The public face of sex trafficking is often a woman or a girl, but one group aims to let the public know that men and boys are also victims.
Beginning on Father’s Day, June 19, Ark of Freedom will begin a four-week campaign to recruit LGBT foster parents to care for LGBT victims of sex trafficking and those in danger of becoming victims. The U.S. Department of Justice defines sex trafficking as a situation where “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”
Founded by Nathan Earl, Ark of Freedom is a non-profit organization that seeks to “end the marginalization of boys and young men, including transgender youth, who are either at risk or have been victimized by human trafficking and/or exploitation.”
“We target runaway homeless youth,” Earl said non-LGBT individuals are eligible but the preference is for LGBT parents because they understand what it means to be LGBT. “That sense of belonging is sort of the first step in their healing. LGBT adults are used to overcoming obstacles and barriers. It’s a shared experienced . . . a good match.”
Earl said many LGBT youth first become at risk when they are kicked out of their homes for being LGBT. That makes them more vulnerable to predators. “That’s how many of these kids find themselves in trouble. Thousands of adults are looking for vulnerable youth to exploit.”
Matthew White, 32, was one of those vulnerable teens.
At the age of 16 in Boston, White attended a private Catholic school and was part of a strict Roman Catholic family. He was already struggling with how to reveal his sexuality to his friends and family when his father died. “I was curious but I wasn’t out.”
By the age of 17, White was talking to a man he had met on AOL.
“He said he was 27 at the time. We ended up having sex. It was my first sexual encounter. I liked it and I liked the attention I was getting at the time. I was very impressionable.” Not long after, White’s “boyfriend” started arranging “dates” for him with other men who were paying for White to have sex with them. “$500, sometimes more for just an hour. I called him my boyfriend, but in actuality I was being trafficked.”
Eventually White, who had only tried marijuana up until that point, was introduced to crystal meth by his “boyfriend” and he’s struggled with the drug ever since. After that, everything was about feeding his habit – sex for money to buy drugs or drugs exchanged directly for sex. White, who had previously always used condoms, stopped in order to ensure his johns, who wanted bareback sex, would pay him.
“They gave you the drugs and they wanted to have bareback sex. Your ideas and values about having safe sex go out the window. I would say, ‘you’re negative, right?’ and that would be okay with me.”
At 19, he was diagnosed as HIV positive. “That just spurred my addiction way worse.” That contributed to a deteriorating home life. His mother tried helping but White fled to live with a client he hoped would pay for his drugs. “In my mind, I thought he would take care of me.”
But after he left home things got worse, including White’s addiction. “He was very controlling.”
Eventually, the man also got addicted to crystal meth. “That brought out a rage in him. He pointed a gun at my head. At that point, I realized I really needed help.”
With the help of his mother, White got clean and eventually earned his associates, bachelors and is working on his masters in social work at Barry University.
But White still struggles with his addiction. He’s relapsed a couple times but says his current goals have kept him from letting the drugs get him off track. “There is a strong recovery community here if you’re willing to do the work.”
Earl said White’s journey is a common one. “These adults don’t talk about sex at first. They offer false promises of jobs and money.”
Unfortunately, he speaks from experience.
A victim of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of family members, as a child, Earl turned to sniffing gasoline and later drugs to deal with the pain. “I was, from a very early age, wired to think I wasn’t worth very much. While the abuse was going on, we were going to church every Sunday.”
He had hoped college would be an escape from the abuse but, after dropping out of college, he found he had only traded one abuser for another. “You carry that trauma with you. I failed out of the first year of college.”
After living on the street in Tampa, Earl met a drug dealer. His “knight in armor,” or so he thought. But after four months he became abusive and Earl was forced to sell drugs. “I was a skeleton . . . he got what he wanted out of me.”
But at age 30, Earl, 40 now, found himself at the Department of Corrections and on the road to where he is today – the founder of Ark of Freedom. “I was able to find my way again.”
Visit ArkOfFreedom.org to find out more information on how to become a foster parent.