“Arapesh was 13 or 14 when he met a man 10 years older than him at the bus station in town. Their first date was in a public toilet. Arapesh was in love with this man and they were ‘boyfriends’ for a couple of years. The man would come and pick up Arapesh at lunchtime from school and, after school when Arapesh told his parents he was out playing football, he would go out with the man. The man bought lots of presents for Arapesh and took him out for meals and for drives in his car. Arapesh was not out to his family and believed they would reject him because of their culture. After a couple of years the man asked Arapesh to help him out because he was in debt. Arapesh was asked and then expected to have sex with other men who paid his ‘boyfriend’.”
If you’ve read the story above and come to the conclusion that the young person mentioned there isn’t someone you’d ever know, is involved with men who don’t live near your city and must be someone experiencing a life a world away from your own, I’m afraid this article is going to raise some uncomfortable truths.
Even during this brief investigation, it has become startlingly clear that the LGBT community is not immune to sexual exploitation but, while many areas of society have been forced to face the issue, in this community it has become a topic that is little discussed because of fear of prejudice. This article is intended to highlight that issue with sensitivity to those fears.
It would probably help to explain some background to this piece. Thando and I first discussed this issue when we were together on a training course in South Africa. He spoke in the most straightforward and eloquent way about the particular problems facing young gay men in the townships, the term used during the apartheid area to distinguish black suburbs from those for whites.
The difficulties they faced were, in part, made all the worse because it was one of those largely unreported topics that they found hard to discuss openly and therefore it was hidden from the organisations best placed to help. He wanted to get their stories out into the public domain.
I found it a very disturbing story but, at the same time, one that seemed a world away from the everyday concerns of people in the north-east of England where I live. How wrong I was.
When I got back to the UK, we started work in our own very different localities, attempting to throw more light on the particular issues of exploitation within the LGBT community, while at the same time making every effort not to pinpoint it as an issue solely for one particular community or location. Instead we looked to uncover examples that reflect the true situation - that exploitation exists across all sectors and levels of society across the globe.
The sensitive nature of the conversations we needed to have prompted mistrust from the people approached to help with the story and this quickly proved a difficult story to investigate - even professionals and experts in the field were often reluctant to speak.
That is an understandable position - homophobia means there are those who would twist the findings of those studies into the experiences of young people to justify expressions of hatred and bigotry.
But we already know in the UK that child sexual exploitation (CSE) is an issue that doesn’t recognise race, age and sexuality. The initial reports of Pakistani men grooming white girls in horrific gangs, for example, soon gave way to reports of similar experiences in communities where the perpetrators were white, the victims were Asian, where those committing offences were celebrities, where they were churchmen, where they were pillars of society - the list goes on and, depressingly, on.
The case study at the start of this article actually features a young man from Newcastle in the UK that was revealed during five months of work by The Ace Project, but the scenario is one that Thando recognises all too well from his Cape Town vantage point.
I believe there are a lot of young black African young men who find themselves in similar situations where they conform to expectations of older men only because they wish for the other life they never had.
The activities of so-called sugar daddies and mummies i.e. older, richer sexual partners, is a common factor in the experiences of people we’ve come across.
In her report for the Trinity Youth Association in the North East of England, Deb Walker said everyone spoken to for her research could give examples of young people who were in relationships with a large age/power imbalance - “sugar daddies/mummies”.
“Youth workers, community workers and housing workers working with LGBT young people were all aware that some of the young people with whom they work, are or have been victims of CSE. Without wishing to stigmatise the young people they are painfully aware that LGBT young people are very vulnerable to CSE and that behaviour which contributes to this is considered acceptable, the norm and inevitable within the community.
Everyone interviewed could give examples of young people who as a matter of course exchanged sexual favours for drinks, a bed for the night, clothes or gadgets.
Back in Cape Town, Thando revealed the experience of a young man from a poor township background who found himself exploited.
He reports the words of a case where a 22-year-old youngster met a 76-year-old university professor.
“I sometimes cry just looking at him. Not because I am sad, but because I worry about all the other young boys he gets to do the same thing to. He told me he loved me and I fell for him. He took me to the most beautiful restaurants and theatres and we had road trips. Money was no issue, every other weekend I had hard cash for alcohol and all the things I possibly thought I needed and every time I used that money I felt like I was taking back something that I had lost because of him. I felt I lost a part of me, that he took from me. He took my youth and he robbed me of the time I could spend with someone else.”
Back in the north-east, the Ace Project, led by Prof. Catherine Donovan at the University of Sunderland, brought together practitioners from across the north-east over five months and also found examples of exploitation between women and girls. It detailed the story of a girl referred to as Nicola who met an older woman when she was 13.
“Nicola really liked the woman, she felt she had found a special friend who understood and cared about her, spoilt her and treated her like an adult, not a kid. When the woman began occasionally locking Nicola into the flat she explained it was so that nobody would find Nicola – who should have been in school. The woman even showed Nicola a hidey hole under the bed where Nicola could hide in case the police came to look for her (Nicola was reported missing regularly by her parents by now). Things changed when the woman expected Nicola to kiss and have sex with her in return for all of the money she had spent on providing drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol. Nicola didn’t feel she could say no.”
Concluding the findings, Prof. Donovan put forward 12 recommendations for practitioners working in the field, which included more training on LGBT issues, and also suggested outreach workers should be targeting gay dating sites to collect intelligence from postings from men asking for young/underage men and/or those offering to buy sex from younger boys/men.
Another of the experts who has studied the exploitation issue and has vast experience of the area is Dr Andrew Tucker. He brings a somewhat unique perspective for this article, being both familiar with the north-east of England (he was educated there) as well as now working for an organisation called Health4Men, an initiative of the Anova Health Institute in Cape Town, so I was keen to hear his thoughts on what we’d found.
The author of the book, Queer Visibilities: Space, Identity and Interaction in Cape Town, Dr Tucker said talking to the media, as he’s often asked to do, is always a balancing act - helping people understand the issue on the one hand, but being careful not to expose vulnerable people to hateful and dangerous attitudes on the other.
He pointed out that there was always going to be an instance in society generally where somebody with more power - whether that’s because they’re stronger, have more money, are more protected or just have more privilege - meets others with less, which leaves them open to exploitation.
“Some key communities do face particular vulnerabilities in society. It isn’t because there’s a pathology among them which makes them all the same. It’s actually quite dangerous to say all men who have sex with men (MSM), for instance, suffer from depression or that all MSM may be exposed to these risks of sexual abuse that we’re talking about.
“It’s important to remember that society is generally a very male heterosexual dominated society, so the fact that groups such as women, young people or gay men survive to the extent that they do, should be celebrated too.”
Please note: My half of the fee for this article is going to Barnardo’s, which does work in this area in the UK. The remainder goes to Thando.