Photo courtesy of IPS

Boys are often under represented or even ignored in the fight against child sexual exploitation due to the stereotyping of gender traits with males being considered strong and invulnerable and less likely to be victimised or in need of support while females are considered vulnerable and more often abused and in need of support.

“Such beliefs often hamper equitable and necessary discourse on the sexual exploitation of children of all genders, but especially for boys where the development of policies, practices, advocacy, and research methodologies about the sexual exploitation of children regularly underrepresents, or even completely excludes boys,” says a report on Sexual Exploitation of Boys produced by Protecting Environment and Children Everywhere, also known as PEaCE and operating as ECPAT Sri Lanka.

Other factors that contribute to the sexual exploitation of boys include the erosion of family protective systems, the need for income and the influence of friends, while drug misuse is considered significant in keeping boys in sexually exploitative situations, the report said. Research indicated that 27.7% of males and 3% of females have experienced sexual abuse in childhood.

On the legal front, since homosexuality is illegal, boys who are victimised end up being charged under the arcane law. The legal system still does not recognise sexual abuse of boys as rape.

The PEaCE report is based on a survey of frontline social support workers from a range of services most likely to have contact with boys who have experienced sexual exploitation or abuse and an analysis of the  legal framework that protects children from sexual exploitation, with a focus on boys.

During the peak of its tourist popularity, Sri Lanka was advertised mainly in Europe as an easy place to buy young boys for sex. Even today, the country is known overseas as a haven for child sex tourism, which has increased since the war ended in 2009. Although there is more awareness of the issue and several organisations are working to tackle the problem, research on the sexual exploitation of boys is limited.

Here are some highlights from the report:

Poverty increases vulnerability to sexual exploitation of children; UNICEF reported that 36% of Sri Lanka’s six million children live below the international poverty line of $1.40 per day while 74% live on less than $2.54 per day.

Male relatives and those in positions of authority are commonly named as offenders. Boys have been identified as victims of sexual exploitation and abuse in children’s homes, religious establishments and schools.

Numerous allegations of sexual violence have been made against members of the security forces during and after the civil war. The sexual exploitation and abuse of boys takes place within the context of, and under the shadow of the conflict and the legacy of sexual violence perpetrated against men and boys within conflict may have far-ranging repercussions.

Pressure to conform to accepted gender roles is common for both boys and girls, and discrimination based on sexuality is prevalent and takes place in schools, communities, universities, the workplace and at home.

Underpinning the sexual exploitation of boys is a culture of shame and stigmatisation towards survivors. In schools, families of boys who have been victims of sexual exploitation and abuse are advised not to report to authorities due to the ostracization that boys will then face.

Protecting family honour and social respectability are very important, and gender norms relating to masculinity, where boys are supposed to be stoic, brave and able to deal with their own problems are also common. In other situations, the sexual exploitation of boys may be ignored, and families may be reluctant to report because of shame, lack of willingness to engage in the criminal justice process, or pressure from others to ignore the offence, including influential people.

Because high value is placed on girls remaining virgins until they are married, the sexual exploitation of girls is considered serious, but because this same value does not apply to boys’ virginity, their sexual exploitation is viewed as less serious.

Attitudes that dismiss the sexual exploitation and abuse of boys are reflected in legislation, with many offences relating to child sexual exploitation using gendered language specific to girls and women, that excludes men and boys. For example, the possibility of raping a man is not recognised and the prohibition of statutory rape applies only to girls (under the age of 16 years) and not to boys.

Boys and young men are exploited in tourist areas with some boys under 18 exploited by both male and female offenders. Boys are sometimes portrayed as initiating relationships with tourists but as children they are never responsible and cannot ‘give permission’ to be exploited by adults.

The co-founder and current Chairman of PEaCE, Mohammed Mahuruf, answered questions from Groundviews on some of the findings of the report.

In the 1980s and 1990s Sri Lanka was advertised in Europe as a place to come for sex tourism involving boys. Has that changed now?

Sri Lanka is still being advertised on travel blogs as a destination for sex tourism. Some advertisements specifically mention ‘Best Places to Meet Sexy Girls or Boys’ as well as where and how to find them.

Was tourism a major reason for sexual abuse of boys?  

While it is not the only reason behind sexual abuse of boys, tourism is doubtless one of the major reasons. The tourist boys and beach boys phenomena are derived from the sexual exploitation of boys in the context of travel and tourism and has existed for decades in communities engaged in tourism and related industries.

Why is the sexual abuse of boys considered less important than that of girls?

Ignorance, lack of awareness and understanding in local communities have led to giving less importance to the sexual exploitation of boys in comparison to girls. Girls are more protected as their ‘purity’ and ‘virginity’ is considered important in the culture to be marriable whereas when it comes to boys, it doesn’t really matter if they have been sexually active before marriage. Another factor is the outdated legal system that still does not recognise the sexual abuse of boys as rape. There is also the factor of toxic masculinity where boys are expected to be strong and are believed not susceptible to be sexually abused, so many boys may not believe their abuse to be a crime. 

Are boys perceived as enjoying sex and being willing participants? 

In the Sri Lankan culture, it is believed that boys enjoy sex and are willing participants. In many incidents of abuse of adolescent boys the response of people, especially other men, is to say that these boys are ‘lucky’, mostly when the perpetrator is a woman, implying that the boys always enjoy sex and are willing participants. Even with beach boys, many perceive that the boys involved are willing participants therefore not enough action is taken by the authorities despite some of the boys being well below the age of consent according to the law.

Is there more awareness now about sexual abuse of boys?

Compared to the past, there is more awareness about abuse of boys. There is more public outcry against incidents of abuse of boys outside of the tourism industry such as boys victimised in schools, tuition classes, by family and by strangers. However, the reaction of the public is different based on the age of the victim and based on the perpetrator. For example, when boys under 12 are abused, the response of the public would be of anger and concern whereas incidents where young adult boys are involved, the response is different as it is often made fun of or it is implied that the victim would have been a willing participant. On the other hand, the abuse of boys in tourism is still a major issue that does not get enough attention due to a lack of awareness and a lack of action taken by law enforcement and government bodies related to tourism. The sexual abuse of boys in tourism is not considered a crime but a normal occurrence in the coastal communities.

What are the main factors for sexual abuse of boys?

There are plenty of opportunities for boys to mingle with the travellers and tourists whereas tour operators do not consider it as an issue. For example, the boys carrying pooja vatties in Kataragama are exposed and vulnerable to local travellers who visit the temple and are looking for boys for their sexual pleasure. The home stay concept is another opportunity for the perpetrators to be close with the boys in the villages. In addition poverty, low education levels, minimal action taken by authorities, lack of awareness among the host communities and the travel and tour operators, gaps in the legal system and culture are other factors.

Are there loopholes in the law that allow for sexual exploitation of boys as opposed to girls?

The law uses gendered pronouns that cast males as perpetrators and females as victims, making it difficult to counter abuse perpetrated against young boys who have proven more likely to be victims of sexual exploitation in the context of travel and tourism. The Penal Code 363 states that “A man is said to commit ‘rape’ who enactment has sexual intercourse with a woman…” and Penal Code 364(e) states “…commits rape on a woman under eighteen years of age” both of which erase the fact that boys could be victims of rape and implies that only men would commit rape. Because of these gaps in the legal system, sexual abuse of boys is not prosecuted as rape and sexual abuse of boys are prosecuted under the Penal Code 365B where it is also stated as “…being an act which does not amount to rape under section 363…” The Penal Code 365 defines unnatural offences as “…carnal intercourse against the order of nature…” and under this, homosexuality is criminalised therefore, boys who are abused by male perpetrators are often charged with homosexuality. For this reason, many victims do not seek legal support. These gaps in the legal system allow sexual exploitation to happen more for boys than girls.

More cases are being reported during the pandemic. Why is this?

During the time of the pandemic, children are home bound with their abusive parents and family members. Children are exposed to the use of the internet while being isolated from their school environment. Children were allowed to handle digital gadgets without any training or precautions. Many parents are not tech savvy and a lack of cybersecurity allowed online predators to easily access minors, resulting in a surge of sexual abuse and exploitation via the internet. Some children had easy access to sites that are age restricted. Recently, a 14 year-old boy has been placed on probation after he was found to have sexually abused his five year-old female cousin. According to the teenager he had experimented actions seen on the adult videos. For these reasons, incidents of children committing sexual crimes against children have increased as well.

Read the full report here