Defiling The Children

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Sasha, a scruffy-looking long-haired resident of Moscow, has a lucrative profession. He sells the sexual services of small boys. His base of operations is a garden in front of Moscow's magnificent Bolshoi Theatre, where both local and foreign clients know to seek him out. Sasha pimps for a number of male teenagers who hang out with him near the Bolshoi, but his main "team" consists of three younger boys -- Marik, 8, and Volodya and Dima, both 9.

The three boys wound up in Sasha's clutches when they were cast into the street during the social upheaval that followed the collapse of communism. The ex-collective farmworker dresses them up in girls' clothes and sells their favors, given eagerly, he maintains, for as little as $20 a day. "I am helping them," he insists, flashing gold teeth set into a pockmarked face. "This type of work is profitable. The boys are grateful."

The exploitation of Marik, Volodya and Dima exemplifies the single most unsavory element of the worldwide growth in the sex trade: an explosion in child prostitution, driven in part by the fear of AIDS. In Moscow alone an estimated 1,000 boys and girls of tender age are selling their bodies. Three years ago, police say, there were only a very few. A similar rise in child prostitution has occurred in other Russian and East European cities. In the ( Third World the numbers are also staggering: an estimated 800,000 underage prostitutes in Thailand, 400,000 in India, 250,000 in Brazil and 60,000 in the Philippines. The newest international sites for child prostitution: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China and the Dominican Republic.

Everywhere, including affluent Europe and the U.S., the pattern is the same: kids run away to escape domineering parents or because they are being physically or sexually abused, or they are kicked out because their parents can't or don't want to take care of them. Some children fall into prostitution through abduction or trickery. Easy prey, they become chattel for the sex merchants. Sasha says Marik was sold to him for a case of vodka, while he found Volodya abandoned at the Moscow railway station -- together with thousands of other youngsters who have turned the terminal into a street urchin's paradise. Once victimized by the violent gangsters and pimps who control the sex trade, most children end up addicted to alcohol or drugs. Despair is the norm; suicide is common.

At 11, Sandra Patricia has not reached puberty and yet has been a prostitute in Bogota, Colombia, for two years. The youngest of eight children, she fled an abusive stepfather for what she describes as the "dangerous but exciting" life of the streets. A recent Chamber of Commerce study concludes that the number of prostitutes ages 8 to 13 in Bogota has quintupled in the past seven years -- while government funding of programs to help youth in trouble has declined. Sandra Patricia is riddled with venereal disease; her favorite pastime is sniffing glue. "I know I'm sick," she moans, "and people treat me like dirt, and sometimes I'd just like to die."

Child prostitution is no less a product of poverty and drugs in the U.S. than it is in Colombia. Estimates of the number of U.S. prostitutes under age 18 range from 90,000 to 300,000. "The combined impact of the deterioration of the cities and the drug epidemic is driving this phenomenon forward fast," says Kenneth Klothen, head of Defense for Children International U.S.A. in Philadelphia. Poor teenagers sell their bodies to acquire drugs, jewelry or even food and household items for their families. Once initiated, says Klothen, "kids learn that they can use sex to get things in the world -- status, acceptance, material things -- or the prevention of worse things, like physical abuse."

The sex trade among children receives a further boost in the U.S. and elsewhere by the child pornography industry. In Germany annual sales of "kiddie porn" are estimated at $250 million and the number of consumers between 30,000 and 40,000. Since penalties in developed countries are severe, most dealers buy films made in Asia, where operations can be easily run from hotel rooms and where there is an abundance of potential victims in the streets.

The market for child prostitutes has always been strong, especially in Asia. In India children command a price three times that of older women, in part because of a common belief that sex with a virgin or a child cures venereal disease. "Having sex with children provides a greater sexual thrill to many men," explains I.S. Gilada, secretary-general of the Bombay-based Indian Health Organization. "They find it more titillating, and it gives them an added sense of power." To feed the sex market, tens of thousands of girls as young as 12 are recruited in Bombay and other cities; many are devadasis, "slaves of god," a distorted legacy of a 7th century religious practice in which girls were dedicated to temples for lives of dance and prayer. Today the girls pledge fealty to the goddess Renuka at puberty and then -- with the full knowledge of their parents -- are shunted off to brothels.

One of the more tragic, and ironic, reasons for the recent upswing in child prostitution is the mistaken belief that young sex partners are less likely to have AIDS. In fact, the opposite may be true. "Both boys and girls are more vulnerable to infection because they are prone to lesions and injuries in sexual intercourse," says Dr. Pers-Anders Mardh, director of the World Health Organization's Collaborating Center for Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Uppsala, Sweden. "Imagine intercourse occurring millions of times under these conditions." The AIDS epidemic alone is enough to justify a crackdown on child prostitution, says Mardh. "There is too little attention being paid to the health of these children," he says. "Yet they are playing Russian roulette with their lives."

One survey found that more than 50% of Thai child prostitutes are HIV- positive. Still, with Thai men and foreign sex tourists unaware of or unfrightened by those statistics, the country has the world's largest child sex industry, and sex mobsters go to great lengths to find virginal youngsters. Entire villages in northern Thailand along the Burmese border are almost bereft of young girls because they have been sold into prostitution, often by parents willing to sacrifice a daughter for payments that range as high as $8,000. Having exhausted the Thai supply, child traffickers have expanded recruitment into Burma and China. And when the girls are no longer useful, they are tossed away. Prostitutes returned to Burma from Thailand infected with AIDS have reportedly been locked in prisons by the military government or even killed.

A typical victim of the Thai trade in prepubescent sex is Armine Sae Li, 14. She was spirited away from northern Chiang Rai province at age 12 when child traffickers convinced her parents they would give her a good job in a beach- resort restaurant. When she reached Phuket, a center for sex tourism, she was forced into prostitution in conditions of virtual slavery until she was rescued last December by Thai police. But they arrived too late; Armine has tested HIV-positive and will die of AIDS.

During Armine's brief career as a prostitute she entertained two to three customers a night, almost all of them foreigners. In recent years Europeans, Australians, Japanese and Americans have flocked to Southeast Asia by the thousands to engage in sex acts with Thai, Filipino and Sri Lankan youngsters that would win them a jail term in their home countries.

Dozens of tourist agencies cater to this clientele, which is made up of both pedophiles and pederasts taking advantage of lax law enforcement in Third World nations. Pederasts in particular have lots of help in finding a good time in Asia, Africa or Latin America. Numerous gray-market publications and computer networks provide information. One of the most notorious guides to world sex spas for homosexuals seeking boys is called the Spartacus International Gay Guide; available since the 1970s, it is now published in Germany in several languages.

One Mecca for pederasts is Sri Lanka. "There are no ads in catalogs for sex tours, and yet people are coming for sex," says Maureen Seneviratne, an anti- child prostitution activist in Colombo. Guides to the local boy-sex scene are easy to find, she says, and the illegal trysts frequently occur behind the walls of well-guarded compounds where police never venture.

Another favorite destination is Pagsanjan in the Philippines, about 40 miles south of Manila. Many sex tourists return there again and again, and have established permanent relationships with not just the boys of the town but their families as well. According to Ronnie Velasco, secretary of the Center for the Protection of Children in Pagsanjan, the wealthiest pederasts buy homes, businesses, automobiles and other expensive items for the boys' parents. Some even "adopt" boys and take them home to Europe or America.

Tourism whose sole aim is the exploitation of children is so out in the open that a new organization has sprung up to combat it: ECPAT, or End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism. Founded three years ago by three Asia-based Christian groups, ECPAT now has offices in 14 nations -- there are four in the U.S. -- and extensive links with religious and social organizations around the world dedicated to fighting child prostitution. Pressure by ECPAT and groups like it have already had some impact; in 1992 the Philippine government adopted a Child Protection Code to guard against child abuse. And Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai has announced a campaign to wipe out child prostitution.

But few expect much to come of such efforts. Rather, attempts to suppress the trade have shifted to the First World nations that supply the clients. "We live in a world of contradictions, lies and cowardice," says Francois Lefort, a French priest and doctor who has fought child prostitution throughout the world. "This problem is not just Bangkok's, Colombo's, Manila's. It's Paris', Brussels', Rome's. It's the nice, respectable white man who goes down there to molest these kids."

Officials have recently taken the point to heart. In Australia the government has declared war on illicit sex tourism, and the federal police have been targeting travel agencies catering to pedophiles. Germany is expected to pass a law by the end of the summer that for the first time would make patrons of foreign child prostitutes violators of German law, as is already the case in France and the Scandinavian countries. "Sexual abuse of children is a crime, worldwide, and will be prosecuted by criminal law," warned German Bundestag President Rita Sussmuth in an address opening a May ECPAT conference in Stuttgart.

In Britain 153 members of Parliament so far have signed a motion introduced in January asking Thailand to take action to stamp out sex tourism. "The Thai government has come down hard on foreigners who try to smuggle drugs into the country," M.P. Nigel Evans told the House of Commons. "I only wish that they would come down equally hard on foreigners visiting Thailand to prey on the children of that country." Britons are apparently well represented among such % visitors. In 1991 83% of all British tourists to the Philippines, and 80% of all visitors to the Philippines, were men.

One effective fighter against sexploitation of children is the Task Force to End Child Exploitation in Thailand, a coalition of 24 government and private agencies dedicated to exposing links between Europe and the child sex trade in Bangkok. Last year the group disclosed the existence of a Swiss network of airline-ticket agencies catering to European pedophiles; one was shut down. Then last August the task force focused on Lauda Air, the Austrian-based airline owned by former auto-racing champ Niki Lauda, for running a caricature in its in-flight magazine that allegedly promoted child sex tourism.

Lauda Air reluctantly agreed to withdraw the offending magazine from circulation, saying that the cartoonist's intention had been misinterpreted. Was the illustration a come-on aimed at pedophiles? Let the reader judge: the ad consisted of a mock postcard. On one side was a drawing of a bare-breasted little girl in a heart-shaped frame with the inscription "From Thailand with Love." The greeting on the back, signed by "Werner, Gunter, Fritzl, Morsel and Joe," read, "Got to close now. The tarts in the Bangkok Baby Club are waiting for us."