Earlier this month, news broke that Ralph Shortey, a Republican Oklahoma state senator and prominent Donald Trump supporter was charged with engaging in child prostitution for soliciting sex from an underage boy on Instagram and Kik, social media apps popular with teenagers. Shortey was found with the boy (whose name is withheld for privacy) in a motel.
There are plenty of cases in Britain of boys being sexually exploited.. 2014 murder of Breck Bednar, a 14-year-old boy from Essex who was groomed by a 19-year-old man before being killed in a “sadistic and sexual” act of violence stunned the nation. British boys as young as 10 were the victims of a prolific Canadian paedophile who used the internet to prey on boys around the world. And earlier this year, Colin Gregg – the heir to the Greggs bakery fortune – was alleged to have molested four boys over the period of three decades.
These cases are not isolated incidents. A 2014 study funded by the Nuffield Foundation and conducted by NatCen and the University College London found that 1 in 3 exploited children supported by the children’s charity Barnardo’s is a young man, a startling statistic that shows boys and young men are far more vulnerable to exploitation than many would think. “Society is miserably and unacceptably failing sexually exploited boys and young men,” Javed Khan, the chief executive of Barnardo’s, told the BBC at the time. “The telltale signs are being missed because of a lack of awareness and stereotypes about the nature of this form of abuse.”
We don’t frequently think of boys as being sexually exploited, in part because girls are viewed as so much more vulnerable and in part because boys are often so reluctant to come forward, fearing that doing so will make them appear weak or emasculated. Yet boys and young men, particularly young gay and bisexual men, are often the targets of sexual predation. SaferKids, an app which notifies parents if their children download one of thousands of apps where they could fall victim to sexual predators, over a dozen examples of children being sexually exploited by men they met on Grindr alone.
This isn’t to say that this is solely an issue effecting gay and bisexual boys and young men, nor is it to imply that perpetrators are often gay and bisexual men. All boys and young men, regardless of sexual orientation, are vulnerable – and sexual orientation does not a predator make. A 2014 report by the West Sussex County Council actually shows that the majority of the boys who sought help from Yorkshire MESMAC’s BLAST programme identified as straight. (Yorkshire MESMAC is “one of the oldest and largest sexual health organisations “in the UK, and their BLAST programme works specifically with boys who are victims of or vulnerable to sexual exploitation.)
“It’s not someone’s sexual orientation that puts them at risk,” the report reads. “It’s their circumstances, the situation they’re in and their beliefs.” A teenage boy who seeks a boyfriend his own age is much less likely to be exploited than a boy who seeks an older woman for sex. But, the report adds, “gay and bisexual young people and those questioning their sexual orientation may be particularly vulnerable to being sexually exploited if parents do not support them, and if schools do not provide adequate information and support that is relevant to them.”
We can’t even get LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship educated mandated in British schools, and LGBT young people represent up to 24% of the British homeless population – a startlingly disproportionate share when compared to the overall demographics, and evidence that many kids still face rejection at home. Homeless boys are more likely to be exploited for sex or prostitution, but even those kids who aren’t kicked out of their homes are likely to turn to apps such as Grindr, Scruff, and Recon to connect with other gay men.
This is normal and fine. When I was a gay teen coming of age in a small Kentucky town, chat rooms were my only opportunity to talk with other gay people. The problem with Grindr, Scruff, and Recon is that they are apps tailored specifically to hook gay men up with sex – a perfectly acceptable purpose but not one that should include minor children.
Grindr was sued because of the lack of age verification, but a court found that it wasn’t liable. Likewise, Tinder also has no real age verification. This means that the onus is on individual users to verify the age of any potential sexual partners – and that doesn’t always stop the sexual exploitation of boys and young men, regardless of sexual orientation.
While there are no easy answers to end the exploitation of boys and young men, there are a few things that can be done to help prevent children from being victimised. Schools need to include LGBT people in sexual and relationship education, but they also need to do a better job of teaching boys about the dangers of grooming (particularly online) and that they, too, can be sexually exploited. We need to eliminate the stigma around being a male victim, which includes combatting the notions that sleeping with someone older is “cool” and that being abused is emasculating or in any way the victim’s fault.
We need more support services for boys and young men who come forward as victims, and we need the police to actually follow up when parents lodge a complaint that their child is being groomed. The parents of Breck Bednar received a payout from the Surrey Police because they “lacked knowledge of dealing with grooming concerns.” Had they known what to do, Breck might still be alive.
In the meantime, the rest of us need to stay vigilant. These are our children, and we have a responsibility to protect them from sexual exploitation. We can no longer fail to spot vulnerable boys on an app for grown men. They don’t belong there.
These boys are our boys. It’s time we protect them.