Urban Light

 |  September 27, 2011

Founded by Alezandra Russell just over a year ago, Urban Light is a non-profit organisation in Thailand that provides care for boys who are part of the sex tourism industry in the boy bars of Chiang Mai

“I sold my wedding ring to start Urban Light,” Russell tells me. “It was the first of many items from my past that I gave up to start up my organisation.” The youth centre began with just three boys, and is now a place of respite during the day for twenty-five boys ranging in age from 14 to 24. Hot meals, health care and English lessons give them a new way of looking at life and some have even stopped going to the boy bars. The pain of being sexually exploited on a nightly basis is what drives the boys to Urban Light. Russell offers the boys an alternative to the sex industry, providing them with someone to talk to, job-search skills and art therapy.

Two years ago, Russell had a job at a youth centre and lived full-time in Washington, DC, when she stumbled across the sex tourist scene in the northern city of Chiang Mai on a two-week trip to Thailand. “Boys as young as fourteen are ‘bought’ every night by male sex tourists mostly from the west,” she says. “Plenty of organisations in Thailand help girls who are lured into prostitution, but there were none to help these boys until Urban Light.” The boys stream into the boy bars from a poverty-stricken village in the north, hoping to make upwards of 10,000 baht per night, about 335 USD.

Urban Light started with one boy, whose name is omitted for the purpose of anonymity. Before meeting Russell, he had worked in the boy bars of Chiang Mai for 10 years. He explains, “when I was six, my father drowned in the river just below my village. At 8, my mother overdosed from heroin, a drug introduced to her by her new husband. At eight and a half, my step-father sent me to the city of Chiang Mai.” He was given a dozen roses and told not to return unless he had money. “I started selling roses to the westerners who filled the bars, but the money was never enough. I was approached by a western man one night, and I soon realised there was something else I could sell that was worth a lot more money than roses.” The other boys from his village were doing the same thing – going home at night with westerners, getting jewellery and presents. “I slept during the day to forget the pain until night time when I would go with customers.” Ten years later, after meeting Russell and going to Urban Light, he has stopped going to the boy bars to earn money. Through the centre, he learned to speak English and the NGO helped him find a job at a restaurant in Chiang Mai. He now works there to make a living and still visits the centre every day.

Another boy who frequents the centre daily is enrolled in an intensive English prep course, through Urban Light’s funding and encouragement. This will allow him to enrol in a university English programme and gain the certification necessary to be eligible to eventually attend university. One of the youth centre’s primary future goals is to provide education opportunities for all of the boys.

Educating the boys gives them agency to make informed decisions. There is a difference between these boys and an adult who is informed of other income-generating options and the potential psychological and physical consequences of sex-work. For starters, when the boys begin working in the boy bars, they are under the age of eighteen – some as young as twelve. They are young teenagers who, for the most part, have had significant trauma in their childhood and live in a poverty situation. These boys see other boys from their village coming back from the boy bars with lots of money for their family, jewellery and clothing. Working in the boy bars is seen by these young teens as a way to escape the poverty around them, make money for their family and achieve a successful lifestyle. Prior to going to the boy bars, the boys are unaware of the psychological, emotional and physical consequences of this line of work. It is understandable that these boys would follow their peers at this impressionable age. Many of the boys have shared the pain of their job with Russell during late hours at night. The boys’ vulnerabilities from living in an underprivileged environment and lack of opportunities are exploited by the sex tourists that offer money and material goods they would otherwise not have.

The education and confidence that the boys gain from their time at Urban Light gives them new possibilities. Three boys have stopped going to the boy bars completely since using the youth centre’s resources. The centre provides the other boys that still frequent the boy bars at night a safe place of stability. Urban Light does not try to convince the boys to leave the industry – it provides skills and other options that the boys can choose to embrace and use to change their lives. Success is not measured by the number of boys who stop going to the bars; success is measured by the number of boys who get tested for HIV, learn to speak English and learn that there is life outside the industry. Urban Light empowers these boys with awareness and the opportunity of choice.

I am not an expert on the subject of sex tourism or sex trafficking by any means. I met Alezandra and the boys this summer and saw an opportunity to contribute to the dialogue on this admittedly sensitive subject and hopefully generate more funding for Urban Light. The NGO is currently funded solely by Alezandra’s own fund-raising efforts.

Alezandra is still married to the same man and now has a tattoo on her fourth finger where the wedding band used to be. She splits her time between Chiang Mai and DC, three months on and three months off. For more information or to make a donation, please visit http://www.urban-light.org/donate.html or check out UrbanLight on Facebook.