their rehabilitation and recovery.
While it is important to recognize the particular vulnerabilities of women and girls to forced sexual exploitation, it is also crucial to understand how all gender identities are vulnerable to this form of trafficking. In order to prevent individuals who may be vulnerable from being caught in cycles of exploitation, there is a need to integrate cis men and trans voices into the discourse on forced sexual exploitation, and to review existing support systems to ensure they account for cis men and trans individuals, as well as women and girls.
This article has been prepared by Ellie Newman-Grainger as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.