27 FEBRUARY 2003

Boys the 'invisible' victims in sex trade

Many are only 12 years old, mere boys when they enter the sex trade after a childhood of sexual abuse. Experts say they have been ignored far too long, hidden by shame and surrounded by a community too uncomfortable to broach the topic and extend a helping hand.

“We have always looked at the issue of prostitution with a female lens,” said Sue McIntyre, a policy adviser and researcher who recently released a groundbreaking study on young street workers in Calgary.

She presented her findings in Edmonton on Tuesday at the Canadian Red Cross-sponsored Gameboys conference on boys in the sex trade.

“It's about the sexual exploitation of children,” McIntyre said. "This isn't a comfortable thing to think about and it's not obvious. But boys are out there."

In 1991 and then again in 2001, McIntyre interviewed a group of 50 young people working the streets in Calgary. There are no statistics on how many boys are on the streets, but only nine in the group she interviewed — about 20 per cent — were male. All had been sexually abused as children, compared with 82 per cent of the women.

Their average age for entering the sex trade was 12 and they stayed on the streets twice as long as the women, many of whom escaped the streets when they had children and received state and family support.

“Males are not as visible on the street,” McIntyre told a crowd of front-line workers, teachers and people who work with at-risk youth. Support workers can't easily spot the men on the corners, since they don't dress for work or strut their stuff as the women do. Many boys work out of shopping malls and movie theatres, using pagers and newspapers to contact clients. They make four times less money than women and often become house boys, virtual slaves for older men.

“These boys are dying of HIV, AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and overdoses,” said Pytor Hodgson, a 28-year-old who escaped the sex trade after seven years and has become a vocal advocate for youth.

“They are killing themselves. It's a real health issue and we can't ignore it. These are someone's sons, someone's nephews, someone's neighbours.”

Hodgson, a boy born into the child welfare system in Toronto with an abusive, alcoholic father, was 12 when he became ensnared in the sex trade. He remembers the day he went to an arcade in Windsor, Ont. A fellow came up to him and invited him to his house to play more video games. Hodgson received something else instead.

“I was 12 and it was the first time I traded video games and cocaine for sex,” said Hodgson, who had never used illegal drugs before that day.

“In the seven years I was working, night after night, I thought it was me, that I was wrong. The police would always chase me and social workers called me a pervert. There was no one there to validate that I was being victimized.”

Hodgson, president of the educational and consulting firm Canvoi International, said while girls in the sex trade are often seen as fragile and broken in need of comfort and nurture, boys aren't seen as victims and therefore don't have access to the same resources and support.

“Homophobia keeps the community from talking about them,” Hodgson said. Preliminary research found that at least five out of the nine males were “gay for pay,” heterosexual males who sell sex to men.

“The shame these boys have forces them more into the shadows,” Hodgson said. “Men learn not to ask for help.”

McIntyre hopes to learn more about boys in prostitution with a $125,000 study funded by Children's Services Minister Iris Evans and anonymous donors. Researchers in Calgary and Edmonton hope to interview 20 men in each city, as well as others across Alberta.

“This province took the lead,” McIntyre said. “We need to know.”

Kourch Chan, manager at Crossroads Outreach in Edmonton, said 10 per cent of the street workers his agency helps are male. “It requires more effort to actually see,” he said. “This is awareness now. It's breaking the silence.”

JoAnn McCartney, a retired detective with Edmonton's vice squad who works with agencies such as the Prostitution Awareness and Action Foundation of Edmonton, said the city has few boys or men working the street. She said during one sting operation, only one male sex worker was stopped on the boy stroll.

“Edmonton is winning this,” she said. “People come to Edmonton to quit.”

By Jodie Sinnema

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