To catch everyone up, Thailand is so wonderful. I feel very at home here, and am so grateful for the community and support system that I have found.
I feel more at home at Urban Light as well! The staff is so kind, and I’m learning how to communicate with them in Thai! It’s a slow going, but they are very patient and helpful with words and phrases. It’s actually such a fun language, and grammar-wise, is a lot simpler than English – but it makes up for it in the tonality! Even so, it’s coming along. I recognize some words when they’re spoken, and have a growing stack of flashcards for key terms.
My relationships with the boys are developing nicely as well. There’s a few regulars in particular that have warmed up to me, and it’s so fun to hang out with them and continue to get to know them. It can be a bit hard sometimes with the irregularity (you never know who is going to show up to the center each day), the language barrier (but it gets easier every day!), and setting boundaries, but these are the funniest, sweetest, most intelligent and all-around incredible boys, and I am so grateful to get to work with them!
The other aspects of my work are good as well! I’m working with a friend of Alex’s to strategically grow their social media accounts. Coming up with the content and trying to be present for the boys can be tough to juggle, though. Alex and I have also been planning for the first stages of the social enterprise – product development! I’ll be learning to screenprint later this week to begin creating products. There are also a few awareness/fundraising events coming up that I cannot wait to be involved in! Very busy 🙂
I could talk about my life here forever, but I thought it important to devote a post specifically to the community Urban Light works with, and the specific challenges they face. In my time so far, I have learned so much about trafficking, the nuances of coercion, and the many vulnerabilities of these young men, and I want to dive a little deeper into the issue here.
The current international approach to trafficking is gender-exclusive and primarily focuses on women, thereby overlooking and ignoring male sexual trauma and trafficking. Men are not considered a targeted population, and are thus vastly underrepresented in anti-trafficking initiatives and research. Oftentimes, when boys are included in the dialogue, it is strictly in regards to labor trafficking. In the world of sex trafficking, they are invisible.
But that does not mean they aren’t there.
The portrayal of the typical victim of sexual exploitation as female, coupled with the construction of traditional and toxic masculinity, ultimately prevents men from coming forward as victims. This is an even larger problem considering that males in Asia are at a higher risk for sexual abuse than females; over 60% of Asian males are sexually abused as a child, compared to 40% of females. While it’s no secret that Thailand is a sex tourism hotspot, few people realize that girls are not the only ones being sold. Boys are commonly victimized and sexually exploited as well.
These boys also face countless stigmas, contributing to their invisibility and vulnerability. They are considered the lowest rung of society, usually perceived as homeless, dangerous, the worst of the worst, drug addicts, thieves and criminals. Abandoned by their community, they have no resources, no one to advocate for them, no one to humanize them. They also, regardless of their sexual orientation, face the stigmatization of homosexuality (which was considered a mental disorder in Thailand until 2002). To make matters worse, Thai law provides no legal protection from sexual violence for men. In fact, forced sex between men – which 75% of bar-based male sex workers experience – is not technically classified as rape.
Urban Light exists specifically for these boys that no one talks about.
Who are the customers?
Thailand was once a haven for sex tourists, pedophiles, abusers and exploiters. While many improvements have been made, it still retains much of that reputation. But who are the people who prey upon Thailand’s most vulnerable?
The majority of customers are Western men. The hard part is that they are seemingly just everyday men: fathers, teachers, “sex”-pats, doctors, dentists, lawyers... the list goes on and on. These are the people frequenting the sex show bars and tourist destinations, looking to purchase sex from boys who are simply trying to survive. Even worse, these men often try to justify their actions, falsely believing that they are taking care of and providing for these boys.
It’s not commonly acknowledged, but Thais are also customers, and occasionally women as well.
Who are the boys?
The boys are Chiang Mai’s most vulnerable. Usually between ages 12-30, you probably wouldn’t even notice them (but hopefully now you will!). It’s difficult for many to comprehend male vulnerability, since men are supposed to be tough and strong and not convey emotion (especially in Thai culture), but these are some of the factors that contribute to their exploitation.
- They’re stateless. Many of UL’s boys are not formally registered to any government. This means no paperwork, hardly any protection under the law, and most difficult of all, no identification card. Without an ID, no one will hire them, and it is thus impossible for them to find reputable work.
- They’re ethnic minorities. Often families from the hill tribe villages will send their boys – as young as 12 years old – to find work and opportunity in the city. It is important for these boys to contribute to the survival of their family by sending money back home for food, siblings’ schooling, shelter, etc. But, because of their minority status, these boys face immense discrimination that keeps them from accessing work outside the bars. They also come to the city without skills, resources, or street smarts, and thus fall into trafficking.
- They’re refugees. Many are refugees from Burma, escaping political upheaval and violence there. This is also an ethnic minority that faces discrimination in employment.
- They’re orphans and homeless youth. Many are without any family at all, and from a young age, are completely responsible for their own survival.
- They’re substance users. When boys find themselves in the bars at a young age, lured in by owners with promises of work and opportunity, they are often offered drugs. These drugs keep them going during work, keep them performing longer, and, once they’re hooked, keep them coming back to the bars for more.
But why don’t they just stop? The nuances of coercion
In many of the boys’ cases, coercion looks different from the sensationalized view of trafficking victims that we’re accustomed to. They’re not chained to the bars or locked up in a dingy basement somewhere. They have “freedom” in the sense that they can move around, but mobility does not equal true freedom.
Sometimes they have pimps, sometimes they’re “owned” by the bars, but generally speaking, there are a whole different set of constraints that dictate their opportunities and keep them from “just stopping.”
On one hand, many boys are bound by family obligation. This is a bit of a foreign concept for Westerners, but in Thai culture, a child is responsible for contributing and taking care of the family financially. As a result, children in the hill tribe regions and communities surrounding the city are taken to tourist areas late at night to sell bracelets and flowers and other trinkets. Then, at around 12 years old, they are sent to the city more permanently to find work, and that’s when they get sucked in to sex industry. This expectation for kids to support their families is enough to keep kids out of school and in the bars. In many cases, our boys act as a sort of sacrificial lamb for their siblings – “I do this so my little brother and sister don’t have to.”
On the other hand, they have zero family to begin with, and as a child, are 100% responsible for their own survival. Without any community or support system to look after them, they have to take care of themselves. They’re too young to work, or have no identification to work, and so they must engage in survival sex. This means they’ll go home with someone just so that they can eat a hot meal and sleep in a bed instead of under a bridge.
And underlying all of it, these boys are trapped in a society that looks away. They are despised by their community, which refuses to understand their narrative in context, and instead sees them simply as thieves and drug addicts. Even in Urban Light’s own neighborhood, people have expressed that UL is unwelcome, believing that the center is bringing problems to the area, instead of seeing that the boys are already there.
And that is why...
...Urban Light is dedicated to providing help and services to young male victims in Chiang Mai, where none were available before. It is uniquely positioned as one of the only anti-trafficking organizations in existence to “specifically focus on helping young men and providing an outlet for safety, health and renewal.”