Reports are circulating out of Afghanistan of the return of Bacha Bazi, the centuries-old practice of trafficking in pre-teen and teenage boys as sex slaves for wealthy businessmen and warlords. Afghans refer to this as Boy Play. The young boys are kidnapped into this trade, or sometimes sold by their parents who are desperate for money. The boys are then dressed as young girls, placed in auction, and kept as permanent sex slaves by their owner. When they are too old to serve this purpose, they often wind up back in the sex trade as prostitutes, since socially they are too stigmatized to find any other employment.
The puzzlement behind Bacha Bazi has always been why it has persisted for so long in Afghanistan, a culture so homophobic that men suspected of being gay can be found in a street gutter with their throats slit. In fact, it is not at all clear that the wealthy and powerful men who buy these boys are homosexuals themselves. One theory holds that the boys are so quickly and thoroughly feminized that they are not viewed by society as boys at all, but as young girls. Supporting this theory is the fact that in Afghanistan a young boy who has been raped is marked for life as feminine. There may therefore be no shame for a rich man to own one or more male sex slaves.
For this theory to have validity, something must also be destructive in the traditional male-female relationship, and Afghan men do seem to hold decidedly medieval attitudes toward women. Betrothal commonly takes place at age ten, when a young girl’s family consents to the marriage after negotiations with the family of the prospective groom. The marriage takes place at age sixteen or later, and is a family and tribal affair binding all parties together as one community. At this point the bride is for all purposes the property of her husband. She is not permitted out of the house alone and in public she must be covered by the burkha. She may be punished at whim, and women in unhappy marriages who flee their husband are frequently found dead (sometimes at the hand of her own family who will not tolerate the disgrace of her return). Women in these desperate circumstances are not able to work to support themselves, since girls are rarely given any formal education in Afghanistan. Hence if they cannot return to their family, they find their only avenue is prostitution.
The very low social status of women makes Bacha Bazi more acceptable, since young boys who are viewed as women are viewed as property, and of equally low social status. Boy Play holds an advantage for the wealthy politician or businessman who can afford a boy sex slave: there are no complicated family and tribal linkages that need to be established. The practice is strictly commercial for the owner (despite the fact that it is technically illegal), and affords the owner the pleasures of sex without the social complications that a formal marriage to a young girl would entail.
Bacha Bazi is most logically explained as the perverse outgrowth of a society that demeans women socially as inferior to men, that does not allow single men and women opportunities to meet and develop an emotional attachment that would lead to marriage, that ordains marriage as a social contract arranged by the parents of the bride and groom, and that can prove to be an unnecessary burden for a rich and powerful man who can much more easily find sexual satisfaction elsewhere.
Lest we tsk tsk our way into a condemnation of Afghanistan for this primitive and grossly immoral sexual exploitation, we should ask ourselves whether we have heard of this practice before. Does there exist a society where grown men are deprived of sexual relations with women, where women are viewed as inferior beings, and where such men are in a position to extract sex from young boys?
Hmmm. Let us hope Pope Benedict XVI would answer this question differently today than even a few weeks ago. He obviously runs an organization with its own version of Boy Play ”“ let’s call it Altar Boy Play. Altar Boy Play may have been going on for centuries within the Catholic Church, but it certainly appears to be an endemic problem since the 1950s. The scandalous behavior of hundreds of pedophile priests seemed to be concentrated at first in the United States and Canada, but it has now become evident that European dioceses have had similar problems for decades. Apparently Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was closely involved in these cases as Archbishop of Munich, and later on as a high Vatican official he seemed to be the instigator of the policy of secrecy that has proven now to be such a failure.
Altar Boy Play is a distinct form of sex exploitation. The parish priest guilty of such pedophilia almost always has taken advantage of his position as a trusted religious authority to induce young boys to accompany him on trips or outings where he can molest these boys. In a number of cases the abuse of an individual boy has gone on for years, almost as if the priest has purchased a sex slave. The priest has no technical ownership of the boy, but the moral stature of the priest is such that he needs no exchange of cash to molest an Altar Boy, just as he often enforces a code of silence on the youth.
The one difference between Bacha Bazi and Altar Boy Play is that the priests involved are homosexual. The overwhelming number of gay men who are priests has been explained by the priests themselves as a direct result of the Church’s condemnation of homosexuality as sinful and disordered. Young boys who enter a confessional and admit to their sexual inclinations toward other males are told they must never succumb to their sexual drives because of the grave sin involved. Some of them have been asked to consider the priesthood as a life of celibacy and sacrifice that will give them the strength to deny their sexual nature, but even if this is not suggested to them, it is a natural conclusion many of them reach.
Hence the large number of gay men in the priesthood, and of the hundreds of thousands of active priests in the Church, a small number have victimized young boys by the thousands. The reaction of the Church to these crimes has almost always been denial and throwing the blame on the victim as a tempter who lured the priest into sinful behavior. This is the exact reaction we are getting out of the Vatican now with the latest accusations from Europe ”“ these claims are said to be part of a plot to undermine Pope Benedict. Eventually the Vatican will do what the Church has consistently done: negotiate a settlement with the victims, offer some form of apology, and hope to move on.
What Pope Benedict should really do is make a trip to Afghanistan and learn what he can about Bacha Bazi. He should take note of the similarities in practice between Afghanistan culture and the culture of the Catholic Church. He should ask himself whether the Church has any hope of eliminating Altar Boy Play once and for all if it doesn’t do something to provide its priests with normal, adult sexual outlets. This means abolishing celibacy, and dealing with the consequences of priests having children of their own with a potential claim on Church property. This also means ending the denigration of women as less equal than men, and opening up the priesthood to them as well.
There are indications that Bacha Bazi can be traced back in Afghanistan to the 16th century. Coincidentally, celibacy was introduced to the Catholic Church in the early 16th century. Is it any surprise that both cultures are dealing today with the exact same issue regarding sexual exploitation of young boys? They only way to end these crimes is to establish massive cultural change in both societies. This is not something Hamid Karzai can do with the stroke of a pen, but oddly enough, the Pope can. We will know soon enough whether he sees the issue for what it is ”“ a manifestation of a different type of ”œintrinsic disorder” within the Church culture itself, namely celibacy ”“ and whether he has the courage to change it.