Sexual Trafficking of LGBTQ Youth in the Americas
The age at which lesbian, gay, or bisexual people become aware of their sexual orientation is the subject of earnest debate. It’s no longer unusual in the United States to hear of people as young as ten years old coming out as being gay, while others may be unaware of their orientation until their late teens, or even older. For transgender persons, many of us are aware as early as six or seven years old that our assigned identity as boys or as girls is questionable, or simply wrong. We sense it, even if we lack the words to describe it. The dawning of awareness that one’s sexual orientation is lesbian, gay, or bisexual, or that one’s gender identity is transgender, or (as more broadly classified) being queer (LGBTQ) may be simply a curiosity for many, but in locations throughout the Americas the consequences are nothing less than dire.
Far too many LGBTQ youth in this hemisphere, and particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, face immediate rejection, exclusion, and social ostracism when they come out. With that rejection comes intense vulnerability – psychological, emotional, and physical – and (where relevant) a rapid and rough introduction to the many dimensions of intolerance and excess that the patriarchal culture of machismo is known for. Yes – it is common knowledge throughout the world that young people need loving adult care, protection, and nurturing, but for too many LGBTQ youth their experience of their own parents is of adults who are harshly uncompromising. Homophobic or transphobic parents feel justified by their culture and often by their religious values to abandon their own gay or transgender children to life on the streets, where they will struggle to survive, deprived of access to education, health care, or a warm embrace by a doting parent. For such children the first lesson in survival is that almost no one cares what happens to them…other than those who intend to exploit them.
Awareness is growing of the problem of child sexual trafficking throughout the Americas, and the intense vulnerability of these young people to exploitation and abuse is noted by some activists and some officials in some governments. Laws are passed – if practically never implemented. Among the whole population of trafficked youth, we do not know how many identify as LGBTQ. Nobody bothers to collect such information. We seldom even hear their stories; often we are left only to speculate about their harsh realities.
The absence of relevant data is not to be minimized. Without such an empirical view, public policy remains mute, with little or no guidance to offer. Police are therefore seldom trained in the plight of trafficked LGBTQ youth1)While engaging in prostitution is generally recognized as a crime, those youth who are trafficked into sex work are not legally held to be perpetrators of criminal offenses but are instead seen as victims of child sex trafficking. Police should therefore be treating such youth with care and support as appropriate to those victimized by violent crimes – yet many anecdotal reports find that police throughout Latin America and the Caribbean are hostile or even abusive to LGBTQ youth who have been sexually trafficked. , and politicians typically show little interest in their issues (except to use them as politically expedient distractions). The record is abundantly clear: these young LGBTQ people really don’t matter to the general public very much – if at all – even when they are trafficked to the United States as sex slaves. Instead, here in the U.S. they are viewed at best as bureaucratically inconvenient; rough young people who are in this country illegally, have little education and no resources, often have sexually transmitted diseases, and generally don’t speak any English. In the few cases where their personal stories are shared, such narratives are – to most of us – incomprehensible. How could such LGBTQ persons, so young and so vulnerable, have already suffered such extremes of violence, trauma, humiliation, and degradation? How could these youth come to be so far removed from their homes and communities, and become so exposed to the worst exploitations of sexual slavery and subjugation?
Two morally tough questions emerge. Who could ever do this to young LGBTQ people? Why did no adult protect them? The answer is more than a “who did what to whom and why”, or an analysis of who failed to fulfill a basic duty of adulthood – protecting vulnerable youth. Child sex trafficking in general throughout the Americas has now grown into a major criminal industry, and among those youth who are trafficked the subpopulation who are LGBTQ-identified are distinguished by an even greater degree of vulnerability. After all, their LGBTQ status exacerbated their visibility to their original targeting by the sex traffickers.
Once such young people became aware of their same-sex sexual orientation or non-conforming gender identity (which is neither a choice nor a “lifestyle”), their own families cast them out into the world to make their way as best they could. At such a tender age, their vulnerability could hardly be more acute. Unfortunately, very few decent persons see fit to intercede to offer protection and support to homeless LGBTI youth, who find meager shelter wherever they can – such as in open sewers in Kingston, Jamaica. Without any protection, and with no one looking out for their welfare, LGBTQ young people are reduced to the status of soft targets. There are always people positioned to exploit such soft targets by trafficking them into sexual slavery and servitude, occasionally in countries far away where their isolation and vulnerability becomes even more acute.
Sex trafficking – especially of highly vulnerable LGBTQ youth – is a shadowy, harsh, and very dangerous world of criminality in which patterns of violence and exploitation are efficient, profitable, and devastating to those ensnared in it. There is some anecdotal evidence from the relative handful of young LGBTQ people who’ve managed to break free, yet empirical data is scarce. Very few Latin American or Caribbean countries bother to collect reliable information about sexual trafficking, especially of children. Not a single country in the Americas – North or South – accurately tallies how many of these young people are from the LGBTQ community. No one bothers to ask them what their sexual preferences are – as if that mattered to the trafficker or to the customer. They are just easy and very vulnerable youth who can often be trafficked with impunity2)Legislation against child sex trafficking is not uncommon in Latin America, where 26 countries now have laws on the books. Implementing such laws is another story entirely. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) only about 10 percent of those who are investigated for their role in human trafficking are actually convicted. From 2010 to 2012, some countries in Central America and the Caribbean failed to convict a single person. Disturbingly, UNODC has also reported that in North and Central America, as well as in many countries in South America, those three years saw some of the most significant increases in child trafficking worldwide. UNODC details that children made up about 30 percent of trafficking victims in the Americas, and that over 65 percent of these children were girls. They have no data on LGBTQ status. . Few in authority genuinely seem to care what happens to trafficked youth in general; we can but conjecture how tiny is the number of those in authority who also care about the small subpopulation of trafficked LGBTQ youth.
For transgender youth who are sexually trafficked, their gender identity is frequently seen as a commercial asset if such young people identify as female, and they are deemed to be sexually “attractive”. There is a lucrative market among some men who seek women with certain male embodiments, and since only a negligible percentage of young transgender women who are trafficked have ever had gender confirming surgeries, their bodies are viewed as desirable objects in this niche market. This does not imply that these young transgender women are respected as women; they simply constitute a niche market for men with non-traditional sexual inclinations. Such young transgender women – girls – who are just beginning the very challenging ordeal of understanding and claiming their authentic gender identities are valued by their “customers” not for that emerging authentic identity but, to the contrary, as some sort of bizarre sexualized fantasy object. They are treated as freaks. The stigma and trauma associated with that form of discrimination constitutes a systemic form of violence that threatens any sense of integrity and self-respect for these young and very vulnerable transgender women. 3)Sexually trafficked young transgender men who are not on hormones and who have not acquired masculine physical traits (low voice, facial hair) are sometimes marketed as “lesbians” to customers who believe – as a value derived from machismo – that sexual intercourse and other sexual practices with them will convert these youth into heterosexual, cisgender women. There is almost no anecdotal evidence available about the few cases where young transgender men who have significantly transitioned into male embodiment (through testosterone therapy and top surgery) have been sexually trafficked.
Child sex trafficking owes its existence to a market. Due both to the Internet and to better transport infrastructure, that demand for commercial sex with minors is growing. While details are few, we do know that the majority of those customers or “johns” seeking the services of these exploited young people are men in and from the home countries of those who are trafficked, often clustered in locations where industries such as mining and commercial fishing bring large numbers of men together.
Tourism centers also provide lucrative returns to the traffickers, with bars and hotels becoming regular paid accomplices in marketing such services to foreign tourists who are often wealthy. Some men come to these destinations specifically for sexual tourism, while others see this as a side benefit to a business trip. According to Nelson Rivera Reyes, a senior officer of the Colombian organization Fundación Renacer that combats such sexual exploitation: “The number of tourists who come to Colombia and have sex with children has increased in recent years…Unfortunately clients can find girls who are under eight if they want to do so.” Similar reports on child sex trafficking are easy to find in other major tourism destinations, such as Costa Rica, Mexico, Jamaica, and Peru, but there are never any details as to how many of those youth who are trafficked are LGBTQ.
Sexual trafficking of adults and youth, LGBTQ or not, is also a cultural problem in much of Latin America and the Caribbean. The prevailing masculine norms of machismo assert that the male’s appetite for sex is boundless and often uncontrollable, and that society should therefore accommodate itself to this “reality” – even to the point where men’s reputations are built on their promiscuity and unfaithfulness to their wives. Women – and female sexuality in general – is viewed as something for men to exercise dominance over. Through such values, the dignity and worth of any male-dominated sexual partner (female or male, adult or child, straight/cisgender or LGBTQ) is by definition of lesser value than that of the sexually dominant man. Such values ride roughshod over fundamental moral precepts of protecting persons from sex and gender based violence – especially against children. Commercial sex is seen as a normal part of life, and for those who participate as consumers of commercial sex it is simply convenient not to ask where the sex workers come from or how old they are. After all, in their view sex workers really don’t matter very much, and they are certainly not viewed as fully human and hence dignified persons worthy of respect.
The overriding challenge therefore is to seek a transformed concept of masculinity throughout the Americas, whenever masculine values are structured on the dominance and exploitation of others, and particularly where sexual inequality between men and women is currently normalized. That is a long term but critically important undertaking, and the future of societal development and flourishing depends upon its eventual success. Policy-makers, social leaders, and advocates for gender equity have much work to do.
The particular challenge, however, is even more urgent. All children and youth everywhere deserve to be respected, nurtured, and protected – no exceptions. Moving in the opposite direction, in which certain children are effectively sacrificed as exploitable and valueless, is the height of immorality. There is no government anywhere, in any cultural setting, that can morally justify ignoring or condoning the sexual exploitation of vulnerable youth. Offering homophobia or transphobia as some justification for the abuse and sexually trafficking of that small vulnerable subpopulation of exploited LGBTQ youth is also morally unsupportable by any standard of human decency, respect for human dignity, or simple human compassion. The cultural hypocrisy – exacerbated by machismo – that LGBTQ youth are expendable and exploitable as sexual objects is outrageous, and the widespread impunity that traffickers of such youth currently enjoy is insulting to any concept of human dignity, and to any generalized expression of natural human care and compassion.
Will governments be moved to needed reforms by protestations of outrage and insult in the context of sexually exploited LGBTQ youth? Morally, they must. If not, then human dignity as an ideal has ceased to have any meaning at all. Given that human dignity is the ultimate foundation of civilization, that is a very high price to pay.
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|1.||↑||While engaging in prostitution is generally recognized as a crime, those youth who are trafficked into sex work are not legally held to be perpetrators of criminal offenses but are instead seen as victims of child sex trafficking. Police should therefore be treating such youth with care and support as appropriate to those victimized by violent crimes – yet many anecdotal reports find that police throughout Latin America and the Caribbean are hostile or even abusive to LGBTQ youth who have been sexually trafficked.|
|2.||↑||Legislation against child sex trafficking is not uncommon in Latin America, where 26 countries now have laws on the books. Implementing such laws is another story entirely. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) only about 10 percent of those who are investigated for their role in human trafficking are actually convicted. From 2010 to 2012, some countries in Central America and the Caribbean failed to convict a single person. Disturbingly, UNODC has also reported that in North and Central America, as well as in many countries in South America, those three years saw some of the most significant increases in child trafficking worldwide. UNODC details that children made up about 30 percent of trafficking victims in the Americas, and that over 65 percent of these children were girls. They have no data on LGBTQ status.|
|3.||↑||Sexually trafficked young transgender men who are not on hormones and who have not acquired masculine physical traits (low voice, facial hair) are sometimes marketed as “lesbians” to customers who believe – as a value derived from machismo – that sexual intercourse and other sexual practices with them will convert these youth into heterosexual, cisgender women. There is almost no anecdotal evidence available about the few cases where young transgender men who have significantly transitioned into male embodiment (through testosterone therapy and top surgery) have been sexually trafficked.|