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 studyfound more than a third of young people involved in the U.S. sex trade were boys and young men. That same year, a federal studyfound a third of male youths experiencing homelessnes 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.”

I really thought I was the bad person selling myself. I didn't realize that I was a victim.
Chris Bates

Yet conversations about sex trafficking still often focus on victims as girls or young women, controlled by a pimp in what is increasingly understood as modern day slavery. It’s a dark world, where many females go unidentified and lack enough services to help. But male victims get far less attention from the public, law enforcement and social services, say advocates who are striving to highlight their stories.

“We are led to believe that men are perpetrators and women are victims and not the flip side,’’ said Steven Procopio, a Boston-based social worker, who has been striving for more than a decade to raise awareness about the problem.

“It’s very frustrating.”

Many local advocates say they know there are more boys out there, even if they don’t show up in the data. Their stories run the gamut from teens controlled by traffickers including pimps and gang members, to an insidious form of commercial sexual exploitation known as “survival sex,” involving youth exchanging sex for food, shelter or other goods. Under federal law any youth under the age of 18 involved in the sex trade is considered a trafficking victim.

Males who are gay, trans, Black and brown are particularly affected, youth advocates say, because they are more vulnerable to exploitation and because people tasked with protecting them often don’t see they need help.

A small but vocal brotherhood of survivors is beginning to speak out.

“From the age of 15 to basically 24 years old, I felt crazy, like something was wrong with me and I didn't know why,’’ said Jose Alfaro, a sex trafficking survivor, who now is 29 and works as a hair stylist on Boston’s trendy Newbury Street.

Alfaro testified in 2018 against his trafficker in a federal courtroom in Texas describing how he was forced to perform sexual massages that became violent. In 2019, he won a rare $1.43 million civil verdict against his abuser — and wants people to know how male victims are overlooked in the sex trade.

“They are afraid that people are going to think that they’re gay. They’re going to think that if they are gay, that maybe they wanted it,’’ he said. “A lot of male victims decide not to come forward because of the stigma behind it.”

A young man in a blue and gray striped shirt and torn jeans sits on a couch.
Jose Alfaro poses for a photo at his home in Boston on March 19, 2021.
Meredith Nierman GBH News

Compounding the problem, specialists say, is a slew of misinformation about sex trafficking that is surging on social media. Much of this is in the form of politically-motivated conspiracy theories advanced by proponents of QAnon under the seemingly virtuous heading “Save The Children.” Adherents of the right-wing extremist philosophy purport to be engaged in breaking up a global pedophile ring associated with liberal politicians.

Alfaro says these fabrications add to the suffering of real male victims like him. He says he was drawn into the sex trade as a teen after being kicked out of his home because he was gay. People already have a distorted picture of the boys and men who are exploited or trafficked, he said. Conspiracy theories only make it harder to tell the true story. “[QAnon] has ruined a lot of the hard work that people have done to put that education out there for people to read and to understand and to help end this problem,” he said.

The gateway online

Chris Bates is just now finding his voice. He says telling his story is empowering, as if by explaining the painful parts he too understands more about what happened and why.

He grew up in subsidized housing in rural Connecticut where he was the only openly gay youth he knew. His mother was stressed by mental health and financial challenges, working long hours. He found solace on Facebook where he quickly gained thousands of followers.

Bates says he first posted pictures of himself on the beach or a pool, which led to requests from adult men for nude photos, and, later, for meetups.

“At first it seemed kind of exciting,’’ he said. “I really wasn’t getting enough attention at home.”

Bates’ mother, Mariel Njuguna, acknowledges now that she wasn’t around enough. She worked long hours as a medical assistant and struggled with symptoms of a bipolar disorder. When Bates later told her what he’d been through, she says, she blamed herself. “At first I didn’t understand,’’ she said. Now she just wants to support him. “All you can give him is love.”

Bates’ entryway through his computer is increasingly common.

Online sexual exploitation is surging because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has kept young people stuck at home and attached to their computers, phones and tablets.

Last year, there were nearly 38,000 reports of suspected “online enticement for sexual acts” — nearly double the number of reports from the year before, according to the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which runs a cybertip line.

And boys are far more likely than girls to share sexually explicit content of themselves when directly communicating with predators, according to a 2015 study by the national center.

Eliza Reock, a child sex trafficking program specialist at the center, says the number of reported cases of trafficked boys has grown from almost nothing 15 years ago to seven percent of the total in 2020 — a sign she sees as hopeful that people are finally beginning to pay attention.

“The major reason why kids aren't getting services is because they're not identified,’’ she said. “That is compounded with challenges within our system to even recognize boys as victims of sexual crimes.”

The major reason why kids aren't getting services is because they're not identified. That is compounded with challenges within our system to even recognize boys as victims of sexual crimes.

Bates said selling nudes photos desensitized him to his own exploitation. A few weeks before he turned 18, he ran away and was placed in a temporary foster care home. After his birthday, he was forced to go out on his own, he says, and reconnected with his father who had been largely absent during his childhood.

His father set him up in an apartment, but Bates said he had no other means of support. He was living alone, without a car, eating at a nearby soup kitchen miles from his family home. That’s when he turned to prostitution full time. “The only thing I was doing was selling my body,” he said.

He learned how to post ads on Craigslist, and other websites. He met two older men willing to drive him to hotels for hookups — people he now sees as traffickers, taking more than half of his earnings purportedly to cover transportation costs.

One particular day emphasized for him what he says he should have known all along: His drivers didn’t have his best interests in mind. He left a hotel room crying after a sexual assault and told his companion that he wanted to change his life. Instead of sympathy, he says, his driver told him bluntly he had no way out — he was a prostitute.

“That’s when I realized he was not a friend,’’ Bates said. “This is someone that is using me.”

Elisabeth Jackson, executive director of the Boston-based Bridge Over Troubled Waters that works with homeless youth, says too often boys don’t even understand they are being victimized.

“The young men see it as, ‘This is how I have to survive. I need to get something to eat. And I'm getting money,’’’ she said. You're dealing with somebody who's been completely brainwashed and believing that this is the life they have to live in, even though deep down, down there it doesn't feel right.”

Bates says many people ignored his suffering: doctors who overmedicated him, teachers and family members. Police officers once arrested him as a teen with an older man and didn’t think to ask him if he was OK. And then there are the men who purchased sex from him, some of whom were teachers, cops and other professionals.

Sex buyers fund a massive U.S. market estimated at $5.7 billion a year, according to a 2019 survey by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Demand Abolition. Twenty percen t of men who purchase sex weekly or monthly — classified as “high-frequency buyers” — said their last purchase was from a male provider, according to the survey.

“There was a lot of businessmen. There was a lot of married men, with rings on their fingers,’’ Bates said. “They would talk about their children, how they had family and how this needs to be secret.”

Tracking predators

On a cool, cloudless April day last year, Jason Velasquez headed to Leominster center to catch a suspected pedophile.

His evidence, he claimed, was on his phone. The self-described activist had posed as a 14-year-old boy on the internet as part of his project modeled after the former NBC program, “To Catch a Predator.”

Velasquez’s modus operandi: Lure potential predators online, capture compromising conversations on video, and shame them in a live-streamed public spectacle, before providing information to the police.

A survivor of abuse as a young child, Velasquez is a lean man with a neatly trimmed goatee and a tattoo inscribed with his girlfriend’s name on his neck. He launched his project last spring after being laid off from his construction job at the start of the pandemic. Since then, he says he has completed 100 “catches,” including dozens of cases that led to criminal charges. His business, “Predator Poachers Massachusetts,” joins a fraternity of controversialenterprises around the country, sometimes accused of homophobia or vigilantism, but also watched by law enforcement.

Velasquez considers himself an activist and protector of children like Bates. He poses as both girls and boys, but says men seeking boys are more prevalent and easier to catch because they are more likely to talk about sex. “There are more of them, and they just don't have no filter,’’ he said.

That chilly spring day, Velasquez’s target was a balding man, sporting sunglasses, blue jeans and a black winter coat standing outside a convenience store, looking at his cell phone. He was expecting to meet a 14-year-old boy he’d been talking to about sex acts, police records show.

Velasquez asked him who he was waiting for and then explained why he was there. “I go online and I pretend to be an underage boy and I catch people preying on young boys,’’ Velasquez said, before calling the man “disgusting” and filming him as he rushed to his black Ford Explorer. “Why do you think it’s OK to come meet an underage boy?”

The live-streamed exchange was viewed by a state police officer in Leominster who traced the driver’s license to a nearby police department in rural Stow, known more for its apple orchards than sex crimes. The driver was then-Stow Police Chief Ralph Marino who later admitted to police he was the man in the video, court records show . He resigned and was charged with child enticement.

Marino could not be reached for comment. In November, the former police chief was sentenced to three years probation, his case “continued without a finding,” a state process that allows charges to be dismissed if a defendant stays out of trouble while under court supervision, according to the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office.

Velasquez said he was disappointed by the result. “In three years it just gets wiped away like it never happened,’’ he said. “That's not fair at all.”

A young man in a black Nike Air hat and hooded jacket sits in front of a black fence.
Jason Velasquez, founder of Predators Poachers Massachusetts in Leominster, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.
Jenifer McKim GBH News

But the court result is not unusual — most trafficking and exploitation-related cases end in dismissals, court records show.

Of 543 completed cases filed in Massachusetts since 2012 against people charged, like Marino, with a felony sex crime called “enticement of a child under 16,’’ almost three quarters were either dismissed, found not guilty or continued without a finding, according to data released by the state courts.

Of 184 separate sex trafficking-related cases filed in Superior Court since 2012, about two thirds were dismissed or found not guilty, state records show.

To better identify and help victims and hold exploiters accountable, the state in February released new law enforcement guidelines. But the 52-page document offers no specific details on how to help find male victims — leaving advocates like Stephen Procopio frustrated that despite years of calling for more attention, boys are still an afterthought.

The guidelines state that the majority of “identified” sex trafficking victims are women and girls, but males are “routinely underindentified.” Law enforcement officials are advised to treat male victims as seriously as female or transgender victims. “It is important to be aware that males can be victims and are in need of assistance,” the document reads.

Procopio says law enforcement should be provided more information about how to identify male victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. This is not a new complaint. A 2013 state-funded commission detailedthe dearth of information about male victims and LGBT youth, recommending more research, programs and training.

Procopio says little has changed since then. He worries that without good data, youths are not getting the help they need. “I’m thinking of all these boys falling through the cracks because the research isn’t there,’’ he said.

‘I hope that funding will come’

An industrial-looking, two-story building in Dorchester a few blocks from the Southeast Expressway houses the state’s only program focused solely on helping boys, trans females and non-binary youth who are at risk or have been exploited in the sex trade.

The main room, painted violet, is decorated with rainbow flags and empowering posters including one that reads, “For every girl who is tired of being called oversensitive, there is a boy who fears to be gentle, to weep.”

There’s a comfy couch, a television and a table meant to welcome more than two dozen youth ages 12 to 24 who used to regularly arrive for meals, support and company in pre-pandemic times.

Shaplaie Brooks, who heads the program, called BUILD — for Being United In Leading our Destiny — lamented the silence in the once bustling space. The room holds many memories, she said, including drag shows and dance competitions, with young people running down the long narrow hallway in heels.

“It's definitely hard to see it so empty knowing that so much life has been lived in this space,’’ said Brooks in March. “But we're hoping that things turn around soon.”

A woman with long black hair sits at a blue table.
Shaplaie Brooks, program director for the BUILD program at Roxbury Youth Works, sits in a nearby Boston park to talk about her work with exploited boys on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020.
Jenifer McKim GBH News

The program was founded by Procopio in 2014 and is run by Roxbury Youthworks, a 40-year-old nonprofit aimed at helping youth struggling with victimization, poverty and violence. About half the current clientele are transgender, having been designated as males at birth but living now as females. Most are Black and brown, Brooks says.

The five-member staff operates on a budget of about $387,000, less than half the size of its more established sister program GIFT, which works to help commercially sexually exploited girls, according to the nonprofit.

Brooks says part of the reason behind the disparity in funding is because boys are unlikely to disclose what happened to them. She says racism also is at play. Society simply doesn’t care as much about Black and brown youth, she says, seeing them more as troublemakers than victims.

"The first thing people really think of are little Caucasian girls, little white girls,” she said. “And so funding is usually given for that cause.”

Brooks says if she had more money she could hire more staff to help find exploited youth. She could also provide the ones she sees with more resources. “I think and I hope that funding will come.”

‘It’s all around us’

Across the country, a small but growing vocal group of male survivors and their advocates are working to make sure more is being done to stop exploitation and help survivors.

In Florida, a nonprofit has opened what it calls the first safe home for sexually exploited biologically-born males in the nation, equipped with five bedrooms and five separate bathrooms meant to accommodate survivors no matter how they identify on the gender spectrum. The home, which opened in 2017, is run by the faith-based U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking. The group says it has already cared for about 31 males under the age of 18, the youngest being 10 years old.

In Texas, a nonprofit animal sanctuary and counseling center called Ranch Hands Rescue, plans to open next month what they say will be the first safe house for sexually exploited and trafficked males, ages 18 to 24. The innovative program connects trauma survivors to “animal assisted therapy” with abused and neglected farm animals who have been rehabilitated. Founder Robert Williams, himself a survivor of sexual abuse, says he chose this age group to help people like Chris Bates with nowhere to go.

“They get arrested or they want to get out of the lifestyle and they can’t,” he said. “The reality is somebody’s got to do something about the boys. And that’s what we’ve decided to do.”

A group of people hold candles and a sign to raise awareness about sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
Christopher Bates attends an event he helped organize at Kenneth F. Burns Memorial Bridge in Worcester on Jan. 11, 2021 to raise awareness about sexual exploitation and human trafficking. He's one of the few men at the event.
Jenifer McKim GBH News

Secure housing is what helped Bates recover. At the age of 21, Bates says he started to receive government aid and was able to move into his own apartment and stop prostituting himself to pay his bills. He attended a workshop on sexual exploitation focusing on girls and recognized his story in their plight.

Bates says he sometimes feels alone but knows victims are everywhere. Some reach out to him. He seeks them out — leaving outreach flyers in homeless shelters and calling youths advertising on dating apps telling them they have other options.

He started an organization called Overcome Exploitation meant to provide services and help survivors. He works alongside Procopio to provide training to law enforcement. And he’s grown more vocal within the local anti-trafficking community, making sure they don’t forget about male victims.

“I want people to know this is happening to boys. I want people to know this is happening to LGBTQ youth,’’ he said. “People need to open their minds to this issue and realize it’s all around us.”

The reporting for this project began in a Boston University investigative journalism clinic last year. The following students contributed to this report: Samantha Drysdale; Lillian Ilsley-Greene; Diana Leane; Rhian Lowndes; Haley Paraday; Eileen Qiu; Shaun Robinson; Namu Sampath; Sofia Saric; Hao Sun; Xinying Tao; Meredith Varner; Andi Zhang; Zhenhao Zhang