This article is the third installment in an ongoing investigation by the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting, titled Unseen: The Boy Victims of the Sex Trade. Read part one here and part two here.
German Chavez was 14 years old when he first started using a gay dating app called Grindr to find adult men to pay him for sex.
He needed to help his troubled single mother pay the bills, he said, and had no trouble finding men to purchase him on the popular location-based mobile app.
Now 25 and years away from the sex trade, Chavez is warning other minors to stay away from Grindr, one of the most popular apps in the country for gay and bisexual men.
“Things that can be bad can happen to you, possibilities of death, [going] missing or being locked in a room where you can be taken advantage of as a sex object,’’ said Chavez, who now lives in Malden. “It’s an at-your-own risk place.”
The company touts its mobile platform as “The World’s Largest Social Networking App for Gay, Bi, Trans and Queer People” and says its users have to be 18 years old and older.
But the app is teeming with underage gay, bisexual and questioning boys, according to researchers, child exploitation specialists and users like Chavez who say they can easily lie about their age to gain access to the service.
Many LGBTQ teens are seeking connection in a world that provides few safe spaces, researchers say. Some like Chavez are looking to find sex buyers to survive. But an investigation by the the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting finds that too often the adult men they meet are dangerous and the encounters can lead to sexual exploitation, assault and trafficking.
“It creates an easy place for sexual predators to look for these kids,” said Jack Turban, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Grindr is also at fault for knowing that this is happening and not doing anything about it.”
Since 2015, more than 100 men across the United States — including police officers, priests and teachers — have faced charges related to sexually assaulting minors or attempting sexual activity with youth they met on Grindr, according to a GBH News search of public records.
Among them, a Lawrence police officer is currently facing charges in Essex County Superior Court for allegedly raping a 13-year-old he met on the app in 2018. The officer pleaded not guilty, and the next hearing is scheduled for August. He declined to comment for this story.
In 2019, a former Newburyport City Council president was sentenced to 2 ½ years in state prison after pleading guilty to raping a 15-year-old he met on Grindr. And in 2017, a Colorado man was sentenced to 50 years in prison for luring underage boys he met on Grindr into sexual servitude.
The app also has become a rich hunting ground for law enforcement and self-described activists modeled after the former NBC program, “To Catch a Predator.” Groups across the country are looking to shame adult men seeking sex with children and, in some cases, turning them over to the police. They pose as underage boys and then film their interactions with men who come to meet them.
A Northborough man appears to have fallen into this trap last year. He is facing charges in Fitchburg District Court for allegedly attempting to meet a 15-year-old boy on Grindr, who turned out to be a decoy. He pleaded not guilty, and a jury trial is scheduled for October. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
But for sexual predators, Grindr provides a space to find many real underage boys. More than half of sexually active gay and bisexual boys between the ages of 14 and 17 find sexual partners on Grindr and other similar apps, according to a 2018 study by Northwestern University researchers. Grindr is by far the most popular dating app among teens, the research shows.
It creates an easy place for sexual predators to look for these kids.
Jack Turban, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine
Grindr did not respond to multiple requests for comment. It is one of a dizzying array of apps, websites, gaming sites and chat rooms on the Internet where boys and girls are stalked by sexual predators, law enforcement and anti-trafficking specialists say.
And online hazards have surged during the pandemic. The number of reports of adults seeking children online for sex nearly doubled to 38,000 last year from the year before, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. About 13 percent of the alleged victims were boys. But an ongoing GBH investigation has found that the number of male victims is vastly under-reported — partly because boys don’t disclose what happened, stifled by fear, shame and stigma, and partly because society often has trouble seeing them as victims at all.
Turban recently co-published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimating that about one quarter of all gay and bisexual adolescent males are using Grindr and similar apps — likely hundreds of thousands of youth nationwide.
He’s seen gay teens end up at an emergency room in Boston — where he worked until last year — in crisis after being sexually exploited by men they met on Grindr yet too ashamed to seek help from other adults.
He says he has received some pushback from members of the gay community about his focus on Grindr, when there are so many sites targeting children. There’s a history of anti-gay propaganda painting gay men as pedophiles, he said, when there is no research to show they are more likely to be predators than others.
But Turban says homophobia is also to blame for why LGBTQ youth have so few outlets to find intimacy and also why their victimization is so seldom talked about. He says clinicians and family members should do more to talk to gay youth about the health and safety risks of dating apps. And he says Grindr and other apps should do more to restrict their access.
“Because we haven’t created developmentally appropriate safe spaces, these kids have been forced online onto these spaces that aren’t safe for them,” he said.
“The wild west of the gay world”
Grindr was created in 2009 by Israeli-born, Tufts University graduate Joel Simkhai. He sold a controlling share of the company in 2016 to a Chinese company for a reported $93 million and eventually relinquished full ownership. Last year, the company was purchased by a U.S.-based company for more than $600 million.
Grindr claims on its website that millions of users flock to the site every day — using its location-based technology to help people connect to others close to them.
Bradley Tyrrell, 35, of Newton says the app is a “double-edged sword” — a place to meet gay men but also with many unknowns. Tyrrell said he met his boyfriend on the Grindr but also has been “catfished,” meaning recruited by men lying about their identity. Offers from prostitutes are common, he said, and he believes minors should stay away. “It’s the wild west of the gay world.”
Kathryn Macapagal, a research professor at Northwestern University, says she first asked teens about hook-up apps in 2016 when she was preparing a sex education program for gay and bisexual boys.
She was surprised by the answers. The majority of sexually active teens said they had met people through apps and most of them had sexual encounters with their on-line hookups; only about a quarter of those who had sex said they used condoms.
Her team conducted more surveys to talk about why they get on the apps — often gay and questioning teens looking for community in a world that doesn’t welcome them.
Teens also told her why they would stop. “There were so many teens that use that exact same phrase, ‘creepy older guys who just wanted to have sex,’” she said.
German Chavez is 6-foot-2 with a wide smile, a round face and a joyous laugh.
He identifies as non-binary, sometimes male and sometimes female, and is open to being addressed by all gender pronouns. She performs as a drag queen using the stage name Lady German. On a recent Saturday, Chavez attended a Trans Resistance Vigil and March in Franklin Park dressed as a woman with thick red lipstick, bright yellow tights and high heels. The following week he spoke to GBH reporters in the Boston Common dressed as a man in a T-shirt and jeans after leaving his day job in a pharmacy.
Chavez says he first turned to Grindr in middle school hoping to learn from others about what it means to be gay, questions he couldn’t answer at home. He was living in Florida with his siblings and his single mother. The first man he met was 60 years old. Instead of connection, he said, the man groped him at a diner and brought him to his home to sexually assault him.
He said Grindr hook-ups gave him the false impression being gay was all about sex.
“Just because I was introduced to this one guy who probably isn’t gay and just is a pedophile, like, it doesn’t mean that that’s how the community is,” he said. “That’s the scary part about Grindr, that it can be, like, literally a guy who doesn’t identify as gay and just likes kids.”
That’s the scary part about Grindr, that it can be, like, literally a guy who doesn’t identify as gay and just likes kids.
A year later, Chavez says he started selling sex on Grindr to help his financially struggling family; his activity increased a few years later after he ran away to New York City and was on his own. He met men who assaulted him, beat him and fleeced him, he said.
Asked why he never sought help, Chavez grew emotional.
“You kind of feel like because you’re raising yourself, it’s your fault. So you don’t want to talk about it,” he said, trying to keep back tears. “When you think about it, it’s like, ‘no, you’re a kid, you are supposed to be in high school playing or your parents are supposed to be taking care of you.’”
Chavez said he was able to stop selling sex after he discovered drag, giving him confidence and another way to make money. Chavez still has Grindr on his phone, using the location-based technology to identify men he has met at a club before they get too far out of range. Sometimes underage boys reach out to him, he says, recognizing his role as Lady German, and he cautions them to delete the app.
Chavez says it’s important to talk about the problems he has faced in order to protect others.
“The gay community can be the most colorful place in the world,” he said. “But it has the darkest secrets and darkest places ever because there are these things like this that are not talked about.”
Online, nobody checks IDs
Grindr says in its terms of service that it restricts users to 18 and older but cautions it makes no effort to verify identities.
Part of the reason Grindr can say this is because it is protected by federal law. The 1996 law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, shields companies from legal liability for content created by others.
Supporters like the Electronic Frontier Foundation say the law is “one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of information on the Internet.” Without it, advocates say, companies like Facebook, Amazon and Yelp would not be able to function, because they would be required to vet every review, article or comment published on their sites.
The law protected Grindr in 2015 when a New Jersey man sued the company after he was charged with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old boy whom he met, via a third person, on the app.
The man claimed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey that he didn’t know the boy was underage because the app restricts users to 18 and up. A federal court judge dismissed the case, citing Section 230’s “Good Samaritan” clause, which protects Internet providers from being “treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
But a growing number of advocates and public officials are calling for reforms to Section 230 to hold companies more accountable for dangers, including their role in sex trafficking.
Texas attorney Annie McAdams is hoping she can change the way judges look at the law. She’s filed three suits in Texas state courts against Facebook, arguing that the company is not just a publisher but that it’s “participating and facilitating” in the sex trafficking of children.
Facebook asked the Texas Supreme Court to dismiss the cases, citing Section 230. In late June, the state’s top court ruled in McAdams’ favor, stating that the law protects companies for actions of their users. But “holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing. This is particularly the case for human trafficking.”
The court sent the cases back to district court to allow the plaintiffs to try to prove their allegations of wrongdoing. Facebook officials said last week that they are “reviewing the decision” to decide about any next steps. “Sex trafficking is abhorrent and not allowed on Facebook,” a company spokesman said. “We will continue our fight against the spread of this content and the predators who engage in it.”
McAdams says she has amassed a group of clients to file more suits if she doesn’t succeed with these cases. Most of her clients are female, she says, but she knows there are more boy victims who haven’t reached out to her. She’s aware of safety concerns on Grindr and expects someday she will also sue the mobile app under the same legal construct.
“When you’re dealing with the vulnerabilities of somebody who’s gay and who’s developing in our society, it’s tenfold more difficult and more impressionable,’’ she said. “Grindr holds a very, very, very high responsibility to these children.”
Cheyenne Ehrlich, owner of a company called SaferKid that works to protect children from dangers on the Internet, says lawmakers either have to amend Section 230 or require companies to impose age verification. Ehrlich has Grindr on his top list of most dangerous apps for children because of its adult content.
“If everybody in the line of fire — the management, the shareholders — all had liability for every instance of child sexual assault that occurred on one of these apps,” abuse would stop, he said. About Grindr, he warns: “No one under age 18 should use this app.”
Haley McNamara, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, says companies’ failure to identify online users’ age and identities goes well beyond Grindr. But she says concerns about online predators have reached a tipping point — and companies and the lawmakers should do what it takes to keep boys and girls safe. In addition to age verification, she says there is technology to detect when people are lying about their age.
She also believes it’s important to focus on individual apps like Grindr to raise awareness among friends and family and push individual companies to find solutions.
“This is a problem across so many different platforms and demographics, but each platform has to answer for the ecosystem that it creates,’’ she said. “The technology is there.”
There are 14-year-old boys on Grindr right now.
Not everybody is seeking stricter laws. Kimberly Nelson, a professor of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health, says its natural for gay teens to head to Grindr to explore their sexuality. She said even if companies make it more difficult for young people to use their sites, it’s likely they will find workarounds. Instead, she said, teens should be given tools to better protect themselves, including advice on how to interact with people online and how to be careful about photo sharing.
“They’re not supposed to be on Grindr right now. They’re not supposed to be on these dating apps right now. They still are,’’ she said. “If we give them the tools that they need to interact in a way that is safe and protective for them, for me, that feels like the better intervention.”
Chris Bates, a Worcester-based trafficking survivor and advocate, wishes he had been given more warnings about sex trafficking in school when he was gay youth living in rural Connecticut. He says he first signed up for Grindr at 16 seeking attention that he lacked at home. With a simple check of a button, he lied about his age and entered into a world of adult men.
Bates, now 27 and a commissioner on the Massachusetts Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Commission, said he had no trouble meeting men he now describes as wolves who exploited him. In exchange for sex, they would offer him gifts of clothing, dinners and designer shoes, luxuries that his single mother couldn’t afford. He blames the men who purchased him but also the technology that made it so easy.
“There should be a responsibility on tech companies to make sure that young people are not on their apps,’’ he said. “There are 14-year-old boys on Grindr right now.”
Jenifer B. McKim and Phillip Martin are reporters with the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. Gabriela Lopez is an intern with the center and a journalism student at Boston University.
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