Magazine article The Christian Century

Sex Tourism and the Sexual Exploitation of Children

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sex Tourism and the Sexual Exploitation of Children

Article excerpt

During last summer's debate over the passage of the 1994 crime bill the press virtually ignored a provision that had support on both sides of the congressional aisle. This provision, part of an amendment to the Mann Act, strengthened the arsenal of laws to combat the sexual abuse of children. An earlier amendment to the Mann Act made it a crime to transport children younger than 18 with the aim of involving them in prostitution or sexual activity. Under the provisions of the new bill, it is illegal for U.S. citizens and permanent-resident aliens to travel abroad to engage in sexual acts with minors. Americans now can be prosecuted under U.S.laws for sexually exploiting children in other countries.

This expansion of the Mann Act was a response to the tremendous growth in international travel which has enabled people to take advantage of children whose bodies are for sale in other lands. It is estimated that 1 million children are enslaved in prostitution in Asia, and the problem is growing in other parts of the world. Ron O'Grady, international coordinator of the campaign to End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT), estimates that there are 200,000 child prostitutes in Thailand, 400,000 in India and 60,000 in the Philippines. Human Rights Watch recently reported that 10,000 Burmese women and girls have been supplied by traffickers to the brothels of Thailand. More is known about child sexual exploitation in Asia than elsewhere, partly because of ECPAT's work. But in recent years the commercialization of children's bodies has grown in other parts of the world as well, especially in Latin America and Eastern Europe. And the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there are approximately 300,000 child prostitutes in the United States.

Some of the conditions these youngsters endure are barely imaginable: forced to service up to 15 customers per night, they are locked in their rooms or chained to their beds, and beaten if they balk at cooperating. Occasionally, a tragic incident makes headlines. Several years ago, after a fire in a brothel in Thailand, firefighters found the bodies of three 15-year-old girls still chained to their beds. In the Philippines a 12-year-old died after a customer abandoned her when a vibrator became lodged in her vagina. Sometimes a raid on a sex establishment or the arrest of a foreigner will make the newspapers. But mostly these young girls and boys slave away unnoticed.

THE SEXUAL exploitation of children is big business, generating billions of dollars in income each year for traffickers, pimps, tourism promoters and the owners of brothels, hotels and bars. While many countries have long had youthful prostitutes, the advent of air travel and sophisticated communications technologies has brought new dimensions and scope to the problem.

A girl from a remote hill tribe in Thailand may be kidnapped by (or sold by her parents to) a procurer who supplies bars and brothels in the major tourist cities. These establishments eater to the sexual demands of military, personnel on leave, tourists, businessmen or pedophiles from the U.S., Japan and Western Europe. The demands of residents in the developed countries are often met by powerless people in less-developed nations. Just as sweatshop workers are compensated at a small fraction of the price goods are sold for, young sex workers receive a very small part of the price paid by the buyer.

THE BIG INCREASE in the sexual exploitation of children is due to a complex of factors. Impoverished families no longer able to get by on subsistence farming turn to selling their female children to procurers. Lack of educational or job opportunities contributes to families' decisions to put their daughters on the market. Families are also tricked into letting their children be taken away. They are told their daughters will work at well-paying legitimate businesses that will enable them to help support their families. …

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