Florida authorities busted a gay prostitution ring that operated in New York City and Miami. They were able to arrest the ring leaders with the help of some of the male victims. Their information and cooperation led to the first successful prosecution of a person for trafficking gay men under Florida’s a harsher trafficking law. Prosecutors relied on the three victims’ story to guarantee the conviction. According to reports:
As for [Andras Janos] Vass, prosecutors say he and two other men, Gabor Acs and Viktor Berki, lured male victims from Hungary, where most lived in poverty. Acs and Berki are still awaiting trial.
According to authorities, the ringleaders met two victims in Hungary through a website called GayRomeo.com. Another victim was “living with gypsies” as a male prostitute when he met Acs through Facebook.
In 2012, the three victims, all in their early 20s, were flown to New York City to work in what they believed was a legal business in the United States. The victims “believed they would only be in New York for a few months to make tens of thousands of dollars before returning to their homeland and their families,” Homeland Security Investigations agent Melissa Pavlikowski wrote in an arrest warrant.
Acs, Berki and Vass ran a company called Never Sleep Inc.
But in New York, the young men were forced to live in a cramped one-bedroom apartment while performing sex acts around the clock, sometimes with johns, other times on live Web cameras, according to the arrest warrant.
According to another article, the trio used gay dating sites to set up encounters with clients. They would sell the men for $200 to $400 an hour. One of the ringleaders, Berki, allegedly told a witness that he made $40,000 from the prostitution. This seems plausible given the types of clients they received:
Neighbors told NBC Miami they often saw luxury cars pull up to the residence day and night. They also noticed a sign on the front doors of the residence advertising $5 car washes—a front for the vehicles parking at the home, police said.
“It was all BMWs, Mercedes-Benz, you could tell that they were charging a pretty penny for whatever they were doing,” one neighbor told NBC Miami.
To date, only Vass received his sentence. A judge sentenced him to 11 years. He could have received up to 155 years, however, the judge was lenient due to Vass’s own victimization committed by the other two members. This apparently included being forced to marry one of them.
As for the victims, it has proven to be understandably difficult for them:
The men told the court how they were lured to the United States in 2012 with the promise of well-paid escort jobs but found themselves held as sex slaves and abused daily.
“When somebody asks me about what did I do in the United States, I freeze as I relive again all those bad things,” one survivor said through a translator at the Miami-Dade Circuit Court trial. “My soul is still held in captivity by them.”
Another victim described being haunted by his 17 months in captivity when he was raped, starved, and sleep-deprived.
“When I see something with red or purple color, it reminds me those red and purple colored rooms where I was locked in,” he told the court in a written statement. “I’m afraid that one day I’ll be woken up in this windowless room and everything starts over again.”
Another victim told the court:
“It’s really hard for me to socialize, to mingle with people,” he testified through a Hungarian interpreter. “I started drinking heavily to try and forget. I lost all my friends.”
Their stories highlight one of the major problems with the effort to stop human trafficking: no one looks for the male victims. Many law enforcement departments receive training to look out for female victims. They are trained to question black eyes or bruises and to follow-up on cases involving theft or fraud. Yet they are not taught to do the same with men and boys. This creates situations like the one Mary Finn described in a study on child sexual exploitation in New York City:
Back in the late 1990s, she explains, Atlanta women had galvanized to prevent child prostitution. One juvenile-court judge in particular provided a catalyst when she instituted a screening process in her courtroom that was aimed at identifying kids who were engaging in prostitution.
The only children who were questioned about sex work were girls. Boys were never screened.
Such screening likely would not have prevented this situation. Yet the lack of any attempt to provide the same services to male victims of sex trafficking makes it easier for traffickers to get away with this crime. It is not just a matter of covering up their tracks. They have the added benefit of knowing that, with rare exception, no one is looking for them.
It also does not help that despite 1 om 10 of the trafficking cases in 2015 involving male victims, the vast majority of the outreach activism is directed at girls:
Nathan Earl, who counseled one of the Vass witnesses through Ark of Freedom, his group which helps male and transgender victims of trafficking, said the victims’ experiences illustrate the challenge of reaching male trafficking victims.
He said such victims often struggle with their own sexuality and self-worth, and may find it hard to admit they are victims while under pressure to meet certain standards of masculinity.
More than 4,000 human trafficking cases were reported in 2015 in the United States with about one in 10 involving men, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
“Any type of outreach poster … regarding trafficking is typically the teenage girl with pigtails,” he said.
“Just seeing that formally encourages that stigma that you are weak, that you are effeminate if you are a victim. There is still such a stigma attached to male victimization.”
Some people may argue that challenging “toxic masculinity” would change this, yet notion is a red herring. The issue is tactic argument that only females are victims. Stripping a man or a boy of his masculinity is a terrible thing, and these types of crimes certainly do that. The traffickers play on this as a method of keeping their victims from coming forward.
Yet that pales in comparison to the underlying message the lack of outreach for male victims sends. If we only discuss female victims or continue to claim (without evidence) that the vast majority of victims are female, then we tell male victims that they are the only ones. There is little chance that anyone hearing that message will think “I’m the only one, but there’s nothing wrong with me.” It is more likely that they will think that there is something about them — their lack of masculinity, their sexuality, their looks, etc. — that caused this to happen to them.
By ignoring male victims, we tell the men and boys who do come forward that they are “unique” and that is why they were targeted. It is not that the person committing the act simply went for someone they thought they could take advantage of. No, there is something inherent in the victim that made the trafficker choose him rather than a woman or girl.
We need to do away with that, and the easiest way to do this is by actually providing outreach and services to male victims. Instead of touting numbers to say how much worse women have it, let us talk about what male victims experience and what services and support they need. Let us talk about how the assaults affect their sense of masculinity. Let us make sure that they know we care, and maybe more men and boys will come forward.