He was only 14, but he was alone.
After coming out about his sexual orientation to his family, his stepfather had beaten him and threw him out on the street. His stomach in knots of fear, the young boy walked into a shelter for the first time. It was only 24 hours before he met an older man who promised to take care of him, and it felt like a lifeline.
But the man didn’t take care of him. He began exploiting him, coercing him into sex trafficking.
Tragically, stories like this are not uncommon.
Every person has a unique set of factors—whether relating to their race, gender, orientation, experiences, or opportunities—that impact their vulnerability for experiencing sexual abuse or exploitation.
Sexual exploitation impacts every demographic, but it’s a tragic reality that abusers and sex traffickers often disproportionately target vulnerable populations, such as LGBTQ+ communities.
Whether within their own families or the larger community, many LGBTQ+ youth experience less social support or acceptance. This can increase their vulnerability to psychological grooming and manipulation by abusers or sex traffickers who offer them a chance to “belong.” As explained in a report by Polaris Project:
“Traffickers may seek to meet the youth’s needs as a way to build rapport and dependency. They may offer a sense of family, protection, or love to build a sense of relationship and loyalty. This bond may complicate the youth’s understanding of their situation and prevent them from speaking out against their trafficker.”
This manipulation can happen in-person or online.
In fact, Thorn released a new report titled “LGBTQ+ Youth Perspectives: How LGBTQ+ Youth are Navigating Exploration and Risks of Sexual Exploitation Online” which found:
- “LGBTQ+ minors seek out online spaces for community. Young LGBTQ+ people spend more time in digital spaces and tend to maintain more online-only relationships than their non-LGBTQ+ peers.
- More than three out of four LGBTQ+ minors view their online communities as essential to them, suggesting that digital platforms act as tools for increased exploration for young LGBTQ+ people and at earlier ages.
- LGBTQ+ minors were twice as likely to report sharing their own SG-CSAM (nude) photos or videos. Furthermore, LGBTQ+ minors were more likely to report that their friends have received unsolicited nudes, shared their own nudes, and have had experiences with their nudes being leaked without permission.
- Across all age groups involved in the study, LGBTQ+ participants reported higher rates of experiences with sexually-explicit imagery among their friendship groups than non-LGBTQ participants.
- Online grooming is viewed as common. Among all participants, with little difference between teens and young adults, the overwhelming majority (83%) view the likelihood of adults attempting to befriend and manipulate a minor online as at least somewhat common.
- Views of this risk are even higher among LGBTQ+ teens, with 91% viewing this experience as at least somewhat common.”
For some, lack of support or safety at home even drives youth to experience homelessness.
It is estimated that LGBTQ+ youth comprise up to 40 percent of the total unaccompanied homeless youth population. This increases the vulnerability and risk of youth to be abused or sex trafficked, or even to engage in something called “survival sex.” “Survival sex” is the exchange of sex for basic needs, like food or shelter—it is by definition acting out of desperation and is a form of sexual exploitation. No person should have to offer sex in order to gain access to basic human rights. Further, any time someone under the age of 18 engages in sex in exchange for anything of value (whether money, food, drugs, etc.) it is by legal definition sex trafficking.
If you believe someone you know may be a victim of sex trafficking, you can reach out to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) for advice and referrals to local antitrafficking services. The NHTRC and the Polaris BeFree Textline are confidential, non-judgmental places to seek assistance. Call 888-373-7888 or text 233733 to talk to a specially trained Hotline Advocate to get help, connect to local services, or get more information about human trafficking. For more information about these helplines, visit polarisproject.org/get-assistance.
If you have experienced sexual violence, you can reach out to RAINN which runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline at online.rainn.org and 800-656-HOPE to chat one-on-one or to speak with a trained RAINN support specialist, 24/7. The service is completely anonymous and confidential—they will not identify who you are and you can share as much or as little information as you are comfortable with.
If you know someone who has experiences sexual abuse or violence, RAINN has helpful resources for how you can be a good friend and support system: https://www.rainn.org/articles/lgbtq-survivors-sexual-violence
As with all experiences of exploitation—no person deserves sexual abuse or exploitation. We must work together to support survivors from all walks of life, and to stop institutions that facilitate abuse.