Bacha Bazi – Boy Play in Afghanistan, and Elsewhere

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.

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Numerian is a devoted author and poster on The Agonist, specializing in business, finance, the global economy, and politics. In real life he goes by the non-nom de plume of Garrett Glass and hides out in Oak Park, IL, where he spends time writing novels on early Christianity (and an occasional tract on God and religion). You can follow his writing career on his website,

22 CommentsLeave a comment

  • comment

    the priests involved are homosexual

    these priests are paedophiles, child abusers.

    They may have homosexual tendencies sublimated due to celibacy, but they abuse children.

    They may have heterosexual yearnings in adult relationships.

    I totally agree that the overthrow of celibacy cannot come soon enough.

  • This is the analysis at least as presented over here. Their homosexual tendencies are not sublimated due to celibacy. These pedophiles engage in adult same-sex affairs and also abuse children. You are correct of course that they need to be thought of first and foremost as child abusers.

    Where you have an important point, though, is that it would be very out of character for gay men to sexually abuse young boys. I’ve seen one study recently on pedophiles in the general US population who abuse boys, and well over 98% of them are heterosexual. I think the data used was FBI crime data, but the incidence of a gay man abusing a young boy is actually very rare. The public image of these pedophiles is, of course, the complete opposite, based on the narrative that the far right has created which says that homosexuals are out to recruit children to the “lifestyle”.

    The reports we have about these pedophilic priests come from police records, legal depositions, press articles, and church studies. Of course, these reports could be in error and reflect the general public bias that these pedophiles are gay, but that is what we have at the moment.

  • I was just thinking recently how much the Mayor Of Kabul looks like a pedo… With his snappy garments, crisp little chapeau, oh-so whimsical, little smile and totally corrupt and morally bankrupt leadership.

  • Excellent article, Numerian. It provides much food for thought. It would appear that there are two issues involved in this human drama: the subjugation of women and sexual repression.

    Apparently in Holland, nuns have also been implicated in the sexual abuse of little boys under their charge in a boarding school (I remember Raja posted an article on this).

    Tolerating prostitution is tolerating abuse and torture of women and children.

  • You take us to a very foreign land to show us what’s happening in our own culture.

    It’s hard to conceive of homophobic elite whose members buy young boys then feminize them for sexual gratification. People who engage in such activities are distorted beyond repair, I’m afraid.

    We’ll see what the pope does about the Legion of Christ and the founder’s followers who participated in the gross perversions of doctrine, faith, and the youth of the church.

  • And hope the problem goes away.

    A combination of denial, unwillingness to accept blame, and an institution run by arrogant old men with no energy to mmake changes.

    Papal infallability my ass.

  • and of the Spartans. Young recruits were frequently paired with older soldiers. The word “greek” has an alternative meaning that likely originates from this Spartan practice.

    As for Bacha-bazi, James Michener’s novel Caravan had a few things to say about this practice. IIRC, there was a quote to the effect “women are for breeding, boys are for pleasure”.

  • This is also related to child rearing practices in which baby boys are secluded (imprisoned)with the women until they are old enough to join male company. A lot of psychological wiring is done by the time one is 6 or 7 years old…especially when one considers the amount of sexplay that inevitably goes on in suffocating imprisoned conditions such as the harem.
    This is magnified when women in the family are available mostly for breeding purposes because pleasure sex is available elsewhere.
    The RC Church still has a lot of the embedded values and practices of the 3rd Century Roman Empire whose form in took with Constantine. Low status males (children and slaves) as sex objects was common throughout the ancient world…and of course it was a given for women.
    A little trip through 3rd Century Roman domestic life might be pretty familiar to any Afghan. And to a lot of people in the west who are still trapped in tribal thinking.
    It’s actually a fascinating topic other than the huge amount of pain for the people involved.

  • It’s an incredible institution and franchise, as well. Here’s the dilemma. Benedict II was previously the “cleaner” for this affair. As I read about it, it seemed like he’d done the job, which is documented I believe, of moving people around to keep this quiet as opposed to tossing them out. That was a compromise, a tragic one for countless children. Then Benedict II had the chance when Maciel (founder of the Legion of Christ) and accused by more than a few of molesting children)was found out to have children by a mistress, he did something. But not enough. Why? Because to end the order Marciel started and confront the truth would take down John Paul II, whose behavior toward Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, was adoring.

    Talk about fallibility. That’s something that would really gum up their works big time. Failing to do so will also gum up the works. It’s an end game of sorts because the story won’t go away.

    See this on Father Maciel and also the photo, which is “damning.”

  • Statements by a pope that exercise papal infallibility are referred to as solemn papal definitions or ex cathedra teachings. These should not be confused with teachings that are infallible because of a solemn definition by an ecumenical council, or with teachings that are infallible in virtue of being taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. For details on these other kinds of infallible teachings, see Infallibility of the Church.

    According to the teaching of the First Vatican Council and Catholic tradition, the conditions required for ex cathedra teaching are as follows:

    1. “the Roman Pontiff”
    2. “speaks ex cathedra” (“that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….”)
    3. “he defines”
    4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
    5. “must be held by the whole Church” (Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4)

    For a teaching by a pope or ecumenical council to be recognized as infallible, the teaching must make it clear that the Church is to consider it definitive and binding. There is not any specific phrasing required for this, but it is usually indicated by one or both of the following:

    * a verbal formula indicating that this teaching is definitive (such as “We declare, decree and define…”), or
    * an accompanying anathema stating that anyone who deliberately dissents is outside the Catholic Church.

    They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm.

  • “anyone who deliberately dissents is outside the Catholic Church”

    This is a grab bag for all Papal actions.

    De facto all papal pronouncement are infallible, because none dear test the limits. As in all feudal, authoritarian, institutions.

  • The times that papal pronouncements have been held to be infallible can almost be counted on one hand.

    It is incorrect to hold that doctrine teaches that the Pope is infallible in everything he says. In reality, the invocation of papal infallibility is extremely rare.

    Catholic theologians agree that both Pope Pius IX’s 1854 definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Pope Pius XII’s 1950 definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary are instances of papal infallibility, a fact which has been confirmed by the Church’s magisterium [2]. However, theologians disagree about what other documents qualify.

    Regarding historical papal documents, Catholic theologian and church historian Klaus Schatz made a thorough study, published in 1985, that identified the following list of ex cathedra documents (see Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium, by Francis A. Sullivan, chapter 6):

    * “Tome to Flavian”, Pope Leo I, 449, on the two natures in Christ, received by the Council of Chalcedon;
    * Letter of Pope Agatho, 680, on the two wills of Christ, received by the Third Council of Constantinople;
    * Benedictus Deus, Pope Benedict XII, 1336, on the beatific vision of the just prior to final judgment;
    * Cum occasione, Pope Innocent X, 1653, condemning five propositions of Jansen as heretical;
    * Auctorem fidei, Pope Pius VI, 1794, condemning seven Jansenist propositions of the Synod of Pistoia as heretical;
    * Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX, 1854, defining the immaculate conception; and
    * Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII, 1950, defining the assumption of Mary.

    For modern-day Church documents, there is no need for speculation as to which are officially ex cathedra, because the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can be consulted directly on this question. For example, after Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone) was released in 1994, a few commentators speculated that this might be an exercise of papal infallibility (for an example, see [3]). In response to this confusion, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has unambiguously stated, on at least three separate occasions [4] [5] [6], that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis although not an ex cathedra teaching (i.e., although not a teaching of the extraordinary magisterium), is indeed infallible, clarifying that the content of this letter has been taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.[10]

    The Vatican itself has given no complete list of papal statements considered to be infallible. A 1998 commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem, written by Cardinals Ratzinger (the later Pope Benedict XVI) and Bertone, the prefect and secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, listed a number of instances of infallible pronouncements by popes and by ecumenical councils, but explicitly stated (at no. 11) that this was not meant to be a complete list.[7]

    The number of infallible pronouncements by ecumenical councils is significantly greater than the number of infallible pronouncements by popes.

    Of note, considering the other content of this thread, the emphasis added passage above indicates that gender parity is extremely unlikely. So, to the extent that gender disparity causes pederasty, the latter’s incidence will be harder to reduce.

    Update – who knew? Bishops can also be infallible…

    Whenever the Bishops dispersed in their individual Dioceses in communion with the Successor of Peter teach a truth to be held in a definitive way (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 25, 2), they enjoy the same infallibility as the Pope’s ex cathedra Magisterium or that of a Council.

    They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm.

  • A former priest friend of mine offers still another — and unexplored perspective. Most priests of his generation (and mine) started their studies as adolescents. Celibacy being one of the job requirements, the priesthood is going to seem a rational career choice for boys who aren’t interested in girls, but may not have caught on yet that their attraction is just same-gender. And — having shut down their sexual maturity at an early age — when they do come to the self-realization of their sexuality, they’re basically “starting from where they left off” — some becoming fixated on what would be attractive to a 15 or 16 year old boy, but creepy (and of course illegal to act upon) for a 40, 50, 60 year old man.

  • Is it also possible that sexual maturity and awareness occurred later for someone growing up in the 60s than twenty or thirty years later? Most of the surveys back then indicated that sexual experimentation and loss of virginity occurred after high school for many teens growing up in the 60s. This would mean that seminarians might have had no sexual experiences before going into the seminary, after which as you point out they had a delayed realization, maybe even in their twenties, that they were attracted to men. At which point, they identify with teenage boys and not with men of their own age.

  • The Daily Dish, By Andrew Sullivan, March 25

    What’s fascinating in the steady onslaught of new incidences of previous cover-ups of child rape and molestation in the Catholic hierarchy is the notion that the hierarchs tended to see child rape as a sin rather than a crime. Hence the emphasis on forgiveness, therapy, repentance – rather than removal, prosecution and investigation. Obviously, there’s one reason for this: they were defending the reputation of the church by hiding its darkest secrets, and they were using the authority of religion to do so. But I suspect it’s also true that this is how they genuinely thought of child rape or abuse.

    How could that be, one asks? Well: imagine you are a young gay Catholic teen coming into his sexuality and utterly convinced that it’s vile and evil. What do you do? I can tell you from my own experience. You bury it. But of course, you can’t bury it. So you objectify sex; and masturbate. You cannot have sexual or even emotional contact with a teenage girl, because it is simply impossible, and you certainly cannot have sex with another teenage boy or you will burn in hell for ever … so you have sex with images in your own head. Your sex life becomes completely solitary. It can be empowered by pornography or simply teenage imagination. Some shard of beauty, some aspect of sensuality, some vision of desire will keep you sexually energized for days.

    Now suppose your powers of suppression and attachment to religious authority are also strong – perhaps stronger because you feel so adrift you need something solid to cling onto in your psyche. And you know you cannot marry a woman. But you want to have status and cover as a single man. If this is the 1950s and 1960s, it’s into the Church you go. You think it will cure you. In fact, it only makes you sicker because your denial is buttressed by their collective denial. And the whole thing becomes one big and deepening spiral of lies and corruption.

    Many of these tormented men have arrested sexual and emotional development. They have never had a sexual or intimate relationship with any other human being. Sex for them is an abstraction, a sin, not an interaction with an equal. And their sexuality has been frozen at the first real moment of internal terror: their early teens. So they tend to be attracted still to those who are in their own stage of development: teenage boys. And in their new positions, they are given total access to these kids who revere them for their power.

    They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm.

  • Pandagon, by Amanda Marcotte, April 10

    There’s been a lot of speculation about the role of the vow of celibacy in the priest child rape scandals. It ranges from the irresponsible (suggesting that rape is the result of sexual frustration, instead of the will to dominate) to the more interesting (that celibacy contorts sexuality, or that celibacy attracts criminal deviants who need cover). But most of this speculation misses the point, because it focuses on the role celibacy plays for offenders. It gives defenders of the Catholic church—who are becoming one with rape apologists very quickly—ammo to minimize the situation, because they can point to churches without celibacy requirements that nonetheless have child rape problems. And it turns attention away from the biggest issue here, which is the institutional support and protection the Catholic church has offered to child rapists. Rapists are extremely opportunistic criminals, and are far less likely to offend if they think they’re going to face consequences. So if you, like the Catholic church, offer protection and support, you’re basically encouraging rape.

    None of this is to say that we shouldn’t look at celibacy as a reason this has all happened. But I’d like to think big picture. Instead of talking about how celibacy affected individual rapists, let’s talk about how celibacy encouraged institutional protection for rapists.

    It’s not a secret that the Catholic church has a staffing issue. It’s pathetic how desperate they are for priests, even trying to talk up the “cool” factor—as if!

    One owes respect to the living. To the dead, one owes only the truth.

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