At times, surely, this is based on ignorance. Many of the loudest voices in the anti-slavery movement have only recently jumped on the bandwagon and are without a deep understanding of the complexities of this crime. But there’s something else at play here. When people who have been working in the anti-slavery sector for years still don’t mention this issue it seems because they’re uncomfortable doing so. Why might this be? I asked this question to a documentary filmmaker who happened to be in the final stages of producing a feature film about sex trafficking. Here’s how he responded:
“Society can barely stomach the raping of young girls. I feared they couldn’t handle it if my film was about the sex trafficking of young boys. How comfortable would people be with telling others to check out the work? In one sense they could just say it involves rape and most people would assume it meant of a girl or woman. But if it were about a boy or a man could they just say rape and let it stand without adding any extra details? I’m not sure, but I felt that’s where discomfort would come in and I didn’t want to chance it. Great works involve some level of discomfort, but maybe that would be too much.”
So if staying comfortable in our talk of slavery is resulting in the exclusion of boys from the conversation then I think it’s time to dip into discomfort. Here’s an invitation for those of you reading this who are talking heads in the anti-slavery movement. I want you at some point to look directly into the camera and say the following:
“Young boys are used as sex slaves all around the world.”
Do not speak for fifteen minutes on girls and women and then, as if culling up a seemingly insignificant memory, say “Oh yeah, and boys too.” We need to talk about disposable children everywhere, regardless of gender, and unfortunately that’s just not happening.
In fact, this “And boys too” line has become such a clichéd response as it relates to speaking about the commercial sexual exploitation of boys that ECPAT-USA actually used it as the title to their landmark discussion paper (see PDF here) on the lack of recognition that boys receive in this regard.
The report states that:
“The little attention paid to boys has focused on them as exploiters, pimps and buyers of sexual services or as active participants in sex work—not as victims or survivors. Most service providers who were interviewed for this report in 2010-11, acknowledge the existence of CSEB [Commercially Sexually Exploited Boys) yet only provide services to CSEG or are unwilling or unable to help boys.”
These are common themes that run through nearly all papers on this subject. The question then is why, if the service providers “acknowledge the existence of CSEB” are boys still not getting identified or served? Here are the reasons put forward by the report:
— The unwillingness of boys to self-identify as sexually exploited due to shame and stigma about being gay or being perceived as gay by family and community.
— A lack of screening and intake by law enforcement and social services agencies rooted in the belief that boys are not victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
— Limited outreach by anti-trafficking organizations to areas, venues and tracks known for male prostitution.
— Oversimplification of the reality that boys are not generally pimped hides the needs and misinforms potential services.
Lastly, the And Boys Too report considers its findings to be “modest but clear” as it offers the following three responses to the current problems:
(1) The scope of CSEB is vastly under reported and much more needs to be done to identify sexually exploited boys as young people in need of protection.
(2) To raise awareness about the impact of CSEB.
(3) To provide specialized services to CSEB.
These findings, in my opinion, illustrate the intersections between CSEB and many other social issues going on in the world. To name one such issue, consider that many of these boys were unwilling to self-identify because of the “stigma about being gay” or even as “being perceived as being gay.” We are able to educate and train our law enforcement and social services agencies, we are able to increase our outreach efforts by anti-trafficking organizations and we are able to use awareness and educational campaigns to decrease the “oversimplification of the reality,” but we are not able to address the stigma these boys feel about being or being perceived as gay until we remove the stigmas about being gay.
Let me make this clear: If you are one of the millions of people in this world who vocalize or otherwise spread your belief that being gay is “bad” or “sinful” you are directly and actively contributing to the trauma of boys who have been sexually exploited.
Note: For an informative read on this subject please see the classic 1992 anthology titled Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price.
It’s not enough to rescue boys and provide them shelter; it’s not enough to acknowledge that the problem exists; it’s not enough to provide comprehensive and specialized services to the survivors; we are only going to truly crush this crime when we are doing all of these plus living mindful lives that take into account the way our seemingly unrelated actions can have devastating, albeit indirect, consequences.
Although Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free The Slaves and author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, was speaking in regards to slave labor, this passage from his book provides an unforgettable insight into the indirect and global nature of all forms of exploitation:
“Slaves touch your life indirectly as well. They made the bricks for the factory that made the TV you watch. In Brazil slaves made the charcoal that tempered the steel that made the springs in your car and the blade on your lawnmower. Slaves grew the rice that fed the woman that wove the lovely cloth you’ve put up as curtains. Your investment portfolio and your mutual fund pension own stock in companies using slave labor in the developing world. Slaves keep your costs low and returns on your investments high.”
While it’s increasingly important to publicly address our failures, as social worker Steven Procopio did in his CNN article titled Exploited boys are too often failed, so too must we take action, while light is shining on the issue, to collaborate.
In a piece I wrote last year for The Guardian titled, Anti-slavery: collaboration begins to come of age, Dave Batstone, co-founder and president of the global anti-slavery organization Not For Sale, said something that will forever stick with me:
“Strategic alliances win important social landmarks; lone rangers win logos and egos.”
My final plea, for those now ready and wanting to get involved, is that you fully absorb and then apply the essence of this passage from Cecil Murphey’s article titled Dialogue Between the Adult Survivor and the Inner Wounded Child:
“I’m Cec and you’re little Cecil. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to take care of you in childhood, but I’m here now.”
Little Cecil was a toddler and sitting in a high chair. I stroked his cheek and said:
“I couldn’t help you then, but I’m here now.”
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