The massage parlor is already swallowing clients through its dark doorway; cheap perfume hangs in the air. The Home of Body Building exudes a sour sweat from the hall where older men are eyeing prancing young boys. But in a nearby shelter for former prostitutes the scene is demure, as girls settle down for group therapy. This day, a visitor is taking Polaroid pictures and passing them around. The pictures make the girls look like small, spindly birds, rather than sex objects.
It is hard to imagine that not long ago these children, aged 11 to 14, worked as prostitutes, used by men three and four times their age. As soon as Lek sees her photograph, the quiet year-old girl is transformed.
She jumps up and pokes wildly at her image. She has never told her life story, but now she belts it out. Auntie put her in a brothel. Auntie beat her and made her work. Lek grabs a stick and begins striking the air with every new point. She cried a lot. She worked every day, there were many men, Thai men, foreign men. Then, after two years, she was sold again. Auntie sold her to a bar owner. Drained by her anger, Lek throws herself on the floor. Next to her, Sister Michele, a young Catholic nun from India, bends down to cradle the girl.
For Sister Michele, the session is astonishing. In the four years she has worked with prostituted children, moments when the children let out their pain are very rare. She says they bury their feelings and hide their experiences even when they visit the doctor, sore with venereal diseases.
Some girls so effectively block out the past that they forget their home address or even their parents' names. Sister Michele says she is only just learning how troubled the children are, how much attention they need.
The sex trade has long flourished in big cities throughout South and Southeast Asia but social workers say that, increasingly, children under 15, male and female, are being sold or recruited into prostitution. His is one of the more conservative estimates. It is not just poverty but also affluence born of a long economic boom that is driving the trend, creating a child sex industry on a scale never seen. At the same time, countries like Thailand, eager to attract tourism, have become tolerant of brash sex clubs for homosexuals, heterosexuals, pedophiles and others in search of sex that is expensive or outright dangerous to pursue at home.
Not least, the fear of AIDS is leading clients to shun older prostitutes, in the mistaken belief that children are "clean. While child prostitution is increasing worldwide, experts say it is growing fastest in Asia, and the police there say the clients are of all kinds: locals and foreigners; Asian, Arab and Western businessmen, diplomats and development workers. On the recommendation of gay and pedophile guidebooks and newsletters, many Western men go to Sri Lanka and Thailand for very young boys on the cheap. Asians -- who believe that sex with virgins can rejuvenate men -- look for young girls in India, Taiwan, the Philippines and, above all, in Thailand's brazen sex industry.
Yet even as the issue moves onto the international agenda, the subject makes politicians and tourist officials so uncomfortable that they deny or belittle it. In , the United Nations Human Rights Commission ordered an investigation, appointing Vitit Muntarbhorn, a Thai law professor, as special rapporteur.
By , he had produced a long list of culpable nations and wrote: "The sale of children, of child prostitution and child pornography are undoubtedly global. Far from the economic frenzy to the south, the indigenous communities still build sturdy wooden shacks in the forests. Pigs and chickens have the run of the place, and old men wear the thin, spent demeanor of longtime opium smokers.
The most striking feature of many villages, though, is the absence of teen-agers. At Doi Suthep, a schoolteacher explains that many have gone to Chiang Mai, the nearest big city. He says the people here are "not rich, not poor," but everyone craves televisions and other consumer goods. Many young prostitutes are runaways, some from as far away as southern China. But researchers from the Foundation for Children based in Bangkok made a troubling discovery three years ago when they tried to retrace the steps of 57 young girls from this region.
In the nine communities the girls came from, the researchers found a total of five girls aged 13 and The others had "gone south. While a girl works off the "advance," she is held in virtual bondage in the brothel. Her debt often grows because the brothel owner adds costs of food and clothing and may charge "interest" on the loan.
Nit, a peasant girl from the north, was sold for the price of a television. In the Bangkok shelter where we met, she sat politely on the edge of a sofa, fidgeting with her hair. At 13, she still looked small and guileless enough to play with dolls. And she talked only in whispers. The agent, a soldier, told her she would wash dishes; instead he took her to a house with 15 other girls. Nit showed no emotion over what happened next. She kept looking at the ceiling. She whispered that she was very frightened when she faced her first client, an American.
She was also impressed: he had to pay her boss 8, baht because she was a virgin. It did not occur to Nit that this settled her debt. Since her deflowering, Nit has seen her price drop like bad stocks. Her second and third clients -- from Hong Kong -- had to pay her boss 4, baht. Number five and six paid only 1, Her boss kept all the money. Nit seemed oddly resigned to her plight, perhaps because it was her father's decision. But now, she whispered, she would prefer to go home. Abuse and disease are rampant. The harm to their bodies is easiest to record: cigarette burns, self-inflicted cuts, syphilis and gonorrhea, and increasingly, the virus that causes AIDS.
Social workers worry also about the less visible and harder part -- the interrupted childhoods, depression and distrust, the grim prediction that abused children will themselves become perpetrators. Fighting the child sex trade means taking on a tough underground web of recruiters, pimps, hotel operators and corrupt police, not to speak of the clients themselves. Thailand says it has started to do so. It will also mean cracking down on the secretive, international networks of pedophiles who swap information on "safe resorts," specialized brothels and "safe houses" and promote these in their fancy brochures and videotapes.
Social workers are only just beginning to understand the trauma of child prostitution. Teelaporn Veerawat, a coordinator at the Foundation for Children, says shelters can help children who were used for a short period. Sister Michele, whose shelter is in a tourist resort, says the prostituted girls hate themselves and fear men. To mend that pain, she has started mixed therapy sessions for boys and girls who have both worked in the sex trade.
She says she tells the children: "There is no difference between the client and the prostitute. If a man goes to a prostitute, he is also a prostitute. It's as simple as that. On bad days, she says, the abused children remind her of empty shells -- "So much missing, no sense of self, no core, no trust. Only a deep hollow we need to fill. The Littlest Prostitutes. View on timesmachine. TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them.
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