In April 2021, ECPAT published a report of 20 boys and gender-diverse youth, aged 15 to 24, who had been pushed to work in the sex industry. 18 out of 20 of the youth said that if they had the choice, they would leave sex work.
Leaving the sex industry can be a difficult and lengthy process. “They said lots of the reasons they found themselves in the circumstances where they had to exchange sex to survive were driven by issues [like] financial hardships or not being able to make money to pay rent,” shares Mark Kavenagh, the Head of Research and Policy of ECPAT International, a non-governmental organisation working to end the sexual exploitation of children in Thailand.
In 2014, a UNAIDS report stated that 40 percent of individuals in the sex industry were said to be underage. Veerawit Tianchainan, Executive Director of the Freedom Story, an organisation for the prevention of sex trafficking, said that more recent statistics on minors in the industry are difficult to find due to the lack the illegality of sex work in Thailand and lack of data sharing among organisations working on prevention of sexual exploitation of minors.
New forms of sexual exploitation have emerged online during the pandemic, Tianchainan notes. Increasingly children are exploited online and then blackmailed to move into offline sex work. Unfortunately, there’s a research gap as most research focuses on girls. “We did some research a couple of years ago with Interpol that showed that in the child sexual abuse material database that Interpol keeps, roughly 1/3 of the images involved boys so that’s actually a really high number,” Kavenagh highlights.
One thing we do know is that the mental health impact of sex trafficking is often devastating. In 2015, a study by Lancet Global Health surveyed 1102 survivors of human trafficking in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam of which 329 ended up in sex work. 61 percent reported depression, 43 percent had symptoms of anxiety, and 39 percent experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There’s one case where a ladyboy had a gun to her head while she was sexually assaulted. So there are absolutely instances of trauma,” Kavenagh told Global Ground Media.
A 2016 survey of service workers by ECPAT also explored the causes for boys ending up in sex work. Unsurprisingly, 97 percent and 93 percent of service workers said that “previous experience of sexual abuse” and “extreme poverty” increased boys’ vulnerability to sexual exploitation.
Tianchainan said it’s especially difficult for youth who dropped out of school early on. The longer their time in the sex industry, the more difficult it is for them to leave as well-paying jobs requiring higher education are not available to them. Out of the 20 youth in the 2021 ECPAT report, only three went to college.
“If they are offered to sleep with [a] guest, it could be 1,000-2,000 baht [about US $32 to 64] a night,” Tianchainan said. A daily labourer on the other hand would earn THB 150 to 300 a day according to Tianchainan.
According to Kavenagh, there is often a disconnect between the offered services and the services the boys and gender-diverse youth say they need. While they can be tested for sexually transmitted diseases, access to counselling and job services is limited.
The Freedom Story works to prevent minors from being trafficked or pressured into the sex industry. One boy who the Freedom Story helped is Tarrin, a 17-year old from rural Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. Tarrin is not his real name to protect his identity.
With a violent alcoholic father, Tarrin was vulnerable to trafficking when he needed work to finance his education. With a scholarship from the Freedom Story, he was able to focus solely on school instead. Tarrin was lucky, but more services and research are needed to help others already in the industry.
Article by Tara Abhasakun.
Editing by Anrike Visser.
Copyright © 2020, rights reserved as set forth in the copyright notice.
Global Ground is investigative, independent journalism. We’re ad-free and don’t sell your personal data, so we mainly depend on donations to survive.
If you like our stories or think press freedom is important, please donate. Press freedom in Asia is under threat, so any support is appreciated.
Thanks in advance,
The Global Ground Team