The eradication of modern day slavery is the unique challenge of our generation.
There are over 27 million slaves in the world today. This is more than at any other time in human history (and more than the whole population of Australia). Modern day slavery takes many forms, including indentured servitude and domestic slavery, but it is sex slavery that is the most prolific.
There are a vast multitude of organizations, individuals and politically-engaged groups who are doing essential, indispensable, pain-staking work to try to eradicate modern day sex slavery. All this work is of the utmost importance but if fault can be laid at any of these efforts, it is that the vast proportion of resources are directed towards women and girls involved in the sex trade.
Boys form a significant proportion of victims of the sex trade but they are often invisible. Samuel Vincent Jones’ compelling article, entitled “The Invisible Man: The Conscious Neglect of Men and Boys in the War on Human Trafficking”, draws attention to the fact that boys and men are almost “invisible” in the discourse on sex trafficking. Jones brings forth a particularly insightful point that, in relation to the sex trade, boys and men have become victims of a “socially constructed conception of maleness” whereby masculinity is perceived as “male dominance” and rarely as “invulnerability”. Put more simply, men are often portrayed as the “predator” (the buyer of sex), and women as the “prey” (the victim).
The visibility of the male sex-worker is particularly apparent in Thailand. In economic terms, high levels of demand and supply facilitate this. The demand comes from the fact that Thailand, and Chang Mai in particular, increasingly caters to the gay community. The supply is a result of the fact that many boys come from rural areas to find work, often from the hill-tribes of northern Thailand. They rarely have the correct credentials or paperwork for legal employment and are brought into sex-work out of desperation. Often, this is after time as street children, where young males are termed as “trash” or the “hopeless population” because many social services and NGO resources are directed towards females. For these workers, a night working means a night that they do not have to sleep on the streets, but there risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS and other dangers is greatly increased.
Urban Light is an organization in Thailand that is working to help male victims of the sex industry in Chang Mai. The research they have done shows that there is a high, and growing, number of male sex-workers and that, shockingly, many of those who work are not in fact homosexual but prefer heterosexual sex. The work they are doing provides transitional housing, education, healthcare, outreach and prevention. So far, they have helped to bring 120 boys out of the sex industry with many going into other forms of employment. The number may not be high but nothing should be taken away from this achievement as it represents a drop in the ocean that otherwise would be missing – a small, but in now way insignificant, contribution to the fight against sex-slavery.
The fight against sex-slavery, and modern day slavery in general, will be long and arduous. What the facts represent here show, and the argument I am making, is not that there should be a division of efforts between alleviating the problem on boys and girls, but that this should not be seen as a gendered issue. It needs to be seen as human issue.