As travel and tourism have become more readily accessible to individuals across the globe, and as internet usage continues to expand, the sexual exploitation of children and youth—both online and in-person—has also become dangerously convenient for sexual predators visiting and living in Thailand. In the past, physical locations such as bars, karaoke, and massage parlors have been the main venues for sex trade. In the past several years, Urban Light (UL) outreach teams note less visibility of boys under the age of 18 working within these environments . This may indicate that stronger legal enforcement in these establishments, accompanied by technological advancements, the advent of social media, and ‘dating’ and ‘hook up’ applications, may have contributed to pushing the sexual exploitation of children/youth underground and online.
The purpose of the current study, therefore, was to understand the current state of online commercial sexual exploitation of boys and young men in Thailand.
To answer these questions, a respondent-driven sampling (RDS) methodology was used. This methodology allowed for access to respondents who may have been otherwise unknown to researchers, and more organic recruitment of respondents through their social networks. Data collection began following ethical review board approval. Once respondents were informed of, and agreed to take part in the study, respondents were asked to complete a series of quantitative and qualitative online survey questions. Questions included information regarding respondents’ entrance into sex trade, experiences of trading sex in person and online, concerns regarding the risks of sex trade, experiences with service providers, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and their perceptions of, and understanding of, the meaning of sexual exploitation. Necessary time and recruitment adaptations were made to the study methodology to accommodate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Data was analyzed from a total of 94 people, all of whom were assigned male at birth (AMAB). These respondents ranged in age from 16 to 39 years old. Approximately 5% (n = 5) of respondents were under the age of 18 and 39.3% (n = 37) fell within the UN definition of youth (age 15-24). Gender identity was diverse including 46% (n = 43) of respondents identifying as Cisgender Male, 54% (n = 51) identifying as Trans/Third Gender. Given the known understanding of the diverse experiences of Cisgender Males compared to Trans/Third Gender people, many of the results presented have been separated based on gender identity to respect these differences. Almost all respondents identified their nationality as Thai (98%, n = 91).
Please note, as many respondents identified as youth, we want to be clear that any trade of sex or sexual services between a minor and an adult, like those noted in the following results, represents sexual abuse and exploitation. Children cannot sell sex as they are not able to consent. This is true even where a child ‘appears’ to consent or‘initiates’ an exchange.
Similarly, where this report refers to ‘customers’, in the case where a ‘customer’ is purchasing or sex or providing anything in exchange for sex or sexual services with someone under the age of 18, this person should be understood to be a perpetrator of sex trafficking and/or child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSEA).
The study’s results found several key findings:
1. The use of the internet for child sexual exploitation and sex trade is widespread and pervasive.
- Contrary to previous beliefs regarding separate populations of in-person and online victims of exploitation, the current results found that the internet is just one of many methods of engaging in the sex trade, with the majority of respondents noting participation in both in-person and online engagement with customers.
- Sending sexual photos or videos to customers was the most commonly indicated online sexual activity (43%).
2. Opportunities for employment, housing, and education are critical to preventing sexual exploitation.
- When asked what would help most in preventing future exploitation, respondents repeatedly reported the need for employment opportunities, housing, and education.
3. Physical and sexual violence were commonly reported among respondents.
- Nearly two third of respondents (65%) indicated they had been raped and/or sexually assaulted.
- Over a quarter of respondents (26%) indicated that they had been physically assaulted by a customer in the last six months
4. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an adverse impact on the livelihood of young people in the sex trade.
- Respondents noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant decrease and often complete elimination of their income through sex trade and other outlets.
5. Gender norms and expectations present unique vulnerabilities for cisgender males and trans/third gender people from accessing and receiving support and services.
- Respondents across gender identities reported that the taboo surrounding sex and sexuality was the biggest challenge to opening up to service providers (e.g. case workers, social workers, medical professionals, local authorities, etc.)..
6. Misperceptions of rape and sexual abuse inhibit the reporting and prevention of childhood sexual exploitation.
- Only 28% of respondents were able to identify sexual exploitation happening in any of the given scenarios.
7. Potential victims wish to report crimes without their personal information being disclosed
- 32% of all respondents noted that the option to remain anonymous would encourage them to report experiences of abuse or exploitation.
8. Adaptive research methods allowed us to better map the landscape of online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC).
- An RDS methodology allowed us to respond and adapt to unexpected responses in the findings and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- As the landscape for OSEC continues to grow and adapt, knowledge and intervention to combat OSEC needs to stay equally informed.
This report also includes comprehensive recommendations for community members, service providers, policy makers, funders, and researchers. Broadly, these recommendations include additional support for boys and young people who experience abuse and exploitation, focused on decreasing gendered pressure and societal stigma. This includes the implementation and funding for outreach that includes online outlets and utilizes the known benefits of peer support. Additionally, early intervention is needed for boys and SOGIE2 youth with known vulnerability factors (e.g. homelessness, poverty, trauma) to prevent exploitation. Finally, among others, there is a critical need to increase access to basic needs and services including employment, education, and housing to decrease the financial pressures that can lead to exploitation and abuse.
Read or download full report here.