By the time he was 16 and homeless, Jose Alfaro was sure he was undeserving of love.
After a lifetime of being told he was too little to be “what a man is supposed to be,” he was convinced no one in his small, conservative Texas town would help him. He was rejected by his family, beaten by his deeply religious father, and bullied by peers. Following one particularly brutal beating by his father, he fully understood he was on his own. Rather than connecting him with child protective services, police simply suggested he find someplace else to stay.
“Clearly, my parents rejected me,” said Alfaro, now 31. “I thought, moving forward, anyone that I shared with who was not within the gay community, they were also going to reject me. I became very fearful of that.”
In need of shelter and safety, Alfaro found himself susceptible to predators skilled at manipulating vulnerable people into sex trafficking.
Historically overlooked by law enforcement and anti-trafficking efforts, boys and men who are trafficked for sex are often not connected with resources to help them escape and recover — not just from the trauma itself, but also from cultural messaging that, because they are boys, they can’t truly be victims.
Bob Williams of Texas has opened a first-of-its-kind long-term residential program and safe house for male-identifying victims of sex trafficking to try to fill that gap. Williams, a rape survivor himself, launched the nonprofit Bob’s House of Hope in 2021. The program provides men ages 18 through 24 with comprehensive mental and physical health care, as well as legal, educational and vocational opportunities to help with their recovery.
The center is located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area alongside the Ranch Hands Rescue sanctuary and Equine and Animal Assisted Counseling, a therapy program for people recovering from complex trauma. All three programs were founded by Williams.
Landon Dickeson, executive director for Bob’s House of Hope, said residents are part of a three-year recovery program staffed by trauma-informed clinicians and a case management team. They have access to mentors, animal therapy programs, as well as social-emotional learning and skills development.
The program is supported by donations, and there is no cost to those receiving care. Rooms To Go, Neiman Marcus and the Marine Corps League are among the donors listed on the center’s website.
Residents are referred to the program by social service agencies or law enforcement, and some come on their own. Dickeson said staff work to quickly immerse participants, to give them a sense of security and to demonstrate their commitment to helping them recover from their experiences. That sense of belonging and care is imperative for those whose trust has been horrifically exploited in the past.
“These young men have been through so much, and they have been hurt by so many people — even people they should be able to trust, that they don’t know how to trust or who is trustworthy,” Dickeson said. “It takes a lot of time and patience to build that trust with them so that they can feel confident that we will do what we say and that we don’t want anything from them in return.”
Alfaro, now an advocate and consultant for Bob’s House of Hope, recounted how he was victimized by a convicted Texas child sex trafficker. As a result of the abuse, he said he went through a period of intense struggle with alcohol, drugs and his mental health. He could not sustain a job and ended up homeless. Had a similar program been available to him when he was looking for a way out, it could have changed his life.
“I was dealing with PTSD and literally I felt like I was eventually going to die from the anxiety and the panic attacks that I was having,” said Alfaro. “So, either I was going to end up dead from overdosing, I was going to end up in the hands of someone else that was going to end up murdering me, or I was going to commit suicide. I didn’t know which one it was going to be, but I knew eventually I was going to give up.”
Now, he said, he sees his younger self in those he is able to serve: “When I look at a place like Bob’s House of Hope, I see the old version of myself who was crying and begging for a place like Bob’s House of Hope.”
Few studies of high-needs group
Historically, there has been little research on the number of boys and men who are trafficked. Some data exist on children who’ve been exploited, but that too is unclear and limited.
In 2021, the Child Sex Trafficking Team at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children provided analytical support to law enforcement on more than 17,200 reports of possible sex trafficking — from rural and urban areas in every state, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The organization’s CyberTipline, which collects reports of any material related to child sexual abuse appearing online, received more than 29.3 million reports last year.
A 2016 study conducted for the federal government by the Center for Court Innovation indicated that boys comprise 36% of children who are trafficked for sex in the United States. Experts interviewed for this story, however, said the number is probably far higher.
Aside from poor data, there are further complications in serving these survivors. Anti-trafficking efforts, and the laws written to address child sex trafficking, focus almost exclusively on females as victims, and men as perpetrators — often referred to as “pimps,” said Melissa Snow, executive director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“All of the operational and the investigative strategies of how to identify this crime, how to create operations on where to look for these kids, how we engage with them, all that’s based on what we know about female victims,” said Snow.
Reality is far more complex
Damaging stereotypes about masculinity — that men and boys are better able to flee from abuse, that they are always the predators and never the victims, that if they are experiencing abuse they’ve somehow invited it — cloud efforts to identify and help males who are being trafficked.
Acknowledgement of the crime is even less likely if victims are Black or LGBTQ, said Nathan Earl, a public health consultant and member of the National Council on Child Trafficking. Earl, a survivor of sex trafficking, said those narratives often influence how law enforcement officers engage boys they come in contact with who may need protection. Police fail to ask the right questions to determine if boys are being trafficked, or they wrongly assume boys must be willing participants in their own abuse, he said.
Alfaro said several times when police were called to homes where he was living and being trafficked, he told responding officers. But they took no action, and failed to report his claims to child protective services. Each time that happened, he said, it reinforced what had been instilled in him as a child: He was inherently unworthy of help.
People of all ethnicities, races, gender identities and economic backgrounds can become victims of sex trafficking. Youth are at high risk, particularly those who are impoverished, are LGBT, homeless or who live with a disability. Among all children and young adults, those who are Black, Latino and Native American are overrepresented as well.
There is a common denominator across all those who are trafficked: a history of childhood trauma and a profound sense of isolation. These young people become targets of those who exploit their vulnerabilities for their own ends.
Traffickers are most often known and trusted by their victims. They often have established a relationship with them in person or online, according to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that combats sex and labor trafficking. Traffickers often give gifts, provide comfort, or promise safety and security to their victims in order to earn their trust.
Child sex trafficking is defined by law as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a minor for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” Children are trafficked by family members, community members, romantic partners, pimps and gangs. Youth sometimes sell themselves for “survival sex,” for things like shelter, food or drugs. By law, those who pay for sex with those young people are traffickers.
Of the more than 25,000 cases of children reported missing in 2021 to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1 in 6 were likely victims of child sex trafficking. Among those fleeing foster care placements, 19% were likely victims of sex trafficking, said Snow, the center’s executive director.
Steve Procopio, a Boston-based clinical social worker who is a trainer, consultant and therapist for males with complex trauma, said LGBTQ youth become more vulnerable as a result of being bullied, and facing rejection from their families and foster care providers. That can lead to a desperate need for someone to show they care.
For the trafficker, the motivating factors are clear, he added: “It’s about the abuse and power.”
Growing anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, and attempts to ban books and free speech related to race and gender and sex identity is raising alarms for child advocates and those who work to combat sex trafficking. For children who may already be struggling with their identities, who feel marginalized, or are lacking support at home, efforts to stifle communication in safe spaces or make them even more susceptible to bullying and feeds the very vulnerabilities that make them easier targets for traffickers.
“For many kids, school — if you’re experiencing tough things at home — can be a safe place for you,” Snow said. “And, if that’s no longer a safe place because you’ve experienced a whole other level of bullying around that, that is a direct line into a kid seeking out affection in affirmation in ways that are not safe.”
Sexually abused as a child and growing up in a dysfunctional home, public health consultant Earl said he had turned to drugs to numb the pain. Nonetheless, he knew his only chance to escape his circumstances was to attend college. But once there, at age 19, he quickly spiraled.
“I imploded, really,” said Earl, now 47. “I turned to harder drugs to numb out this stuff and eventually dropped out of college and was experiencing homelessness. I turned to survival sex for a place to stay, for safety, and, honestly, to support the chemical dependency.”
He began a relationship with a drug dealer, which evolved into intimate partner violence, and then sexual assault and trafficking, he said. Over the next decade, Earl lived on the streets, and suffered multiple brutal beatings. He was in and out of Florida’s correctional system, until a counselor helped him begin to address his trauma. He entered drug treatment, resolved his legal issues, and set out to prevent others from falling prey to sex trafficking.
“It was not an easy process or a short process,” Earl said. “This is a lifelong thing.”
Earl said it’s imperative that advocacy organizations and lawmakers more effectively combat sex trafficking by acknowledging its victims include youth of all gender identities, ethnicities and races. Leaving anyone out of those efforts puts everyone at risk.
Dickeson is optimistic. There are plans to expand Bob’s House of Hope to multiple locations, and to serve younger teenage boys. While “all the tools aren’t there yet,” he acknowledges, “a cultural shift is happening.”
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888 | Text 233733 (Befree)
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Hotline: 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678)