We are excited to share the first installment of our 2019 Student Blog Series! The student blog series highlights original pieces authored by first-year law students at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Read on for Sarah Blum’s contribution to the Student Blog Series, and check back soon for additional installments of our series.
“Guilty ashamed and disusted. What hapend was an act of survival. I was… taken advantage of. It wasn’t my falt it wasn’t my falt it wasn’t my falt [sic].”
Police found Samuel Marino’s words in a note years after he died in a car crash believed to be suicide by his relatives. They think the impetus for Samuel allegedly taking his own life stemmed from his sex trafficking victimization. Samuel Marino is part of an overlooked population in a crime that is often overlooked itself. Boys and men are rarely recognized within the popular script of who exactly is a sex trafficking victim. Liam Neeson didn’t fly across the country and bust through doors to save a son in the popular movie, Taken. However, Samuel’s story casts new light on why male sex trafficking victims systematically underreport and what the devastating effects of not including boys and men in our profile of a human trafficking victim can have.
To begin, men are often not identified as victims of sex trafficking due to preconceived notions of masculinity. Joel Filmore, a clinical counselor and survivor of trafficking, stated in an interview with the American Psychological Association, “When we think of men, we typically think of men as aggressors. So we have the idea that we can’t think of men as people who can be coerced.” This idea trickles down into the methods used by law enforcement to screen boys and men to detect possible instances of commercial sexual exploitation. When filing human trafficking reports, law enforcement officers often question the legitimacy of male human trafficking survivors, saying, “Why couldn’t he get away? He’s a boy.” One of the most damaging myths that leads to the underreporting of male victims of human trafficking is the idea men can’t be victims in the first place.
Additionally, men often internalize these conceptions of masculinity and don’t self-report instances of sexual abuse due to the compromising effect this exploitation has on their internal sense of manhood. Bonnie L. Martin, a licensed professional counselor and specialist in complex trauma, commented that, “[her] male clients often believe they should have been man enough to stop the trafficking and abuse from occurring (even if they were a child or teen at the time.)”To avoid the feelings of shame and self-loathing that often come with a perceived loss of masculinity, trafficked boys may reidentify themselves as “hustlers” to reclaim an illusion of control and power and to avoid feeling like a victim. Otherwise, most men keep their history of sex trafficking a secret to avoid the shame.
Samuel Marino took the path of silence to avoid shame. He never told his family nor the police about his coerced sexual acts with men. In fact, the sex trafficking ring he was a part of had been in operation since the 1990s and was only discovered when one of the victims reported it to a probation officer in January of 2016. Police have identified at least 15 victims of the ring but believe there could be dozens more out there still remaining silent. Samuel’s words were only discovered in a handwritten note found during an investigatory raid on the suspected ring leader’s home. Unfortunately, his tragic car accident occurred years earlier. Samuel’s mother, who only found out about her son’s sex trafficking after the arrests were announced, said his silence was because “he couldn’t deal with the torture and shame of being prostituted.”
The lack of statistics about male victims of sex trafficking does not mean that male victims don’t exist. Rather, this lack of information is a symptom of how masculine stereotypes prevent the identification of male victims. However, as Samuel’s tragic story illustrates, sex traffickers do not discriminate on the basis of sex. Therefore, our definition of who is a human trafficking victim must not either.
Sarah Blum received her B.A. in Law and Society from Oberlin College in 2018. Prior to college, Sarah taught English to children in a slum in Nicaragua, inspiring her desire to advocate for victims of human trafficking. While attending Oberlin, Sarah started Project Unbound, a student organization dedicated to educating the community about human trafficking and fundraising for the local human trafficking collaborative. In addition to serving as chair for Project Unbound throughout her undergraduate career, Sarah interned with Covenant House Philadelphia and the Sungate Foundation, both organizations dedicated to fighting human trafficking.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or Villanova University.