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Inside the Thai Sex Trade

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When I would walk along Sukhumvit Road, the street where most expatriates lived and tourists frequented while in Bangkok, and then wind my way down to the side street of Soi Cowboy, where sex tourists and local businessmen sought out their nightly entertainment, I’d be accosted not only by fluorescent lights, but by morality.

I’d stop and peer into dark, makeshift bars spread out like an aisle of sin with black lights that lit up the faces of young girls. Their hipless figures stood out from short skirts or bathing suits while in high heels which they maneuvered like little girls playing dress-up in their mother’s closet. Once the customers chose one bar over fifty others, the bar girls would hang on the shoulders and waists of these old men with protruding guts on holiday from the West, and then try to get overpriced drinks bought for them that included a kickback to the bar.

I’d stand watching in wonder as to how old the bar girls were. It didn’t matter how long I had lived or traveled in Asia or how well I was getting to know its women, I still could never gauge their age. Asian girls had this way of holding their hands over their mouths to giggle as if they were all fifteen years old, even when they were thirty. I wanted to know how many of these girls were actually underage girls, who had been trafficked in as slaves, and how many had come here on their own free will as a choice for a better life. I didn’t want to believe either option, but the reality was that in Asia, they co-existed.

UNICEF estimates that 1.2 million children under eighteen years of age are trafficked every year, with a third of them in Asia. More than thirty million children have been traded in Asia and the Pacific region alone over the last three decades—and the numbers are rising. Most come from the poorer regions of Thailand, the Northeast provinces, where constant droughts and pittance wages force them into the idea of a new life in the big city of Bangkok. If the girls work in the beer or go-go bars, they can earn anywhere from 2,000–30,000 baht a month (around $60 to just over $900 per month), depending on the status of the club, with the latter figure equaling far more than what the average Southeast Asian makes in one year. Others are trafficked from the region or from the poorer neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia. These are young girls who may not be getting an education, who work in the fields, and then are told false stories of empty dreams. They and their parents might sign contracts for the girls to go work as waitresses or domestic workers in the city, and then the girls spend years trying to flee their plight as indentured slaves in the sex trade. Those who do escape may eventually get caught and charged with a crime.

This was true of one case study involving nineteen-year-old, Pheap, from Cambodia, who explains her story on The Asia Foundation’s counter-trafficking multilingual Web site, TIPinAsia (Anti Trafficking In Persons in Asia).  

“Two months later, the owner of [a] food shop tried to force me to wear a short skirt and work late at night. I didn’t agree to wear a short skirt. But after one week of torture from the owner of [the] food shop, being raped by a gang, and deceived to lose my virginity, I decide to agree to what the owner said and entertain customers. I felt I could not return home anymore and I was in despair. One year later, I and my three Laotian friends escaped from the food shop and filed a complaint against the owner at the police station. In the end, I was detained for three months on charges of illegal migration.”

According to the WHO, forced sexual intercourse and other forms of violence involving touch among boys and girls under the age of eighteen, is 73 million (7 percent) and 150 million (14 percent) worldwide. Since 2003, thousands of people have contributed to a United Nations Secretary-General’s Study on Violence Against Children through the use of questionnaires and other research methods in consultations and working groups. In October of 2006, the UN General Assembly was beginning to take in the study’s recommendations.   

Another night in Bangkok, I was invited by an English-teaching colleague to a go-go bar dance contest. He had spawned from Los Angeles, had married a Thai woman, and wanted to include me in something other than karaoke or a trip to the islands for the weekend. With two guy friends visiting from San Francisco who I knew would get a kick out of the invitation, I accepted. My English-teaching friend warned me that there would be plenty of drool along with cigars from the Western men in the audience, while the girls would be in their skimpy bikinis on the stage. My inquiring mind accepted it as a kind of personal research assignment. When we arrived, I watched my colleague walk around with a video camera while the girls each took their turn on the stage. In the end, a girl with a tiny frame who wore a lime green bikini, with shiny black hair and a gorgeous smile, won the prize. I quietly asked my colleague how old she was, which he mouthed to me. One of my guy friends became another drooler and looked up at her as she received her trophy on stage. “Whoa,” he said. “She’s hot.” I abandoned my objective lens and shot back, “She’s fourteen.”

The Asia Foundation is headquartered in San Francisco with offices all over Asia, and is just one of many NGOs working on why girls like the one above get to the bar industry, and how to prevent others from doing so. They came out with a study and database in May of 2006, which assessed a decade of data and case studies of human trafficking in Cambodia, called the Review of a Decade of Research on Trafficking in Persons, Cambodia. The report is a comprehensive assessment of over seventy research studies, highlighting what is and what is not known about human trafficking in Cambodia, along with a database that will allow counter-trafficking stakeholders to share their findings by being able to add comments to each report and submit their own reports directly through a new website interface. I saw that even with all of their research, The Asia Foundation still asked the same questions that I had and stated in the Review, “This makes it all the more important to be explicit in determining how to identify trafficking for prostitution. Is a woman who was deceived into sex work but chooses to stay (still) a “victim of trafficking”? Is a woman who indentures herself “trafficked”? While such distinctions may appear irrelevant, they are crucial if the research is to be rigorous in estimating the magnitude of the problem and helpful in considering program and policy responses.”

Jonathan Morris, an American translator who has worked with NGOs close to the cause and has lived in Northern Thailand for eight years, helped clarify the above questions through our conversation over email. In translating interviews with women who have been sex workers, Jonathan said that it did break down both ways. “I would say most entry into the sex industry was semi-voluntary. That is, while there was some of just throwing a girl in a room and saying she will have sex with a customer, there was also a lot of, ‘Today you are a day waitress, tomorrow you are a night waitress, why don’t you sit with that customer because he looks like he’ll give you a good tip?’  Then it just all goes from there.”

Where it goes is that many women decide the money is good enough that they stick to the path, or stay in it in hopes of meeting a farang, or Western man, who will marry them and care for them and their family. Jonathan agreed. “I would say that the vast majority of girls in the sex industry in Thailand enter via free will, even if economic pressures or just general unfairness toward women motivates it. One woman, who I know pretty well, had a bachelor’s degree and was very upfront about her reasoning.  She said something to the effect of ‘Look, I have a choice, I could make 6,500 baht being treated like crap in a government office or I can make 30,000 baht a month here having fun [she worked at a tourist bar in Phuket]. I view this as just a short-cut to what I want to do.’ She said she was just short-timing it in the industry, but I am not entirely convinced that there is much short-timing in the industry beyond getting married to someone much, much wealthier than yourself.”

And the sex trade isn’t stopping at Asian borders. It’s now exporting itself onto other continents. Human reported last week that twenty Thai women, all in their mid-twenties, would be deported back to Thailand after going to South Africa on a thirty-day visa exemption to serve local customers. The demand has brought the supply, but the reasons are all the same, since the women said in their statement that “they were destitute in their home country and came to South Africa to improve their financial situation.”



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