Filmmaker tackles subject of Black male human trafficking

By Victoria Moore

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — When filmmaker Kevin Coleman-Cohen decided to tackle the subject of human trafficking in a film, he took a different angle.

Rather than focus on the victimization of women in the human — sex — trafficking industry or the male customers of those women, he chose to examine the subject through the lens of young men who get drawn into sex trafficking.

The result was “Pretty Boy.” 

Since men and boys are perceived by society as stronger and more resilient than females they aren’t rescued as often or taken as seriously when they are the victims of  human sex trafficking.

Coleman-Cohen hopes his film can help educate the public and make them aware why it’s important to make the subject less “female-centric.” 

I sat down with him one afternoon and talked to him about his film and the subject of sex trafficking.

VM: Can you tell me how you came up with the idea for your film “Pretty Boy?”

KCC: The film is based on an actual incident that happened when I was working at an at-risk facility in St. Louis, Missouri. One day I was driving down the street and I saw a young African-American male having sex with an adult male behind a dumpster. I made a U-turn, and without passing judgment, rolled down the window and asked the teen if he needed any condoms. He told me, “No, because my customers pay more when I don’t use them.” After he said that, I got out of the van and told him about our program and how I could help him. Although he didn’t want to participate in the program officially, we met the following day and had a long conversation about his background and what led him to the street.

VM: What was his backstory?

KCC: He was 17 years old, and besides his mother being a drug addict, and his relationship with his father being non-existent, he was also molested by a relative at home. Unfortunately, even though he was in a relatively good foster home where he wasn’t molested or abused, he did run away anyway because he didn’t like his foster family.

VM: Did you ever find out what happened to him?

KCC: No, and after searching around the area I couldn’t find him again. Still, his story was so compelling, and inspired me so much, I decided to write my screenplay about him.

VM: Besides his personal history, what else led you to this subject?

KCC: Since I believe a lot of people in society today are unaware that the phenomenon for “sex work for survival” is happening to Black males I wanted to open their eyes about the subject.

VM: What specifically do you want them to know about it?

KCC: I want them to know the same behavior that drives male victims of sex trafficking to do it, and seek help, such as being sexually abused at home through molestation, incest and rape exist for most of them. In addition to that, they’re also kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation as gay.

VM: So, you’re saying the males that engage in this behavior don’t have to be gay?

KCC: No, they don’t. The term for it isn’t prostitution or homosexuality either because it’s neither consensual nor homosexual, since the youths don’t think of themselves as gay. It’s called “men who have sex with men.” Like how men and women have same-sex relations in prison, due to the environment, this group also does it to survive on the street.

VM: How do these male sex workers figure out how to operate within this lifestyle?

KCC: They usually learn about it through word-of-mouth from other male sex workers. They know who to approach and go to because they can sense who’s been traumatized too, who they can trust, and who’ll have their backs on the street. The real “Pretty Boy” I worked with learned from someone else who brought him in by teaching him how to work the block, how not to get ripped off, or attacked.

VM: Do they ever really work with pimps?

KCC: Not really. While female prostitutes and sex workers might need pimps because they’re more vulnerable, male sex workers don’t usually use them unless they’re immigrants and aren’t naturally born in the U.S.

VM: How do male sex workers contact customers?

KCC: Although the internet has changed how they hook up there’s still a lot of activity in South Central L.A. on Figueroa Street. Unlike females who’re out there, they’re harder to identify — but are still visible — because they don’t stand on street corners, or have pimps. 

VM: Is it particularly difficult for Black male sex workers due to societal racism and stereotypes?

KCC: Yes, because society still sees Black males as predatory and sexually dangerous. Even in the African-American community we have a dysfunctional way of dealing with sexual trauma. When we see a young Black male acting out, we never think it might be a reaction to what’s happening to him sexually.

VM: What “red flags” should a mandated reporter look for if they suspect sex trafficking or minors doing “sex work for survival”?

KCC: Four things could be “red flags”: (1) If the minor has new clothes, a new phone or money, all of a sudden, and isn’t selling drugs; (2) If their phone rings and they have to leave all of a sudden; (3) If they say, “My friend’s picking me up,” and their friend turns out to be a 40-year-old male; and (4) If they’re wearing the same clothes on Monday and Wednesday. The fourth “red flag” could also be a sign of homelessness in addition to sex work.

VM: What else do you want mandated reporters to know?

KCC: I also want them to know that a person who has sex because of coercion (survival) doesn’t have consensual sex, whether they consent or not, because it’s a forced act.

VM: Do you have any last words you want to say to the public about the subject?

KCC: Yes. Today, when so many young people have multiple social media accounts (i.e., Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, etc.,) and still attend school, the conversation about sex trafficking and sex working should be openly discussed. It should be brought up as part of the conversation as prevalently as homelessness and other relevant subjects.