LGBT survivors of human trafficking share their stories to shed light on a brutal practice

Nathan Earl—and many more like him—have a story to share. He is a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation.

“I was sexually and physically abused when I was very young. The perpetrators were family members, so the protection aspect when I was little, it just didn’t exist,” the Sarasota resident says. “I was going through issues with my own sexuality, and all of this put together, I just felt like I was a mistake. I was initially too scared to run to the streets, so at 11 years old I started sniffing gasoline in the garage as a way to escape reality.

“The sexual abuse lasted until I was around 14 or 15. I transitioned to pills, then pot, booze, cocaine, all in an attempt to numb myself.”

At 19, Earl was accepted to the University of Florida. But, he says, the years of abuse and lack of opportunity to process all that happened eventually caught up with him, and everything came crashing down.

NathanEarlCap“I ended up strung out on crack and crystal meth, I was homeless, subjected to brutal violence on the street,” he says. “My body was dumped in Sarasota out along the tree-line by the airport after I was out hustling one night. You couldn’t even recognize my face. I woke up with no shirt, pants undone, and there were several instances of that type of violence in my life.”

He says he was arrested numerous times and things continued to get worse. But after his last arrest, he reached a turning point.

“One of the counselors mentioned a quote by Viktor Frankl which says, ‘If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering,’” he says. “I could barely speak at this point, but for some reason, that quote stuck. I made this decision that if I don’t do anything about this, if I don’t say anything about this, then it just ends up as this twisted thing that happened, and how horrible would that be?

“So that’s when I made that transition from victim to survivor.”

A decade later, Earl has found his destiny and purpose as founder of Ark Of Freedom, a nonprofit anti-human trafficking corporation headquartered in Manatee County. And he hopes things will begin to change, as programs get developed and the media brings the plight of these victims to light.

It’s not gender-specific
Human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation are inarguably some of the most heinous acts committed worldwide, only really entering society’s human rights lexicon over the course of the last decade. And while these atrocities are becoming a more widely known and discussed set of topics, they still remain on the periphery of the national and international consciousness. They are often categorized and painted with the broad strokes of generalizations—the idea that “trafficking” and “sexual exploitation” refer exclusively to sexual slavery of primarily women, and occur in other countries.

While that picture alone still struggles to spark enough global action to eradicate these crimes, there is a subset within the trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation population that receives essentially no media coverage. There have been only a handful of national level studies published about male victims. There is a huge gap in victim identification, prevention education and counseling in regards to them. And yet they make up nearly half of the commercially sexually exploited and trafficked youth population.

“The Department of Justice published three studies—one was in New York, one was North America in general, and one was Florida-based—and all three stated that, depending on region, anywhere from 30-50% of sex trafficked kids are male,” says Earl.

“Domestically, around 100,000 youths are trafficked every year, so even if you’re looking at the most conservative estimates of 30%, that’s 30,000 boys,” says Earl. “Within that, what also often gets diluted in that figure is the subset of LGBT, which are the most marginalized.”

Officially, trafficking is  defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

Commercial sexual exploitation is officially defined as sexual activity in which one party is engaged in order to obtain food, shelter, clothing or other basic needs that result from a vulnerable state of being.

Florida ranks 3rd in trafficking cases
Florida currently ranks third in the nation for number of human trafficking cases, and a victim will only survive an average of six years without being identified and taken into care. Why does Florida rank so high?

“Number one is the tourism,” says Earl. “Any time you have transient populations, it makes this kind of activity easier—they can’t be tracked, they’re invisible.

“When you have these clandestine operations going on, it becomes easier to hide in these areas, and you have the amusement parks, and you have family vacations where there are children.”

Earl explains that the question often raised is, why don’t law enforcement officials step in to intervene, and furthermore, why don’t the victims self-report and escape the situation?

The Safe Harbor Act in Florida empowers law enforcement to refer a youth who they feel is at risk for sex trafficking or exploitation. Instead of taking a youth to jail on an arrest charge, they can instead refer them directly to an agency.

“But what’s happening is that they’re getting arrested for things like loitering or panhandling, and instead of being referred to services, they’re being viewed as criminals instead of victims,” says Earl. “The other part of this is that males are considered invisible in this scenario because boys are thought to be more in charge and have more agency and control, those are our cultural perceptions. So if something like this happens to you, you don’t self-report because if you identify as straight, people will think you’re gay. If you identify as gay, people will think you brought it on yourself.”

Living in shame
“The shame that many male survivors feel, as well as the fear of how others perceive them, plays a large part in why many do not share what has happened to them,” says nonprofit international human rights organization Love146’s US Programs Director Kimberly Casey. “When we ask males what prevented them from coming forward, we hear things like, ‘I’m supposed to want sex all the time,’ ‘They’d think I’m weak,’ ‘I didn’t want them to think I was gay.’

“The discussion of victimization in the United States is a difficult thing, regardless of gender. There has been no shortage of voices standing on top of the ‘victim blaming’ soapbox—for women. As we’ve begun to listen to male survivors, it is clear that this platform must be shared.”

But beyond these obstacles, there are far more severe physical and psychological factors that put these youths on the path to victimization, and keep them invisible.

In 2014, Love146 published a report authored by Timothy A. Bastedo entitled The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Male Minors in the United States: A Snapshot with Strategic Implications for Prevention Education, which aimed at generating male-specific content for the organization’s Prevention Education Curriculum. In it, Bastedo reports that the “commercially exploited male minors paradigmatically engage in survival sex as a response to homelessness,” the primary cause of which is family dysfunction, including physical and sexual abuse, and the pervasion of drugs.

“Whether a voluntary or involuntary exit of the home, male minors are at the highest risk to find themselves lacking food, shelter, clothing and other basic necessities,” Bastedo writes. “And it is estimated as many as 45% choose to engage in sexual activity to meet their basic needs.”

Earl outlines the circumstances and experiences of the average commercially exploited male minor (CSEMM).

“The pathway to exploitation is pretty much the same across the board,” he says. “It starts somewhere around 4 to 5 years old with family dysfunction where they are being physically or sexually abused at home, the parents are on drugs, the kids then end up on drugs, living in poverty. And even at 9 or 10 years old, there’s the ‘fight or flight’ reaction, and so most will either escape through drugs or escape to the streets. Either way, the outcome is not good.

“So we have runaways, but we also have throwaways. About 26-30% of gay youths are still thrown out to the streets, and when that happens, survival mode kicks in—you don’t have any food, you don’t have any shelter, when the drugs take hold it becomes even harder.”

Earl explains the progression to the next step of the victimization process.

“The average age of becoming sexually exploited for a male is around 11-12 years old,” he says. “When you run to the streets, you only have a few options. You can run to a foster home, and while things are changing with foster homes now, many are still not trauma-informed relating to trafficking-specific issues, and the poly-victimization that these kids go through. Many times you’re further abused in foster care, so you run away from foster care maybe five or six times.”

Adult homeless shelters aren’t always an option either, Earl says.

“You say, ‘Ok, forget foster care, I’ll go to the Salvation Army,’” Earl explains. “With adult homeless shelters, the incidents of further molestation, victimization and recruiting out of those shelters into human trafficking is very high. They don’t have the staffing, they aren’t culturally competent, they don’t know what to look for and there’s no real screening process to differentiate between someone with deviant behavior and someone in a position of, ‘Hey I lost my job and I’m just down on my luck.’ The perpetrators in these scenarios are pedophiles, which pertains to prepubescent, hebephiles, which pertains to post-pubescent, or situational abusers who are sex addicts. And it doesn’t matter whether girl, boy, it’s just the younger they are, they are perceived as safer from disease.”

Earl explains that by this point, the CSEMM has already spent the majority of his life being abused and exploited.

“By around 14 you say, ‘I’ll just stay on the streets,’ and by now you’ve learned you can have your necessary survival needs met by selling yourself,” Earl says. “And with that comes a sense of empowerment in the ability to decide how much to charge.”

Bastedo’s report identifies this misguided mentality of empowerment within the CSEMM populous as well, stating that “once male minors become homeless, they are most frequently recruited into sexually exploitive activities by peers or potential customers. These relationships tend to be less overtly coercive than female-pimp relationships.” CSEMMs will oftentimes report believing they have the ability to extricate themselves from situations and relationships they no longer want to be a part of, thus rebranding their exploitation as a “hustle,” creating the illusion of control.

“Now you’re 15-16, by this time you’re probably so strung out on meth or crack, you have to get your fix just to get up and function,” Earl continues. “So you’re starting to make this transition where you’re so scarred emotionally that if you’ve survived that long, by around 18 you begin to transition into being a facilitator. They’ll rent a small apartment, recruit other guys to come in, and act as the facilitator.”

The basic structure and pathway to victimization plays out nearly identically to Earl’s outline when survivors share their personal stories.

Case in point, Ira Lee Baker of Tampa.

A survivor’s story
A survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, Baker explains that he was a victim of abuse from early childhood.

IraBakerCap“When I was around 6 or 7 years old, the incest and sexual abuse began,” says Baker. “When I was 8, I ran away from home and hitchhiked from Tallahassee to Tampa and was introduced to prostitution. At that time, they didn’t do anything about [prostitution], you could lie about your age when you got arrested, tell a story and back then there wasn’t really a way of proving your age or your identity.

“I had a pimp and he was aware of my real age, and he would dress me up like a girl and I would go out and walk up and down Kennedy Boulevard and turn tricks.”

Baker explains this continued until he was 11, when he was picked up by law enforcement and returned to his family in Tallahassee.

“My biological mother hated the fact that I was gay,” he says. “The only time it was okay for me to be gay was when these older men wanted to pay her to take me for the evening. It was dinner, then back to a hotel room, and that’s when the sex would begin.”

Baker recalls being put into school at 13—an environment he could not relate to, nor was safe in.

“I just couldn’t identify with any of the kids there,” he says. “I was ridiculed for being feminine. In the boys’ bathrooms I had boys that were older than me that would force me to have sex with them, then abuse and ridicule me in public.”

He says his life was a continuous cycle of prostitution and jail. By 17, Baker was addicted to drugs, and was subsequently arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.

“In prison, it’s the same thing,” he says. “An older guy kind of becomes your pimp in prison and you’re offered out for a certain amount of money. And that cycle just kept going on until I was around 35 years old.”

Unfortunately, Baker’s story isn’t unique.

“These victims have been treated like crap since they were 3 or 4 years old, they’re taught that they’re worthless,” says Earl. “When you reach 12-13 years old, you’re already vulnerable because of your age, and you’re still developing. There is a rationalization of saying ‘No, I can control [my circumstances],’ but the internal feelings of shame and stigma, the drug addiction and abuse, it’s all still there.”

One of the most at-risk segments of the LGBT community for trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation is the transgender population, and as Earl explains, “It’s really because when adapting to adverse conditions, it becomes a lot harder when there’s a weaker sense of identity. So if you’re talking about someone who is 13 or 14 years old, naturally at a vulnerable state anyway, and then you factor in the identity crisis that comes into play with young LBGT, it poses a more complex situation.”

Finding the wrong kind of acceptance
Torri Ramos is a Central Florida transgender survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, and she says her story began during her teenage years when she realized she wasn’t accepted by her family.

TorriRamosCap“My family was very religious, they really didn’t approve of me. I didn’t have anybody,” says Ramos. “I felt really in the dark and vulnerable. I was introduced to the streets and it gave me a feeling of being accepted and belonging. From there I was introduced to prostitution, and in this weird way I almost felt a sense of happiness because I was desired.”

Ramos soon found her situation changing from bad to worse.

“I was introduced to someone who offered to help me out. I had to work for them, they took my money, they were taking advantage of me. There were nights I was so tired I didn’t want to go out to the streets, but they would force me. It was really bad.”

Earl says there’s a word for such treatment: organized crime.

“This is syndicated activity. It’s very clandestine, and there are very intricate networks. “Online places like Adam4Adam, Grindr, Backpage, Craigslist—these are major recruitment channels. The majority [of victims] do come from the vulnerable and homeless populations, and we see recruiting from shelters, foster homes, bus stops, the streets, adult bookstores. But there are a significant number of mainstream American kids who are lured through Facebook, Myspace, these online channels,” he says.

Any youth already experiencing feelings of loneliness or a lack of self-identification are targeted online.

“There are plenty of perpetrators out there who look for that online, befriend you, eventually set up a meeting, and that’s when they can forcibly kidnap, and you’re pimped,” Earl says. “Or there’s the psychological coercion, where one may be convinced through these feelings of love, ‘If you love me, you’ll do this.’ We know of situations where there are brothels and circuit parties where people are literally chained to a wall, gagged and forced to ingest drugs.”

The disconcerting facts and figures of the trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation world is compounded when one learns that there are virtually zero services available for victimized males, as Bastedo’s report points out the troubling fact that “there are no prevention education or prevention services for male minors at high-risk for commercial sexual exploitation.”

“Research has to be conducted, and funding for programs across the nation has to be sourced,” says Earl. “It takes a unified message from anti-trafficking providers to identify all victims.”

Patience then healing
When dealing with the trauma endured by a survivor, Earl explains that the rehabilitation process needs to be long term, and comprehensive.

“It’s not an instant thing, they run back to the streets, not because it’s safe, but because it’s just what is known and what is familiar. So programs have to take that into account and design protocol that understands they are going to run and have an open door policy that they can come back,” he says. “The initial part is stabilization, and what that means is immediate safety by means of shelter, getting them off the street and away from the facilitator, a drug detox, food, and clothing. Once you meet those immediate tangible needs, you can work towards the restorative transitional aspect, and you start to meet their intangible needs and connect them to a formal economy through education and vocational rehabilitation.”

There is also a need for improving life and social skills among this population as well as finding appropriate nutritional education and financial literacy. Earl says the process can take up to 24 months.

He explains that even the most basic skills are likely to be lacking in a survivor victim.

A collaborative effort
Baker and Ramos are now part of Nathan Earl’s cause, both on the road to recovery and with plans to aid Ark Of Freedom as survivor mentors.

“Until all the areas of trauma are addressed, you won’t have success,” says Baker, who has since been adopted by a family, and is currently working on his own path to recovery and stabilization. “When it comes to men, society tends to say, ‘You could fight back, you could run away. Where is there to run? Where is there to go? You feel mentally and spiritually trapped. You try to go to school or trying to have a normal life, the anxiety level is overwhelming, and the intensity of the fear is above and beyond.”

But to escape, one must find his or her voice.

“People have to speak out, it won’t be addressed if no one is talking about it,” says Ramos, who was a friend of Earl’s when both were on the street, and, in a twist of fate, was recently reunited with him by a chance encounter.

“We need more people to report, especially within the gay community,” Ramos says. “Otherwise it’s going to remain hush-hush and it’s never going to be dealt with.”

Casey agrees with these assertions.

“The dominant image of masculinity in the United States renders ‘male victims’ a seemingly incongruous description,” she says. “Many Americans still associate human trafficking with young girls locked in brothels in developing countries. At Love146, we know that narrative to be true, however we also know that human trafficking and exploitation is incredibly complex, and that those being exploited don’t always fit our image of victimization at first glance.”

There is still plenty of research to be done and there is an obvious lack in statistics concerning young boys trapped in a life they never wanted. The only way to boost that research is through reporting the crime.

“When you want to end the marginalization of a particular group or population, you have to empower the population,” Earl says. “[Ark Of Freedom’s] mission is to educate, empower and mobilize communities in the battle to end the trafficking of youth, while restoring, enhancing and empowering the lives of trafficked or exploited youth and young adults. The second part of our mission is to decrease the marginalization of male victims through community awareness and education, community outreach training and through the provision of male-specific, victim-centered, trauma-informed safe housing and other restorative supportive services.”

Casey echoes Earl’s sentiment on the need for a shift in society’s perceptions regarding victimization.

“The domestic violence movement has found success in their efforts to challenge people to stop asking, ‘Why did you stay?’ and encourage the exploration of the larger societal influences that contributed to a person’s victimization,” she says. “Similarly, rather than asking ‘Why do you keep doing this to yourself?’ we need a collective shout that considers the complex vulnerabilities and circumstances that contribute to the commercial sexual exploitation of male minors.”

And that means collaboration.

“Human trafficking and exploitation is a global heinous crime, and there’s no way that one person or one agency is going to make a difference across the globe,” says Earl. “What it takes is us all joining the fight, assuming our roles, and being a voice.”

More in Health

See More