Close your eyes. Imagine an underage sex worker, a victim bought and sold for the pleasure of other people. Now open them. Was the person you imagined a girl?
I saw him there. Standing there, the same spot week after week. I knew what was next, “Mister, massage for you? I give you good massage.” Week after week I said the same thing on the way to the market, “Mai, krub,” or “No thank you.”
He was the kind of boy whom you could tell, just by looking at him, was aware that in the game of life, he had drawn the short straw. I always felt sorry for him each time I passed, thinking how he must do this day after day. I wondered what his “story” was and how he came to be placed in such a vulnerable position. Each week I passed by him I thought, “Maybe I should stop and talk to him.” After all, it seemed harmless to have a conversation.
One day I decided to stop and at least say “Hi.” As I turned the block, I saw him and knew within a few seconds that the pleading of “mister, mister” would begin again. As I approached, I turned my usually uninterested self towards him and asked, “Do you speak English?”
“A little, mister. I take you and have good time.”
“No” I responded, “but I was wondering if you would like some juice or coffee.” He thought about it for a second and looked up at the sun.
I spoke again. “It is really hot. We can get a juice and you can be back here in ten minutes.” He looked around, thought about it for a second and agreed.
A few moments later we were down the street, inside an air-conditioned juice bar enjoying conversation. I realized he was exactly like me, except I held a view of absolute naiveté on what this boy did. I begin to ask a few questions, trying to be polite but at the same time trying to understand the situation.
“When did you begin to give massages?”
“At age fourteen, I had to. They came and got me and made me.”
“Who got you?”
“The bad guy with big muscle. He came to my village and told mom he take me to work and I give her money back.”
I sat stunned.
“So you do not do this by choice? You are free to leave?”
“Yes, yes I free now.”
Confused, I continued, “ I hope you do not mind me asking questions.”
“No, its ok, you are nice. You always smile at me and are nice.”
I realized that he recognized me from my weekly visits to the market and over time had begun to trust me, even though I had never even spoken to him. The conversation continued. I asked him why he was doing the work now if he was free. Pichu (not his real name) confessed to me that when he was 14, people came to his village and promised his mom that he would work in construction and that he would make 200 baht a day ($6 USD). This is a lot of money for a northern hill tribe Thai family. The truth is Pichu never worked as a construction worker and never sent money back to his family.
During our first meeting at the juice bar, he continued to glace at his watch. Finally he told me he had to get back to work. We left, with the promise that each week on the way to market we could chat a little and sometimes grab juice.
Over the course of the last three months I have been able to get to know Pichu well. It took time but he finally told me his full personal history. He told me that after he was taken from his family, he was taken to Chiang Mai to “work” as a massage boy. He told me there were seven other boys just like him at one place. He was not allowed to leave the massage shop. Here he told me several “farang” (white men) and also other Asian men would come and he would be forced to give them a massage and have sex with them. He knew that he was worth around 10,000 baht ($100) each time. He was never given any of this money. The manager at the shop kept it and told him once he made enough, he could leave.
In the course of our weekly ten minute meetings, he told me deeply personal stories of rape, of being forced to be with multiple men at the same time, and of one instance where a man paid more money to the manger to be able to film Pichu with him. He also told me of being forced to be with other boys at the shop while people watched. He was also forced to wear nothing all day but his underwear. He continued to say that he was fed only twice a day and never allowed to talk too much to the “customers,” but said he tried to practice his English whenever possible because he knew it would help him in the future.
I once asked if he was ever tested for sexually transmitted infections. He let out a small laugh and said not until after he was free. When I first heard all his stories, I froze at the words that I heard. Nothing seemed real. I went home that first day, bypassing my trip to the market, and just cried. “Boys too?” I thought confused.
The truth is, yes, boys too! In Southeast Asia, as well as all over the world, boys are bought and sold in the same way girls are, for sex work and forced labor. Statistics are difficult to come by and there are few organizations that face this issue head on. However, the people on the ground that are familiar with this issue usually say that the trafficking of boys is almost equal to girls in numbers. Yet, why is it that the image most commonly connected to sex trafficking, is that of young girls? These “hidden victims” have little support for rehabilitation and finding ways out. Most boys are embarrassed to admit what has happened to them, fearing what their local villages would do if they ever found out what has been done to them. Furthermore, most governments and law enforcement officials feel that these boys voluntarily participate in sex work and treat them as criminals when found instead of rescuing them.
This overall ignorance of boys participating in a thriving sex industry is cyclic with many finding a way out, only to reenter the sex industry on their own due to the lack of skills and job training. Intervention, therefore, is crucial in fighting this problem.
A few weeks after our first encounter, Pichu and I were having our weekly juice. At this point we had become really friendly and I begin to ask why, if he is free, does he still sell himself.
“I need money for the school.”
“How much is school?”
“$100 a term. I study English.”
“What year are you?”
“I am level 9 so I have four more levels and then I graduate. After that I want go to university, but that is more expensive.”
“How old are you now?”
“Now I am 20. I cannot go to normal school because I behind and never had school in my village, but I know English so that help me some.”
“What do you want to do when you are finished with school?”
“I would like to be doctor or lawyer but that is too expensive. I could work in hotel because I am good at helping people. I just want to give money to my mom. I have not seen her in years and want her to be proud of me.”
Pichu continued to tell me that once he had worked off the “debt” to his manager, he lived on the streets but wanted to find good work. Yet, his dark skin (which in Thai society leads to the presumption of being uneducated) and his lack of proper government paperwork drove him back to the streets, meeting guys for money. He said he knows what he is doing is wrong, but he has no other choice if he wants a better life in the future. He is stuck due to his previous circumstances.
After meeting Pichu and learning his story, I began to look for organizations to help boys in his situation. I found only two, in all of Southeast Asia, that deal directly with boys. Talking to the director of one of the organizations, I learned that they turn approximately twenty boys away per day from their safe house in Cambodia because they are already over capacity. “The truth is boys being trafficked doesn’t sell in the Western media,” she told me. One organization I contacted in Chiang Mai said “We fear we could loose our Western funders if we talk about the sex trafficking of little boys.”
Eventually one week I was able to bring Pichu good news when we met. I handed him an envelope containing a letter explaining that a local organization had found him a decent paying job and had paid his tuition for the year. As tears ran down his face, he said “I do not know what to say! After saying “Thank you!” over and over again, he shared that “Now my nightmare is over.”
After this experience, I have begun to volunteer with an organization that helps boys get out of sex trafficking and exploitation. Pichu is doing well in school and also volunteers with the organization to help other boys get out of the same situation he faced for many years. Each boy I have met wants the same thing. They want to tell their story and they want someone to hear them so that this cycle of violence and exploitation comes to an end. I once asked Pichu if he knew God. He said he is Buddhist but he believes that there must be some God because he has been given hope and another life.
Adam Royston serves as a Global Mission Intern with the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) and is based in Thailand. His appointment is supported by Week of Compassion, Disciples' Mission Fund, Our Church's Wider Mission and your special gifts.