The Disposability of Boys

The UN’s recent reports on the treatment of children in Syria and in the Roman Catholic Church revealed some of the despicable acts committed against boys that are part of a disturbing and hidden global trend.

They are the forgotten many. The afterthought. The tacked-on obligatory mention at the end of a sentence, if that. Some university classes on human trafficking fail to mention them alongside “girls and women” in their syllabi. But there they are being used as soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and as slaves in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, the shipbreaking yards of Bangladesh, the farmlands of Florida and the fishing villages of Ghana. And there they are, as detailed in recent reports from the UN, being used as human shields in Syria and as sex slaves in the Roman Catholic Church. Can we talk about this now? Is it okay to talk about this?

Preface: Addressing the disposability of boys is not ignoring or in any way minimizing the appalling situations many of our world’s girls and women are enduring right now. Addressing the disposability of boys is addressing the disposability of boys. There is often hostility when this topic is brought up because there’s the assumption that the speaker is choosing sides. This isn’t a game and there are no sides.


On February 4, 2014 the UN released its first detailed findings on the treatment of children in Syria. The “Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic” contained text perhaps even more damning due to its comprehensive details than the alleged torture photographs that were released weeks ago and that a team of war crimes prosecutors and forensic experts deemed “direct evidence” of the “systematic torture and killing” by the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. One excerpt on page 4 stated:

“Boys aged 12 to 17 years were trained, armed and used as combatants or to man checkpoints.”

This falls perfectly in line with why boys are often selected around the world for use as slave laborers. Comparatively, boys tend to be more physical, stronger, and more physically aggressive than girls and are therefore more preferred when it comes to the often backbreaking work of slave labor. While some communities have tried to eradicate this notion that boys are more physical and physically aggressive than girls, Dr. Michael Thompson, co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, believes the difference is clear but admitted to PBS Parents that he isn’t precisely sure why:

“Why are some young boys more aggressive than girls? We don’t know for sure. We think that boys are predisposed to higher activity levels as a result of androgens (male hormones) inutero. However, it is not, as many people believe, a result of testosterone in the blood, because before puberty, boys and girls have the same level. What we know is that boys in all cultures around the world wrestle more, mock fight more, and are drawn to themes of power and domination, but that’s not the same as hurting someone, so it’s not necessarily a cause for worry.”

Dr. Thompson’s statement about “boys in all cultures of the world” aligns with what I learned about human trafficking during my two and a half years living in and traveling throughout Asia. Whether it was Nepal or the Philippines, Sri Lanka or Myanmar, it was simply more acceptable for boys to perform the most grueling forms of physical labor, especially when it was the kind of labor that may lead to disease or permanent disfigurement.

Some posit that this acceptance is a direct result of how cultures have been socially conditioned to see gender roles due to the way religious attitudes and/or patriarchal cultures have demarcated them. While this influence certainly can carry over into secular societies, it seems there’s a more pervasive form of social conditioning at work; one that views boys, regardless of age, as young men; one that views their more physical behavior as the seed of manhood—a time when, at least conceptually, they’ll no longer be seen as vulnerable and will instead be capable of preying on those who are truly vulnerable. The result? Boys who will be men are judged as though they are men. This is harmful both for boys and for the men who then live under the socially conditioned false narrative that believes they are invulnerable.

Nowhere was this more apparent to me than in the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong, Bangladesh. Security guards dressed in blue leaf camouflage pointed their semi-automatic machine guns directly at me (after making sure I didn’t have a camera, notebook or phone), and I watched in horror as one tiny boy after another dragged their feet through toxic shoreline sludge in order to lift with their bare hands the rusted anchor chains. The black plumed skies lit up red as other boys took turns using the blowtorch. I have no idea if there’s hell in the afterlife but that scene showed me for damn sure that there’s hell in this life.

Workers carrying a piece of anchor chain to the shipbreaking backyards / Pierre Torset

“Boys don’t grow up into men revered for their beauty,” one villager who lives just outside the yards told me through a translator. This was his response upon my asking where the girls and women were. Rather than say where they were he seemed to take my question as a point of contention, as a matter of pride. My translator later told me that although these men hate their jobs, have seen friends die because of it and know they themselves are dying because of it, they take an incredible amount of pride in it because they see themselves as entirely “expendable,” sacrificing their own life for that of their wife and kids.

ex·pend·a·ble: of little significance when compared to an overall purpose, and therefore able to be abandoned, designed to be used only once and then destroyed, e.g. unstaffed and expendable launch vehicles

Through asking the villager additional questions I learned that the girls and women either stayed home to prepare food for the shipbreakers or, if they were employed, worked as seamstresses, sometimes in Dhaka, a 6-hour bus ride away. These seamstress jobs are essentially slavery as well, but due to international news coverage about collapsing factories (locals wonder if this ever would have made the news had it not been for the fact that these factories produce goods for world-renowned brands) and because more members of the community rallied around the rights of these girls and women, some positive changes were made and others are in progress.

But few rally behind the boys and men. In fact, what I saw at the yards didn’t seem any different from what Gary Cohn and Will Englund described in their 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning series of articles titled The Shipbreakers. The boys and men are expected either to suck it up and find solace in their disposability or rally for themselves which, when they have, often seems to coincide with the time when, as Muhammad Ali Shahin, Program Manager for Advocacy at Young Power in Social Action, told me:

“Dead and non-identified workers…get thrown out to sea, leaving a widow and children with no news and no income.”

Speaking particularly of boys he told me, “They are considered machines; if one dies another will replace him.”

When I told Muhammad what the villager told me about boys growing up, he said:

“That’s right. Men are revered when they are physically strong leaders. And the yard owners pretend this is what they are ‘making’ the boys into. Truth is, they aren’t making them into anything. They are breaking them into pieces.”

dis·pos·a·ble: intended to be used once, or until no longer useful, and then thrown away, e.g. disposable razors. Also: financial assets readily available for the owner’s use

The Syria report also stated that “many boys felt it was their duty” to take up arms. Might some part of this feeling of duty, this willingness to protect, be an intrinsic part of boyhood? Many believe so. In Absent, a documentary about the impact of fatherlessness, John Eldredge, author of the controversial Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul, says:

“Earlier cultures understood that there’s a warrior in the heart of a boy… Boys are wired for adventure, and boys are wired for aggression.”

It was clear that in this context Eldredge was referring to “wiring” of the genetic type. But while every boy is of course an individual and while such generalized statements can certainly be debated, one can make a stronger case by stating that it is perhaps a combination of male genetics and the socially constructed roles we’ve played for thousands of years that have reinforced the male expression of certain aggressive characteristics.

A modern-day application of these ideas shows us that here we are in the 21st century C.E., a time of desk jobs where those qualities of physicality and aggression that have found necessary and healthy outlets for thousands of years have been replaced with sitting all day, an act which men seem particularly maladjusted; a time when even roughhousing with dad is seen as unproductive; a time when boys are increasingly penalized for not being able to sit still throughout an entire school day (and are substantially more often misdiagnosed with ADHD); a time when 43% of children grow up without their father and therefore often without a male role model who they can look up to and say, “Yes, that’s how to channel what I’m feeling.”

Note: No, Hanna Rosin, this doesn’t mean The End of Men; it means The End of Putting Men in a Box and Pretending That What Happens Beyond the Box Doesn’t Effect Them.

–Photo: AP

[ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ]

Pages: 1 2 3 4

About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.


  1. The current system was created by the male gender. Women have had little, if any say, in how our society works; for most of history, women stayed home, raised children. Men created wars; men fought one another, created ever more dangerous weapons, raised the prestige of war, the military, violence. Men raped women, abused and killed other men. The disposability of men is a direct consequence of patriarchy. To solve all these problems, start there. Can men in power reach inside themselves to find and embrace the feminine? The antidote to dominance, power, control, individuality? Can women become leaders without needing to embrace their masculine first?

  2. the language od disposable males as a support fir women is essential to the creation of buy-in drom which those who take leadership positions. It is a core belief system guiding part of their rules of the game. This is why the raging psychopaths who hate women get the (un)ethical structure being promoted and then try to do it themselves.
    I assume that any system which systemically harms any set of people is harming everyone. The only time that one group is set aside for a greater portion of spoils is when they are being used to help perpetuate that cycle, or where the pay off is repackaged horror to make horror into its iwn reward.

    Good article.

  3. ogwriter says:

    @Not Buyin It For me,the biggeest failings are the pretense fueled by hypocrisy,the psychological-slieght-of-hands-trick that is the fake concern.One cannot care ,equally for males and females,and, also be unable to see male and female as both victim and perpetrators.This sparing of just and due consideration to males as victims because abuse of males fails to meet some mythical threshold is base.Beyond that,the passivity of too many men is an invitation to be treated with indifference.The seriousness of this issue is reduced to coffee house chit chat.

    • Tom Brechlin says:

      @ogwriter …. “passivity of too many men is an invitation to be treated with indifference.The seriousness of this issue is reduced to coffee house chit chat.” Well stated and very true. I’d also like to add that “if” it even makes it to coffee house chit chat.

  4. ogwriter says:

    @Danny I know that you have made this point before about how the use of language contributes to the complex web of denial.I believe that the convulted use of language is a symptom and not the real issue,which is closemindedness and good ole fashioned bias.But we can’t ever address this bias directly because those that control the narrative on abuse will not let it happen.Women contribute to the disposability and abuse of men and boys.By admitting to and exploring such issues hurts the credibility of feminism.But few will admit to this truth,hence the misdirection through the clever use of language.Tell me Danny how could a reasonably intelligent person with access to the net not already know that what Cameron is talking about is true?How is that possible?How many articles does he have to write?What about taking some personal responsibility?The disposibilty and abuse of males is a part of American culture.It happened to millions of slaves and asians and phillipinos and natives AND poor whites and others.But drawing these connections isn’t liberal pc,so,they are ignored. So,we look abroad and point our finger of morality at the other because we lack the courage to point it at ourselves.

    • Not buying it says:


      The prevelent ideology and political correctness dictates that any concern shown to males of any kind is basically misogyny , regardless of the realities facing males specially in the third world , nothing will change until a lot more boys and men die systematically to affect the bottom line of these countries , companies, … Etc, males ( boys and men ) are disposable every where as a price to be paid to reach goals ( win wars, wealth, etc)

    • Tom Brechlin says:

      Ogwriter, you’re on a roll… keep it up

  5. ogwriter says:

    I am disappointed that this site has not done a good job of providing a safe place for men like myself to discuss and illuminate abuse that happens to men. Time and again, these articles appear and get bogged down in debates about nonessentials. A fact that was addressed by Cameron’s disclaimer. People who deny that these things happen to males should not be tolerated..

  6. I have to comment here and share that it was hurtful reading some of this. Of course because it pains me to think of how children – girls AND boys are treated so horrifically around the world. But with that, it pained me to read the subheading – “he UN’s recent reports on the treatment of children in Syria and in the Roman Catholic Church…”
    To put the “Roman Catholic Church” in the same context as the examples in Syria and other parts of the world is a gross misinterpretation of the Church. The sins of certain people who are so-called “Catholics” does not make the entire “Roman Catholic Church” part of the “disposability of boys”. This is the same for any institution or group who has had to deal with the same type of abuse scandals. (Other Christian churches, schools, boy and girl scout groups, etc.)

  7. No Man in Particular says:

    “Dead and non-identified workers….leaving a widow and children with no news and no income.”

    This kind of language continues to aggravate me, and not enough people are calling bullshit on this rhetoric. Language like this suggests that killing men is bad not because men are human beings but because dead men can’t support their wives and families. A man’s death is bad because it’s inconvenient to other people who need his paycheck. It reminds me of an oft-quoted statement attributed to Hillary Clinton that the true victims of war are women, because war makes widows. (And how does a married woman become a widow, exactly? The survivor is the victim and the corpse isn’t, because the corpse is male?)

    It even suggests that a man without a wife or children is worth nothing at all. Murdering him is not as bad as murdering a husband or father.

    While we’re feeling sympathy for the people “left behind,” what about some attention to the person KILLED?

    There’s some misplaced anger out there about men’s rights being violated, but this is clearly an atrocious way to define men’s worth as human beings. Literally atrocious, as in this is an atrocity.

    • Tom Brechlin says:

      No Man in Particular. I like how you stated this. A few tears ago I saw an article that mirrored your example. The widows left behind were the true victims. I’m trying to find it but I remember losing it when I read it.

  8. I read this piece a few days ago and I still keep coming back to it to read it again and again, linked articles included. It’s taken me a little time to get through everything. But my suggestion to anyone who does read this piece, is to not just read the article but to go through the actual links too. Every single one of them.

    I still don’t think I’ve yet absorbed everything I can from it. Child soldiers used as shields, cotton field slavery (you can’t just go and stop wearing cotton to help), shipbreaking (I had no idea and it’s just stunning that I have no other words for it), freaking farmlands in Florida (which is eye-opening because I’m the daughter of a farmer, it’s real evidence of slavery in the US and doesn’t let us pretend that slavery can’t exist so close to home, especially in contradiction to the cultural appeal of good old fashioned picturesque wholesome pure America farming), the revolving door of the prison system and racial inequality…. This article is a wealth of eye-opening information. Even after I write this response, I’ll still be coming back to this article because I don’t think I’ve yet absorbed the whole of it yet.

    Cameron, I remain continually in awe of your work. I never read a piece of yours that didn’t leave me a little speechless in it’s insight, steel strength, sensitivity and quest for human dignity. I hope this article is getting acknowledged in other media outlets. To me, it’s an award-winning one.

    I know for myself that since men tend to be the ones who are perpetuators of these crimes to a greater degree than women, I often forget that they can also be victims of these crimes as well. Even more complex, and hard to contend with, is how a man can be both the victim and perpetuator at the same time. I think we need to find out why men are more susceptible in becoming perpetuators, what is lacking that leads to these choices, is it infact just a matter of who has the wealth and thus the power.

    • ogwriter says:

      @Erin I just do not get it? !Why is it so darned difficult to see what is so clearly evident and true?!Over the year that I have been visiting GMP this subject, males are disposable and abused, has been visited with regularity. You write, ” I often forget that they can also be victims of these crimes as well.” WOW!? Thanks for the empathy. For that reason, I have visited this site with less frequency. That men can be and are,like women, victims and perpetrators is a no brainer. It seems to me as soon as feminists can accept what is real about human relationships and behavior, the sooner progress can be made in repairing what is broken.

  9. Cameron I would like to thank you for enlightening me to this “elephant in the room”. It saddens me in this day and age of supposed intelligence and human rights that such is barely tolerated. Your term disposability is apt and profound. It implies disregard for value and worth and conjures up thoughts of waste. Thank you for your exposing me to another dark corner that needs to be exposed and dealt with. I pray this provides some momentum to align the rape, abuse and exploitation of boys and men with the progress that has been made regarding the same for women. Any form of exploitation is morally and ethically wrong. Now that I have more food for thought, I can look to how in some small way I can help.

  10. One reason posited for this discrepancy is “comfort.” An anti-slavery NGO staff member told me that the “mass of a population is far more comfortable hearing the story of a girl being used as a sex slave” than as a boy being used as a sex slave. “It’s man-to-girl,” one anti-slavery activist told me, “…and in the minds of many this is a far more natural leap of imagination than is man-to-boy. It’s as though we can’t talk about this issue properly because we don’t yet have the language to do so. But we do have the language. We’re just terrible at using it in this context.”
    We’re terrible at using the language in this context because the language (and the narratives constructed from this language) was literally built around the idea that sexual abuse, sexual slavery, rape, etc…. is something that “men do to women/girls”.

    Now I know some folks would quickly defend this by saying that “But most of those crimes are male against female!”. Yes that might be true. But is maintaining that truth so vital that it justifies the silencing of victims of such crimes when its not male against female? I think this sudden emergence of acknowledging sex crimes that are not male against female and the resistance to acknowledging it (or else I don’t think you would have made that disclaimer) shows that before now the answer has been yes.

  11. There is a very, very long history of the disposability of boys (and men) often in the eyes of the few men who hold the bulk of power and authority in societies around the world and across time. It doesn’t belittle patriarchy or women/girls to admit this because patriarchy is not really the rule of men but the rule of elite men who see other males as tools to be used or obstacles to be removed.

  12. Arifah Aronson says:

    Shocking. But necessary to know. Boys are typically not tracked with sex crimes/trafficking, there’s no real data to show the harm that’s happening to them, as there are for women. This piece is very important! Thank you.

  13. Tsach Gilboa says:

    A critically important and powerful article. Well done my friend. These heart ranching stories and facts need to be told, discussed and hopefully provide the catalyst for action around the world to combat this cancer. Income inequality and poverty are the root of this evil. Desperate people will do unspeakable things to survive including selling their children into slavery, sexual and labor, and our human urge for domination, exploitation and greed coupled with sexual urges and violence provide the fuel for this holocaust. This link is for a great Frontline piece on the Dancing Boys of Afghanistan. An ancient illegal practice of “Bacha bazi”. Another example of extreme poverty and inequality meets power and domination and the dehumanization of the less than.

  14. Excellent piece, Cameron. Thank you for writing it. Let’s hope it continues to get the traction and attention it deserves.

    Based on conservative numbers (1 in 6 males sexually abused before the age of 16) there are well in excess of 500 Million male survivors of sexual violence in the world today. Realistically speaking, the numbers are likely much higher. But even at this level, the staggering amount of abuse that exists is sobering.

    Survivors, no matter their age, race, gender, faith, or sexual orientation deserve to be supported.

    Chris Anderson
    Executive Director, MaleSurvivor

  15. Great article, and one of only a few discussing male disposability as a consequence of institutions of capitalist hegemony and patriarchal dominance (industry, military, etc). Most want to blame feminists for the plight of men, but in reality (poor) men have been expendable to other (rich) men for much longer than western feminism has been in existence. This article is EXTREMELY important for digging into the fundamental causes of inequality, and for men, long-standing socioeconomic class inequities are every bit as influential as it they are for women. Men, women, and children all suffer under current social systems, they just suffer differently due to their relative social position based on age and sex. The meager rewards for enduring such conditions are insufficient for all groups.

    I know you’ve gotten a lot of heat for the preface, but I understand that you are positing this in an overall uncivil internet community (though GMP is quite good!). Actual feminist scholars (not angry kids in the comments sections of blogs or reddit) have been deconstructing the class structures that perpetuate economic inequalities regardless of sex since the 1960’s. In reality, we’re all on the same side. Don’t let the bitter, anonymous internet ghosts silence you… ever. What you have to say is far too important.

    Let’s take the plunge into the uncomfortable realm of acknowledging that men can be victims. Such an idea is especially frightening when cultural hegemony tells us that men are invariably “strong” and to be a victim is to be feminine. But ya know what? It’s screwing up a lot of people, and the lack of care shown to young men and boys certainly spills into the lives of their neighbors and the broader global community regardless of sex. We can do so without blaming women or undermining their pursuit of equality. In fact, female liberation may facilitate that process. In total, the liberation of all people is the only thing that will move the human race towards healing. Everyone will benefit from the liberation of the sexes from these age-old inequalities.

    Thank you a million times for this article. This is being shared with my next class. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • I know you’ve gotten a lot of heat for the preface, but I understand that you are positing this in an overall uncivil internet community (though GMP is quite good!). Actual feminist scholars (not angry kids in the comments sections of blogs or reddit) have been deconstructing the class structures that perpetuate economic inequalities regardless of sex since the 1960′s. In reality, we’re all on the same side. Don’t let the bitter, anonymous internet ghosts silence you… ever. What you have to say is far too important.
      I think that’s a bit unfair, implying that that preface was just for the internet ghosts. If the dismissal of sex crimes against boys could be explained by an uncivil internet then that would mean that the dismissal of sex crimes against wouldn’t have been a problem that pretty much predates the internet.

      MRAs have been pointing out the dismissal and disposability of boys (and men) for a long time and I think its nice to see other outlets catching onto it.

  16. Powerful stuff, Cam.


  1. […] The Disposability of Boys […]

  2. […] I posted the following comment responding to his reply, that I felt was important to share with the GMP community. Especially in light of Cameron Conaway’s outstanding article on The Disposability of Boys: […]

  3. […] Related: The Disposability Of Black Men from Good Men Project and The Disposability of Boys. […]

Speak Your Mind