Kathmandu’s adult entertainment sector (AES) is made up of a complex web of venues that includes massage parlours, dance bars, cabin restaurants and guest houses. These workplaces employ young women and girls as waitresses and dancers who entertain male patrons. Many of these venues have become a front for commercial sex, and, alarmingly, the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). Similarly, establishments in the wider hospitality industry, such as snack shops (bhattipasals and khajaghars) and some hotels, have also started providing these services and allowed similar exploitation. According to a 2010 report by Tdh Nepal, as many as one-third of females working in Kathmandu’s AES are under the age of 18.1
This report seeks to understand the profiles of those who use the services of children. After conducting in-depth interviews with the owners, managers and customers of the venues where CSEC takes place, we discovered the widespread prevalence and acceptance of a culture that permits and justifies exploitation. While interviewees broadly agreed that sex with children is morally reprehensible, each group shifted the blame for CSEC on a different group. They created narratives to excuse the use of minors in the sector, supported by cultural factors that have made the coveting of girls acceptable. Those who use the services of children are able to normalise their behaviour and distance themselves from the harmful implications of their actions.
Among those interviewed in this study, reservations about sexual activity with children were easily dismissed. A common justification is that girls are benefitting financially from working in the AES. In a country where the ability to participate in an increasingly consumerist society is highly valued, the girls’ perceived economic power is seen as adequate compensation. The inflated prices of food and drink sold at many AES venues also help excuse the presence of minors, as customers believe they are paying good money and expect to be entertained. Moreover, many managers and owners believe they are protecting girls by offering them accommodation and a salary. These actors view themselves as empathetic rather than exploitative, regardless of the exploitation the girls may face at the same time.
All those associated with the AES easily blamed other actors for the exploitation of children. Customers blamed owners who knowingly hired minors. Owners blamed girls who lied about their age. Managers blamed the government’s failure to effectively enforce laws prohibiting children from working in AES venues. When the exploitation of children was perceived as being indirect, individuals did not feel implicated.
The research suggests there is a general lack of awareness about the hidden pressures that constrain girls’ choices. Interviewees often equated exploitation with force. They argued that if girls are not being forced to engage in sexual activities, then they are not being exploited. Because the AES workers could choose which customers to entertain, the transactions were perceived as being consensual. When the encounters seem to be consensual, it is easier for customers to feel like they aren’t doing anything wrong.
Additionally, the exact ages of AES workers are often unknown, and this ambiguity allows those who frequent AES venues to be wilfully ignorant of any involvement in exploitative practices. Customers thought it was inappropriate to ask how old the girls were, and managers and owners reported overlooking missing age verification documents. By not knowing whether or not the workers are children, actors can avoid culpability. Nepal’s political environment also facilitates the exploitation of children in the AES. Although laws exist to protect children, weak governance structures and poor law enforcement have rendered those laws ineffective. Persistent governance issues with Nepal’s institutions make it difficult to bring about real change.
The purpose of this study was to bring to light authentic accounts of those involved in with the sexual exploitation of children. An in-depth understanding of the attitudes of those who use the services of children could inform behavioural change campaigns and other polices aimed at protecting minors. This research shows that the narratives that normalise, justify and excuse the sexual exploitation of children must be challenged.
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