Thailand is labelled as the sex capital of the world. It is the place to go and get cheap sex. However, it’s not just girls that are targeted by the industry; boys are as well. That is why Alezandra Russell started Urban Light in Thailand two years ago to offer a support system to teenage boys who are forced into prostitution. She spoke on Septemeber 20 in Library 321 about her journey with these boys.
Russell began Urban Light after her work in Washington, D.C. with the Latin American Youth Center. She told a story about how one of her students had been sold by her mother to a man from North Carolina to work as a prostitute. From then on, Russell began researching human trafficking to find out just what it was.
As defined in Russell’s presentation, human trafficking is a form on modern day slavery where people profit from the control and exploitation of others. People are often forced, tricked or deceived into commercial sex acts or different types of labor. Currently there are about 10 to 30 million slaves in the world and human trafficking generates about $32 billion annually.
“Sex tourists,” as Russell calls them, are the primary customers at bars in the Red Light district in Chiang Mai. They are usually men of all ages and martial status who come to purchase boys as young as 11. Russell has talked to many of these men and they have opened up to her. “They say ‘the boys would be starving without me’,” said Russell. “They know they can manipulate the boys with food and money, as many haven’t had a warm meal in days.”
The Urban Light youth center is a safe haven for the boys of the Red Light district, many of whom were sold by their families into the sex industry and have nowhere to go. It offers English and Life Skills classes, food and medicine drops to boys’ families, and field trips. One of the main goals of the center is to educate boys on safe sex and get them tested for HIV and other STIs. “Most of the boys don’t know how to put on a condom,” said Russell. “[Men] will offer them extra money not to use them.” Today, there have been no positive HIV results, which Russell said is a relief.
“I’ve never seen so much strength in people,” said Russell about her boys. She spends six months out of the year in Thailand and the other six here in the U.S. raising awareness.
Sophomore Khamzin Meadows travelled to Thailand this fall with economics teacher Ho Nguyen to take a class on Economics in the Sex Industry in Chiang Mai. She had the opportunity to travel to the Urban Light center and meet the boys face to face. “It’s one thing to read about the sex industry, it’s another to actually meet someone [who is] a part of it,” said Meadows. She received a tour of the Red Light district, which “really tied it all together for [her].” Today, she still works with Russell and keeps in touch with boys she met in Thailand. She is also trying to start up a pen pal system to keep in contact with them.
Nguyen met Russell through a course he teaches in Chiang Mai. “I was teaching a course on ‘The Economics of the Sex Industry in Southeast Asia’ last summer at our Thai exchange partner, Payap University, when a mutual friend put me in touch with Alez,” Nguyen said. “As part of the course, I took students to visit five different NGOs [non-governmental organizations] in Thailand who work in various aspects with sex workers [such as] HIV education & prevention, sex workers’ rights and transgender sex workers’ problems.” He added, “These boys, all of whom are Ahka, a hill tribe minority in Northern Thailand, now have a haven to which they can retreat for some stability and comfort.”
Russell said there are many ways to get involved, even if just dedicating a Facebook status to them. “The boys think no one cares,” said Russell. “The face that you guys donated an hour and a half of your time to hear their stories in the best present.” To get involved with Urban Light, go to urban-light.org or like them on Facebook.