Shining A Bright Light On The Invisible Boys Of Chiang Mai

In Thailand, about 30% of those affected by sex trafficking are men and boys.

Urban Light
Facebook: Urban Light




The power of self-determination attributed to the will; the quality of being independent of fate or necessity.

According to the International Labor Organization, there are approximately 40.3 million people living in modern-day slavery around the world, 7.6 million of which are estimated to be victims of sex trafficking. To the average onlooker, most trafficked people are hidden in plain sight.

Thailand is a key destination for tourists and migrants alike, but unfortunately, with its relatively high wages and  central location, it is used as a hub for human trafficking in the Mekong region (United Nations Action for Cooperation Against Trafficking in Persons). In Thailand, about 30% of those affected by sex trafficking are men and boys (UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons). It is possible that this percentage is even higher, considering that the number of male victims often goes under-reported due to long-standing social discourses around male sexuality, dominance, and behavior. This gender bias, rooted in the assumption that men and boys cannot be vulnerable to sexual exploitation, deeply hinders societal understandings surrounding male victimization and impedes boys’ willingness to seek help.

While empowering and educating women and girls is pivotal for the development of a society, we must also acknowledge that trafficking is a human issue. In reality, anyone can be affected by trafficking and exploitation, regardless of race, age, or gender.

“This work is against what I want to do, but I have no choice. It is necessary.” – Male sex worker, Chiang Mai, Thailand.  

With a fierce filial duty, many boys migrate from hill tribe villages of Northern Thailand or bordering Myanmar to Chiang Mai to find work and send money home. Seeing as these boys are often young, stateless, and lacking in vocational skills, they are extremely vulnerable, and far too frequently fall into the hands of exploiters in Thailand’s city centers, including those at the center of the city’s underground sex trafficking system.

While visiting Chiang Mai in 2009, Alezandra Russell not only heard about these atrocities committed against a seemingly invisible population of young boys, but witnessed the exploitation first-hand. One night when walking through the red light district, Russell chose to enter one of the city’s infamous sex bars. “I immediately befriended one working boy ,” says Russell. “Through broken English, a love of soccer and the ability for me to lose gracefully at Connect Four (over 18 times!), a friendship was quickly formed.”

Russell returned to the bar every day for the next five days to chat with Oi. When the time came for her to return to the United States, she felt distraught and overwhelmed, wanting desperately to help Oi and his friends at the bar. She knew that she had to do something.

“Upon arriving back to Washington, DC I quit my job, informed my husband and family that I was going back to Thailand and quickly made arrangements to pawn my engagement and wedding rings.  I was able to use that money as start-up capital (this was before Kickstarter existed!) and just 3 months after meeting Oi, I traveled back to Chiang Mai and started Urban Light.”

Urban Light is one of the world’s only anti-human trafficking organizations to focus its efforts on helping young men break free from the grasp of exploitation. Based in the heart of the red light district in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the Urban Light drop-in center is a four-story safe haven for at-risk boys and men. A movement dedicated to restoring, rebuilding and empowering the lives of those who are so often forgotten within the dialogue of abuse and trafficking, Urban Light provides its beneficiaries with legal support, education, drug rehabilitation programs and facilities, health services, and vocational skills trainings.

On any given day at the center, the boys are encouraged to take part in a variety of skills trainings and educational activities. Impressively, the boys have learned to expertly screenprint Urban Light mantras such a “Be The Light” and “Boys Cannot Be Baht” on T-shirts and tote bags. In the time it takes to screen print 10 shirts (about an hour and a half), one of Urban Light’s beneficiaries can earn 300 THB, slightly over the minimum wage for a day’s work in Thailand.  All money donated from purchases goes directly back in to Urban Light’s programming. “I love seeing the smiles on their faces,” reflects Sophie Perl, current intern at Urban Light, “You can tell that it makes them feel really good to be creating something with their own hands.” Not only is this screenprinting activity a creative means to engage with the community, but it also gives the boys a newfound sense of confidence and independence.

Beyond the services provided at the center, Urban Light aims to stop the exploitation before it begins. Working with children and parents from local villages and construction camp sites, Urban Light strives to educate and empower youth, as well as spark a regional dialogue about the risks of sex and labor trafficking. In doing so, Urban Light hopes to prevent a new generation of young men taking the place of former boys.

Since its founding in 2010, the organization has expanded in monumental ways, shining a light on those who are too often forgotten. “Urban Light is a lifeboat for all vulnerable men in Chiang Mai whether we are serving victims of human trafficking; physical and sexual abuse; various forms of trauma; homelessness; substance abuse; previous incarceration; or street-living boys and men,” says Maia Mounsher, Thailand Director of Urban Light. As a core principle of this NGO, staff welcomes anyone who walks through Urban Light’s doors irrespective of meeting a particular set of criteria. The main target group has always been boys and young men, but Urban Light does not close its doors to anyone in need of its help. Regardless of age, gender, religion, ethnicity, prior convictions, or ability, staff recognize that trauma cannot be quantified.

With the amount of people affected by sex trafficking in the millions, it is easy to feel lost and overwhelmed. For Urban Light, calculating the problem is not the priority, but dealing with the many forms and symptoms of trauma that present themselves in each and every individual case that staff encounter every day is key. Staff strive to help victims of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation to get back on their feet again, to learn to accept and love themselves, and trust the society that has under-served them in the past, so that they can reintegrate and claim their rightful place in that society once more.

Urban Light’s participatory approach to working with a population so often left behind is paving the way for a revolutionary new era of counter-trafficking work: one that recognizes the agency, individuality, and capabilities of the people it aims to serve. With empathy, tolerance, and trust, Urban Light has been able to positively impact the lives of thousands of young men who might otherwise have nowhere else to turn. And beyond stimulating an overdue dialogue about the reality of human trafficking, Urban Light’s work invites the global community to question gender norms and engage in a broader understanding around victimhood and vulnerability.

How Can You Help?

1. Boys Are Not For Sale.

Child sex tourism is a crime – If you suspect it, report it.  If you are approached and offered sex with a child, call the child protection hotline and/or the police so that immediate action can be taken. If you see a child in trouble, just call. You won’t be bothering anyone, and you could save their life.

  • ChildSafe Hotline (Thailand): +66 86 971 8816
  • Download the police app iLert You
  • Click here to find a specific country’s child protection hotline.

2. Spread the word by sparking a dialogue about the reality of sex trafficking.

3. Don’t give money to begging children.

Most often, the money doesn’t go to children. Not only are children sent out late at night and put in dangerous situations, but they are also more likely to fall behind and drop out of school, which puts them at extremely high risk for exploitation. Instead, spend your money supporting adults who are supporting their children.

5. Donate to help Urban Light end the exploitation of boys and men in Thailand or purchase one of Urban Light’s hand-screenprinted items at the Jetset Times online shop.

6. Become an Advocate for Urban Light

Contact Urban Light for more info on how you could arrange a speaking event, campaign, or fundraiser in your local area.

Gillian Rose

Contributing Editor

Since graduating from Berkeley with a degree in international development, Gillian has lived in four continents and currently calls Tel Aviv home. She speaks five languages and is an avid traveler, foodie, and lifelong student. As a yoga, breathwork, and meditation teacher, Gillian has a deep passion for somatic healing.

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