There was a startling report this week that U.S. troops were told to turn a blind eye to the sexual abuse and enslavement of young boys by Afghani militia commanders.
By Christopher Anderson and Richard B. Gartner, Ph D
According to a New York Times story on September 21st, American soldiers and marines were horrified by what they were witnessing – sometimes on American military bases. Although some soldiers attempted to take a stand and defend these innocent children, commanders apparently gave orders not to intervene. The Pentagon insists there is no such protocol in place, but our military was allegedly instructed in the name of cultural and political sensitivity to respect Afghani culture, which allows for “bacha bazi,” literally “boy play.”
This “play” is the abduction, enchainment, and forcible rape of young boys by powerful and wealthy Afghani military men. Some perpetrators were allegedly in the employ – or at least empowered – by our military in the battle against the Taliban. That we would turn a blind eye to the rape of children – even on our military bases – in hopes of winning the war on terrorism should make Americans question what we are willing to tolerate to secure our national safety.
Appalling as they are, these reports should not come as a surprise. The sexual abuse of boys is an abhorrently common and oft-overlooked issue in cultures all across the world, including our own. Research from multiple sources suggests that millions of boys and men in the U.S. are survivors of sexual abuse. MaleSurvivor has worked with these sexually abused males in the U.S. and abroad for more than three decades. Sadly, however, lack of awareness and lack of political willingness to make protecting boys from abuse a priority is a common issue across many cultures in many countries.
The reports in the Times and elsewhere this week give rise to important and valid questions regarding where the boundary lines between culturally important practices and overt child abuse should be drawn. A rule of thumb about cultural differences we use regarding sexual acts involving minors is this: If a behavior is kept secret or hidden, and if it is denied when inquired about, that behavior is not acceptable within that culture. Therefore, it should not be immune to broader inspection and censure by people outside that culture. If there is general acceptance and open acknowledgement of an unfamiliar behavior within a different culture than our own, then we must consider whether by trying to change it we are actually imposing a foreign value system on that culture inappropriately.
For example, in the New Guinea tribe he calls the Sambia, Gilbert Herdt, a Professor of Human Sexuality Studies and Anthropology at San Francisco State University, found that young boys were routinely sequestered and sent to a men’s compound where they ingested the semen of older warriors. This was considered a way to gain greater manliness and strength. While such a practice would be broadly condemned in our society, among the Sambia it was publicly known and was considered a valued entrance to manhood. Perhaps most importantly, the children were not treated solely as objects for adults’ sexual gratification and use. Demanding the Sambia stop the practice would arguably interfere in a culture radically different from our own and an act of cultural imposition that may not be warranted. However, even if this cultural practice is seen as an important “rite of passage,” that doesn’t automatically absolve its adherents from being called to account if a single boy steps forward to say he felt harmed by the experience. It is also absolutely possible that individual adults could use this ritual as a shield to hide their abusive acts towards victims within the context of a culturally important ritual. Therefore any claim of abuse should be treated with sincere and compassionate attention.
But in Afghanistan, where the practice of “bacha bazi” has been well documented for years, there is little question that “bacha bazi” is a fundamentally different phenomenon than what Herdt observed. Instead of being a widespread practice that enjoys widespread venerated and acceptance, most Afghans abhor and condemn “bacha bazi” and consider it abuse. We are told that one Afghani commander, Abdul Rahman (since killed in a Taliban ambush), was accused of abducting a young boy, chaining him to his bed, and using him as a sex slave. Confronted by Special Forces Capt. Dam Quinn, Rahman apparently acknowledged his behavior, but laughed at the thought of being censured or punished for it. However, Rahman’s brother is said to claim Rahman never raped the boy – in spite of testimony to the contrary by the boy and his mother and Rahman’s own acknowledgment to Capt. Quinn. Rather, the brother claimed Rahman was the victim of a false accusation engineered by his enemies.
All of that begs the question: if molestation of “dancing boys” is a culturally relevant and necessary practice in the same vein as the practice among the Sambia, why chain children to the bedpost? Why should the boy and his mother be beaten when trying to report what happened? And why would Rahman’s brother deny that something took place that Rahman himself had acknowledged?
If our goal in Afghanistan and elsewhere is to gain the hearts and minds of the people, we have no business allowing their children to be raped with impunity. But what are we doing instead of protecting these children?
Capt. Quinn beat up Rahman, the American-backed Afghani military commander, for keeping the boy chained to his bed as a sex slave. Quinn explained, “we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did – that was something village elders voiced to me.” For his outrage, Capt. Quinn was relieved of his command and forced to leave Afghanistan. (He has since left the military.)
Let’s be real about what we are talking about. The sexual abuse of boys is as significant and prevalent a problem in every corner of the globe as is any other human rights issue. Since our founding in 1994, MaleSurvivor has interviewed or treated thousands of sexually abused or assaulted men from a vast array of cultures from six continents, the Middle East, and Central America. Aftereffects may vary, but almost always include shame, hypervigilance, anxiety, social difficulties, and depression (sometimes to the point of suicidality). Often survivors get addicted to substances or act compulsively in other ways, or experience sexual problems, or suffer from a variety of stress-related physical ills. Virtually all report feeling betrayed by the adults around them. None have said sexual assault is acceptable in their life or culture, although some have noted it is not uncommon. (The New York Times article notes that pederasty is rife in Afghanistan.)
Can we expect better of our military when we commonly turn a blind eye to the rape and molestation of boys in our own society? We can and we must. However, given the prevalence of sexual violence against boys and men in the U.S., and even in the ranks of our military, we must acknowledge that the road before us is long and arduous.
Whatever political challenges may arise, they pale in comparison to the burden faced by the victims of perpetrators like Abdul Rahman, Jerry Sandusky, and countless others both noteworthy and mundane. We can expect and demand better of ourselves and our political and military. The life of a boy in Afghanistan is just as valid, important, and deserving of our compassion and support as the life of any child here at home. The future depends upon our ability to acknowledge this truth.
About the authors
Dr. Richard Gartner is Training and Supervising Analyst, Faculty, and Founding Director of the Sexual Abuse Service at the William Alanson White Psychoanalytic Institute. A Co-Founder, Past President, and current Chair of the Advisory Board of MaleSurvivor.org, he is a pioneer in treating men with histories of sexual abuse. Dr. Gartner is the author of Betrayed as Boys: Psychodynamic Treatment of Sexually Abused Men and Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life after Boyhood Sexual Abuse. Dr. Gartner is quoted widely in the media on male sexual victimization and has written op ed pieces for the New York Times, New York Newsday, and the New York Daily News. richargdartner.com
Christopher M. Anderson is one of the world’s leading experts on male trauma. He is an advocate for survivors of trauma and sexual violence, an author, entrepreneur, public speaker, and host of The Weak-End Podcast. A survivor of multiple forms of childhood trauma with an ACES [Adverse Childhood Experience Study] score of 6, Chris has overcome battles with severe depression, anxiety disorders, and suicidal impulses to become an internationally acclaimed public speaker and author. He is the Executive Director of MaleSurvivor the leading not-for-profit organization committed to preventing, healing, and eliminating all forms of sexual victimization of boys and men through support, treatment, research, education, advocacy, and activism. You can follow him on twitter via @chander2nyc and email him at canderson (at) malesurvivor (dot) org
Photo by Christiaan Triebert