Why we must talk about boys who survive commercial sexual exploitation too

"Commercial sexual exploitation of children very often gets restricted to the rhetoric of girls," says Roop Sen, a researcher on trafficking and migration issues.
Why we must talk about boys who survive commercial sexual exploitation too
Why we must talk about boys who survive commercial sexual exploitation too
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Around 2010, a research (unpublished) conducted on masseurs in Mumbai found that there were a large number of minor boys in the community and that many of them faced sexual exploitation and abuse by customers.

The typical incidents that were reported stated that customers invariably expected some or the other kind of sexual service from the masseur. And some of it was forced, including reports of gang rape as well.

Non-conventional trafficking and abuse

Roop Sen, a researcher on trafficking and migration issues, was part of the team that conducted the research along with an NGO that worked on HIV prevention in the masseur community.

Speaking at a media workshop on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Hyderabad last month, Roop narrated how many of the boys became masseurs from a very young age, i.e. when they were 12 or 13 years old.

They came from neighbouring states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and were brought by relatives or villagers who too were masseurs in the financial capital.

And even though this may not be trafficking in the conventional sense, there is still sexual exploitation of children involved.

"There is nothing to suggest that there was any purchase or sale of the boys. However, it was definitely likely that when the older masseurs got them to the city to join their profession, they would know that these boys would be subject to sexual exploitation as well," he says.

"They may not be directly profiting from the minor's income and so it may not be trafficking in the conventional sense. But it is commercial sexual exploitation which involves migration and various other forms of abuse and violence," he adds.

While CSEoC in itself remains an unreported issue, in the few instances that it is reported, the focus is on girl survivors. On the other hand, male victims are never talked about.

"Commercial sexual exploitation of children very often gets restricted to the rhetoric of girls," Roop observes.

Abuse is present but discreet

Barnali Ghosh, a Kolkata-based psychologist, had conducted research over a decade ago on sexual violence faced by minor boys living on two railway platforms in the city.

The abuse was regular and perpetrators included men frequenting the stations, such as taxi drivers. Sometimes the older boys would grow up and turn perpetrators themselves.

"These were adolescent boys and there were payments involved. The transactions were also in kind, like for providing them protection," Barnali says.

She states that our perception that boys cannot be sexually abused is based on the narrative of masculinity and how it is women who are generally viewed as helpless, vulnerable and liable to exploitation. And this reflects in the statistics as well.

"It is a fact that there is a high prevalence of abuse among young boys. But when the reporting is less, statistics available will also likely be less. When we look at trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, the visibility is on girls. For instance, brothels are more visible and so are girls working there. That does not mean that boys are not exploited. They are also being abused but perhaps in a more discreet way," she says.

Non-recognition, under-reporting and insufficient data

A recent research conducted by Roop's team across six Indian states found that there is very little data available on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of boys.

This is in contrast with a large section of respondents who admitted to have been sexually abused.

Many a time, victims don't even realise they are being sexually abused. Like in the case of the masseurs, many boys felt that providing sexual services was just part of the job. At other times, the concept of masculinity stops them from accepting that they are victims of abuse.

"Sometimes they are living away from their families, or living on streets or in slums, we know it happens. But it either does not get recognised by victims or it is not reported," he says.

Some of the common barriers to reporting abuse include acknowledgment of violence, the shame and stigma attached to sexual abuse, absence of a response mechanism in organisations working with survivors and law enforcement.

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