From the 1970s through the 1990s, police say, young male hustlers worked street corners and bars in San Francisco’s Castro District and along Polk Street, blocks away from City Hall.
But in recent years, that population has largely faded from view – along with the whereabouts of the city’s sexually exploited boys.
“When I was first out there, I would see boys standing on the corner, possibly engaged in prostitution,” said Sgt. Arlin Vanderbilt, who heads human trafficking investigations for the San Francisco Police Department and used to patrol the Polk Street corridor. “In the last 10 years I haven’t seen anything like that.”
The San Francisco Police Department, the district attorney’s office and the Department of Juvenile Probation say they have not handled cases involving boys trading sex for money or other compensation in years. Social service providers who work with street kids say they rarely identify boys who are victims of sexual exploitation.
But law enforcement officials and social workers believe a significant number of sexually exploited boys are living in the city – in desperate need of housing, mental health support, STD screening and drug treatment
“I think boys are at great risk,” said Gena Castro Rodriguez, clinical director of the Youth Justice Institute in San Francisco. “But there is still a debate about that, and maybe that’s why we don’t see them getting arrested.”
Police say the exploitation of boys is harder to detect. Many transactions between underage boys and older men begin on Internet sites, which appear to offer discreet encounters between consenting adults.
“Our ability to identify those situations is extremely limited,” Vanderbilt said. “We have no doubt that it goes on and it concerns us, but we have all the work we can handle with actual commercial sex trafficking of girls.”
Girls are much more likely than boys to be trafficked on the street by pimps, police say. Boys often engage in survival sex, a less organized and premeditated form of exploitation, according to human trafficking experts. Such boys often fail to seek help because they don’t view themselves as victims.
“They might be exchanging sex for a place to sleep or food, but they’re still being exploited,” said Toby Eastman, program director at Larkin Street Youth Services in the Tenderloin.
Social service providers, public health workers and law enforcement officers agree that there is no reliable data on the number of exploited boys in the city.
“We don’t have good numbers, but it’s more common than we think,” Eastman said. “What we’re pretty clear about is that it’s underreported, and what is reported is the tip of an iceberg.”
The best available data on the prevalence of sexual exploitation comes from a 2008 study on prostituted youth in New York City. Researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that of the 249 sexually exploited minors they interviewed, 45 percent were boys. Only 10 percent reported having pimps. The researchers estimated that almost 4,000 minors at the time had been used as prostitutes.
The Standing Against Global Exploitation, or SAGE, Project, a San Francisco nonprofit that received an $800,000 federal grant to help exploited minors, has identified roughly 300 juvenile girls who were sexually exploited in the Bay Area. But in two years, the group has verified just four such cases involving boys.
Since receiving the grant, SAGE has reached more than 200 girls through the juvenile justice system, but the group’s services are not available for boys at San Francisco’s juvenile hall.
Allen Wilson, who co-wrote the grant proposal for SAGE, said the organization is trying to discover new ways to engage boys, who are usually unwilling to admit that they have been compromised sexually.
“We focus on trauma generally because if we talk to them about sexual exploitation they’re not going to give any thing up,” he said. “That’s just not going to happen because of the stigma.”
Boys are also less likely than girls to meet with public health workers, who would screen them for possible exploitation.
“Boys in general don’t access health care,” said Tonya Chaffee, director of the Teen and Young Adult Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital. “Girls worry about pregnancy and STDs and seek help, whereas boys generally don’t.”
The problem of identifying exploited boys is not limited to San Francisco.
Retired Oakland police Officer Jim Saleda, who worked human trafficking investigations for 10 years, including prostitution cases, said he never came across prostituted boys.
“In all of my time doing that stuff, we just never saw it, never had contact with it,” he said. “They’re absolutely out there, but I think it’s way underground.”
The elusiveness of San Francisco’s exploited boys runs counter to the city’s old reputation as a mecca for young male street hustlers, often runaways supporting drug habits by selling sex in the Castro, Tenderloin and South of Market Area neighborhoods.
“All the male sex trade is gone," said Sami Saltagi, who has tended bar at the Lush Lounge on Polk Street since 2004. “The last hustler-ish bar was Kimo’s, and that changed a few months ago.”
Like many Polk Street businesses, Kimo’s has gone upscale, Saltagi said, citing several now-defunct watering holes where until the past decade teenage boys nursed drinks while striking deals with older men, including oral sex for $5 or $10 per session.
“The neighborhood got gentrified,” Saltagi said. “It’s a destination now. People come from the Marina in party buses and limousines."
Drugs ravaged the Polk Street sex trade, too, said Kurt Gilbertson, who has tended bar in the neighborhood since 1997.
“That scene was dwindling, even then,” he said. “I watched the hustlers dwindle because of the drugs and everything. A few are still on the street, but they look horrible.”
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit, investigative news sources in the Bay Area and a part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.