This week we had a super interesting meeting with Alezandra Russel, founder of Urban Light, a NGO which for with boys from Chiang Mai’s sex industry.
Alezandra came to Chiang Mai five years ago in order to have a vacation and to volunteer. She had heard about Thailand’s sex industry in the US and wanted to get to know more about it. She visited several NGOs working with former female sex workers and was positively surprised about the good support infrastructure for the girls.
However, when visiting Chiang Mai’s red light district, she did only see bars where (partly minor) girls offer their services, but also boys and young men. She was shocked because it never occurred to her than a man could prostitute himself.
One must know that all kind of prostitution, especially of minors, is illegal in Thailand and should be severely punished according to the law. We have however learned previously that the laws are bypassed with corruption and that prostitution, also of minors, remains common in Thailand.
Alezandra has talked with some of the male sex workers and saw how blatantly old foreign men look for a date for the night. Her search for NGOs that take care of the boys remained, however, unsuccessful.
After her holiday was over and Alezandra went back to the US, she should not forget the discussions she had with the boys. She wanted to do something, but does not speak Thai, has no experience with NGOs and at this time no financial possibilities. It seemed difficult to get involved. Nevertheless, after discussing the issue with her husband, Alezandra sold her wedding ring as a starting capital and three months later she went back to Thailand.
She founded Urban Light which is Chiang Mai’s first and so far only NGO that works with male sex workers. The goal of Urban Light is to give support, help and an open ear to the boys. Urban Light works today with 300 boys and young men, most of them minors.
Many of the boys come from the hill tribe villages in the North of Thailand and earn money for their families by prostituting themselves. Alezandra thinks that many families are aware how their sons earn the money. But as poverty is high in the North, many consider this the only possible way, the “lesser evil.”
Not all boys, Urban Light works with, want to leave the sex industry. There a many reasons, among which the above-mentioned financial reasons. Alezandra also talked about “emotional and psychological chains” which keep the boys in the sex trade. Some consider there is no alternative which allows to earn enough money, others stay because they have to pay for their drug addictions.
We have also asked Alezandra about the structures of Chiang Mai‘s sex industry. While female prostitution is mainly organised by a network of pimps, many boys work for themselves. They have however regular bars and are protected or exploited (that depends on the perspective) by the bar owners.
The boys pay the bar owners and can offer their services in return. Many bar owners however drive the boys into drug dependence in order to tie them to the sex industry. Loans are given to the boys for the same purpose. Thus, the bar owners create a financial and psychological dependence which is difficult for the boys to escape.
When the boys are older and “less desirable” some start to recruit younger boys themselves. In that regard Alezandra talks about human trafficking. Even though most of the boys are not physically forced to prostitute themselves, they are introduced to the environment with the exertion of power and manipulation.
The immediate goal of Urban Light is not necessarily to make the boys leave the sex industry. This would be unrealistic. In a first step, Urban Light is more concerned about the boys’ security and health. Alezandra and her team of five also want to show the boys that there are alternatives to prostitution, if they want to leave the sex industry.
Urban Light has rented a house close to Chiang Mai’s red light district. The boys can come and relax (many are homeless), watch TV or make music and sports. Further, Urban Light offers computer workshops, English lessons and legal support. A doctor takes care of the boys’ health. Some of them come on a very regular basis, others don’t.
Some of the boys have health problems which are linked to their work, like HIV and other STIs, but the doctor also takes care of wounds, eye or skin infections, fight injuries etc. Urban Light takes the kids to the hospital in case of more severe problems. One important part of the team’s work is the discussion with the boys. It is important to make them understand that they are not left alone and that there is a shelter if they need one.
Most of the boys do not come to the Urban Light facilities. Hence, four members of the Urban Light team go every night (!) on the streets and in the bars in order to give the boys medical treatment and to distribute condoms and clean needles. Urban Light has 15 hotspots where the team distribute health kits.
Alezandra further told us that Urban Light urgently needs a trained psychologist. The problem is that there are no psychologists in Thailand and most of the boys do not speak English or not enough to follow a therapy in English. The Urban Light team talks with the boys about their daily lives and when the trust is built up about their problems, but they are not psychologically trained.
One form of therapy are the workshops of Art Relief International, a NGO we have reported on last week (read article). Many of the boys are traumatised by the prostitution itself, but also by drug use, physical and emotional violence and the uncertainty of their situation. For example, Alezandra told us that many of the boys do not identify themselves as homosexual. They sleep with old men, but have a girlfriend. Many are uncertain about their own sexuality, but have nobody to talk to.
Even though Urban Light does not push the boys to leave the sex industry, it supports those who want to stop prostituting themselves. Thus, Urban Light pays school and educational fees for boys that want to change their job. Further, Urban Light supports drug-dependent boys that want to follow a detoxification programme.
Urban Light also has a housing programme for boys that want to leave the sex industry. Criteria for an apartment which is financed by Urban Light are abstinence from drugs and the will to follow a school or professional education. For one year, Urban Light supports the boys not only financially, but also in organisational matters and offers advice. After one year, the boys have to pay for the apartment themselves. According to Alezandra the programme has a success rate of 90 percent.
Urban Light currently offers three boys accommodation and support. Alezandra wants to do more, but Urban Light’s financial possibilities are limited. Prostitution of male minors remains a topic which gets little attention. We can only call for a donation for Urban Light (donate here). Alezandra and her team are incredibly dedicated and do what they can to help the boys.
Omakua has decided to support one boy in the housing project. We will soon present the project on our website. Supporting a young man to change his life for the better is an incredible thing to do and we hope for many donators.
Our meeting with Alezandra was very inspiring. Alezandra shows that it is possible to make a difference, even without experience or money. In end, the only thing one needs is determination.