Some of you may have thought Bangkok, Buddhism, amazing food, “The Land of Smiles,” or beautiful beaches. But for a lot of people, the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Thailand is prostitution and sex tourism. Thailand is known as the sex tourism capital of the world, home to some of the largest red light districts in the world, and an immense industry that thrives off of tourists who come to Thailand specifically for sex. Bangkok is the epicenter of this tourism. So living here and having a roommate who is passionate about working against human trafficking and sexual exploitation, I have had the opportunity to learn a lot – and also see a lot – regarding this topic.
To begin, I have seen signs of sex tourism everywhere; in fact it’s difficult to avoid, and something that all of us exchange students have become accustomed to seeing, though it may not have been obvious at first. Whether it’s walking on the street, walking past a bar, or in a hotel, signs of sex tourism are everywhere. It is so common here, that any foreign male with a Thai woman immediately sends off signals in my mind. I know it’s not a fair judgment to make, but nonetheless it has become second nature. Without even thinking, I look for signs of the relationship between the foreigner and Thai: in a transaction situation the man and woman will not be talking at all; they are not affectionate toward each other, and clearly have difficulty communicating. Sometimes you see the women being treated poorly – being ordered around by the male she is with. In the US we often think of sex work as a one-time transaction, and while those situations do exist here, the tourism surrounding sex is much more developed here. There are particular streets in Bangkok, which contain concentrations of bars where women dance, strip or are simply there to try and get a man to buy her a drink with the hopes of something more later in the evening. These women are sometimes there by their own free will, or sometimes have been trafficked there from other countries.
You know you are in one of those areas when you walk past a bar that is filled with Thai women, and foreign men, each paired up together drinking and talking. But sometimes these transactions aren’t just one time. Some men who are in Thailand for a longer period of time will hire a Thai woman to stay with him for the duration of his stay, whether that be one week or one month. Therefore, you don’t see these signs only in the red light districts of Bangkok, but you also see them at hotels on vacation, on the BTS, in restaurants and while traveling. Many of the Thai women working in Bangkok come from the Northeastern province of Thailand called Issan, which is the poorest province in the country. Girls are sent to Bangkok with the hopes of finding a job and making a lot of money to send back to her parents. Some families know what awaits their daughter, though most do not. Sadly, part of the reason that girls are sent to work actually reflects the Buddhist religion in Thailand. Children are expected, through their good deeds, to gain karma for their parents’ afterlife. Most boys do this by doing small stint as a monk, and girls are expected to do this by earning money.
I recently had the opportunity to visit a fantastic organization in Bangkok that works in one of the red light districts. They essentially employ women who have chosen to leave sex work to make various handy crafts, though their main focus is jewelry. The organization’s primary mode of operation is to build relationships with women. The organization does not force anything on the women, but simply creates relationships based on trust by talking with the women in the bars, and letting the women know that they are a constant resource if they ever do want help leaving the business. The problem is that women working in the sex industry make approximately twice as much as they would working for this non-profit organization (of course this varies depending on what type of work the women are doing in sex work). The fact is that this type of work will always pay more than work outside the industry.
I have to say though one of the most interesting and awful things I learned through my visit with the organization is that most of the bars located on the particular street that they work on, are owned by foreigners, particularly Americans. In fact, for 60% of male foreigners entering Thailand through the airport, sex tourism will be a part of their visit to Thailand, according to one statistic. This is absolutely not just a “Thai” problem, but an international problem.