Chris Bates was 16 years old when he started selling nude photos of himself on the internet to adult men who pressured him for more and more images.
The demands snowballed into riskier requests, and within months the gay Connecticut teen was trading sex for dinners out, designer sneakers and other luxuries.
Bates says he was lured by the attention and what appeared to be easy money. He secretly hoped his financially struggling single mother, or anybody, would notice what was happening and protect him.
No one did — and within two years, the tall, lanky youth was living alone in a dilapidated apartment, prostituting himself to get by. His home — and an array of hotel rooms in Connecticut and Massachusetts — became a “revolving door” of sex buyers.
“I really thought I was the bad person selling myself,’’ said Bates, now 26 and living in Worcester. “I didn’t realize that I was a victim.”
Bates’ story is unusual only in that it is so rarely told: Boys and young men lured into the sex trade and victimized in ways the public generally assumes applies mostly to women and girls. But there is growing evidence that in New England and across the United States there are likely thousands of male victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, far more than previously understood.
In Massachusetts alone, more than 411 boys have been referred to the state Department of Children and Families since 2018 for concerns they were victims of commercial sexual exploitation — about 15 percent of the total number of referrals, according to state data. An additional 109 youth were identified as trans or non-binary, state data shows.
The state just started collecting this data in 2016, and it is widely considered to be an undercount. Definitive data is still lacking but recent studies show boys and young men are being exploited at much higher rates. A 2016 national study found more than a third of young people involved in the U.S. sex trade were boys and young men. That same year, a federal study found a third of male youths experiencing homelessness said they traded sex for something of value — putting their numbers in the thousands on any given night nationwide.
Yet too often male victims of sexual exploitation go unseen and unhelped, specialists say, their stories stifled by personal shame, stigma and a world that has trouble seeing boys and young men as victims at all, especially gay and trans youth and boys of color.
In Massachusetts, there is one program focused solely on helping sexually exploited male youth and trans females, and its revenue last year was less than half of its sister program for female youth run out of the same nonprofit, Roxbury Youthworks, Inc.
Prosecuting exploiters and traffickers of boys and young men is even more challenging. The Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General has filed 62 sex trafficking cases since 2012, but only one includes a male victim, state officials say.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey says her office strives to hold exploiters accountable, whatever the gender of their victims, in what she calls one of the “fastest growing criminal industries in the world.” She says many victims are unwilling to speak out, silenced by fear, trauma, and often substance abuse issues. She says she is working to better identify male and trans female victims. “We have to absolutely talk about the fact that it is not just girls, it is boys as well,’’ she said. “They suffer from the same trauma, the same victimization, the same exploitation.”