Two years ago in mid-2013, Love146, a world leader in the anti-human trafficking movement, partnered with Urban Light to conduct one of Thailand’s first studies evaluating the vulnerabilities and exploitation of young men and teenagers working in the red light districts of Chiang Mai. I had just stepped into my volunteer role at Urban Light and was eager to contribute my analytical skills and scientific research background to help out in anyway I could. Jarrett Davis, Love146’s lead researcher, and I had just started scratching the surface of how widespread the male sex industry was and how little was known about those individuals working in that sphere.  Men have overwhelmingly been left out of the human-trafficking dialogue, and this study would hopefully move the mind’s of governments, NGOs, and overall public opinion that indeed, men and boys too are victims of sexual and systemic exploitation, something still largely considered only a “women and girls issue.”

The first time Jarrett, our Thai interpreter, and I walked into a prominent GoGo Bar in Chiang Mai, we were greeted as typical “Johns” or potential buyers of sex. As we pulled back the curtain to enter the establishment after a short walk upstairs, the khatoey (Thai term for transgender individual) mamasan, or manager of the bar’s workers, held incense in her hand as she bowed to a spirit house just above the bar’s high-end liquor selection. The juxtaposition of this sacred gesture with the scene behind her couldn’t have been starker.

About fifteen young men and teenagers, all of which would later deny their youth in future interviews as a protection for the establishment (all “entertainment workers are required by Thai law to be at least 18) were on stage in their underwear, dancing, doing pull-ups or doing whatever they could to potentially entice customers. My heart sank so low. The lifeless look on many of the faces of these young men made this first contact for us even more difficult as we were escorted along the catwalk stage to a table and informed with a smile that all of the boys were available to “go home with us.” Another “John” sat in an adjacent booth to ours, chose a young man from the stage, and walked with him after paying the bar’s fee just shortly after we sat down. My stomach curled as the two walked out of the bar, but there our research team sat, just watching and observing the inner workings of the establishment.    

Gay in Chiang Mai, a prominent online forum/blog, touted the young men in this bar as “softer looking” and “exotic” Burmese counterparts to typical Thai male sex workers, a “go-to” spot for anyone looking for a unique experience. The forum got one thing right--- these men were overwhelmingly Burmese immigrants, lacking ID and resources, and forced to either stagnate in immigration camps on the border or make their way to city to find work and provide for their families. Our research team sat in the bar for about one hour and made contact with a few of the young men that would later participate in interviews for the study. Learning more about the vulnerabilities and needs of these men/teenagers was our goal and is essential in order for NGOs and public health organizations to know where weaknesses exist in services, giving a better chance to maximize effectiveness and focus and ultimately inform programs. Over fifty interviews later and sampling from nearly all aspects of the male entertainment industry (including Karaoke, massage parlors, GoGo Bars, and freelance sex workers) our team successfully compiled the first overview of the scope of the vulnerabilities these young men experience everyday, providing information previously unknown or overlooked. For the complete research, please click HERE.  

After completing work on this research and returning to the United States in December of 2013, I knew I had to go back and volunteer with Urban Light again. The needs of the young men the organization serves everyday are great, and I felt an even greater urgency for what needed to be done to help.

And now I am back.

The Urban Light I left in late 2013 couldn’t be any more different than the organization I walked into in September 2015— and this difference could not be more of an AMAZING thing. When I was a volunteer in 2013, our team only had the capacity to conduct night outreach at two to three bars and were largely working with a single population of male sex workers. Two years later, the Urban Light team conducts outreach at over a dozen locations and is making contact with individuals across all spectrums of the industry. Our daily drop in center has grown to provide not only health services but also health consultations thanks to an amazing volunteer doctor and access to tools such as a five-minute HIV testing kit. Harm reduction kits are being distributed throughout the city and many young men have completed drug rehabilitation with the support of Urban Light. More individuals than ever are accessing help where they previously had nowhere to turn.

One of the most profound accomplishments Urban Light has made in this past year is becoming a registered foundation in Thailand, which will bring down so many barriers Urban Light had previously faced for its first few years in Chiang Mai. Urban Light is now able to access even more social services for beneficiaries, partner with other organizations in a greater capacity, and have meaningful lobbying power in Thailand and throughout the world.

All of this would not be possible without the amazing team currently working everyday to provide compassion, social services, and most importantly meaningful relationships to these young men, many of whom have faced nothing but disgust and disdain from society. It is with this empowerment that so many have left the sex industry in pursuit of education, meaningful work, and pride in themselves. Urban Light helps to lift so many out of dire circumstances, something I have personally witnessed on this second stay in Thailand as many of Urban Light’s beneficiaries are now working successfully, raising families, and living empowered lives throughout all of Thailand and in Chiang Mai. It is a privilege to be able to witness the amazing growth of Urban Light, and I cannot wait to see what 2016 will bring. The work the Urban Light staff does is indeed hard work, but the passion all the staff brings to the table each day makes me know that this is more than that---- working at Urban Light is truly heart work, and everyday is truly making a difference for so many lives.