Boys will be boys, so they say (and by de-fault I suppose girls will be girls!).
Where I live in Cambodia, there is a popular proverb that, ‘a girl is like a piece of cloth, if thrown in the dirt then she is soiled for ever compared to a boy who is like a lump of gold, it simply needs washing and it is clean and restored’.
Both of these descriptions can be unhelpful. For the girl, in a fatalistic culture this can mean that there is a hopelessness that she can never be fully restored. She is seen as totally vulnerable and weak, with no agency to restore her life. If she has been raped she may as well become a prostitute. For the boy there is no recognition that abuse can impact him. He should be strong and asking for help would be a sign of weakness. He is seen as totally resilient and self sufficient. As a result there is barely any recognition that sexual abuse of a boy and exploitation even exists (see research papers “I never thought it could happen to boys’ and ‘What about Boys?’.
But before we point the finger at this alien cultural context and tut tut, ‘how they could be so unfair?’ let us look at some of of our cultural perspectives and see how that is impacting the way we see the sexual exploitation of boys compared to girls. Consider for a moment the story of sleeping beauty, a girl in the top of a castle, so vulnerable that she can do nothing for herself but wait to be rescued by the knight in shining armour. In comparison is the story of Aladdin, a roguish character who is loved by most all. if we are honest most men rather aspire to this character, free to go wherever he likes and surviving off his wits. He doesn’t need anyone and can survive whatever is thrown at him. He is all about resilience and nothing about vulnerability whereas the sleeping beauty is all about vulnerability and nothing about resilience. So the Cambodian proverb may not be so different from what we ourselves believe in our own culture.
What does this mean when we consider supporting programs working with boys? Well the reality is that it is harder to persuade people that boys really need help. I have spoken to people who really can’t see why time and energy should be invested in work with boys. The impression is that, ‘They can look after themselves’. Although there are many reports and talk about sexual exploitation of children, they actually mean sexual exploitation of girls. Chab Dai is a network of anti trafficking NGO’s in Cambodia. Of their 52 members, only four currently tackle the sexual exploitation of boys. Most boys who are sexually exploited are in that situation because there are few other choices and need to support their families and pay off debts but the consequences of sexual exploitation for boys are violence, stigma, shame as well as HIV and STIs. When offered an alternative many are quick to take it. To see our own work with boys, visit www.love146.org/prevention/asia/boys. Please help us to help boys move beyond our unhelpful myths.