Trigger Warning: Some descriptions may be too graphic for readers.
What's the first thought that occurs to your mind when you think of Thailand or Bangkok? Is it the Grand palaces, the floating market, or its gigantic skyscrapers? I’m guessing none of the above. The name Bangkok itself usually triggers strong imagery in people's minds, remember Russel Peters Bang-cock? Considered as the city for ‘happy endings’ and 'place for sex shenanigans' as shown in Hangover 2, you’d imagine it as the epitome for sex tourism with neon-coloured bars creating a sensual red undertone and a group of beautiful bikini-clad Thai women asking ‘what you’re looking for’. After all, it is the haven of good times and a place to do things you’d never imagine of doing, however, this glorification of Bangkok's nightlife by western countries has led to a growing illegal prostitution market.
Though illegal in most Asian countries, sex tourism is secretly booming in places such as Thailand, Phillippines and Nepal. Curious European and American tourists come to visit these exotic cities to experience a 'good time' without the concern of being identified. The sex industry in Phillippines, Thailand and Cambodia has taken advantage of this demand by creating a network of brothels that provide all kinds of sexual services the imagination can reckon.
You visit bars, watch sex shows and then take a girl of your choice to fulfil whatever fantasy you desire. This wouldn't be problematic if sex workers were legally protected and genuinely consented to sex but the reality is that most women are compelled to resort to unregulated sex work due to lack of jobs. What’s truly unsettling though, is that this has led to the rampant child-trafficking that forces younger girls into this exploitative sex trade.
What is Sex Tourism?
Sex Tourism refers to trips that people organise on the basis of the commercial sex services provided by residents of the chosen destination. There are certain countries that are popular for their commercial sex services, some are legal like Amsterdam and some illegal like Bangkok and Jamaica.
According to the US Department of State's report (2020) on human trafficking Australians are one of the groups that heavily partake in child sex tourism. A research paper, The Problem of Demand in Combating Sex Trafficking, gives insight into the type of people that indulge in the sexual exploitation of minors. It says that buyers of minors in commercial sex trades are usually described as situational, preferential or opportunistic buyers. Situational buyers choose to sexually engage with minors because they are available, vulnerable and the practice is tolerated. Preferential buyers are paedophiles that specifically prefer minors, and opportunistic buyers, are people that are willfully blind to the age or willingness of the female. This type of research signifies how widespread the exploitation of minors is in the sex trade and how sex tourism keeps getting darker the more you learn about it.
What kind of shows and fantasies does sex tourism sell?
The sex activities in the Red Light Districts in Bangkok attract tourists with titillating sex shows such as the infamous, Ping-Pong show
According to Pulitzer Center, sex entertainers perform in a human zoo-like environment constantly under the male gaze. Feminist scholar MacKinnon comments on this saying, "Pornography of Asian women in the West has been almost entirely pornography of torture. This is just presenting that in the flesh." MacKinnon also notes that there is a fetishisation of exotic women by western men. They tend to view them as more meek and naive than western women. Hence, they enjoy the kind of control they can exercise on these women.
Western men explain why they seek sex tourism
The Medium writes that sex tourists need change and to escape their routines, they travel to places where women are more ‘friendly’ and easily available to ‘do as they please’.
A few unnamed sex tourists explain why they enjoy being a sex tourist in an interview with World Travel Guide.
John, a retired Engineer from Manchester says, "It was once an exchange of money for sex but now it's money for attention, appreciation and love. I personally find Thai ladies more caring and affectionate than the ones back home." He might be holding such a perception because most sex workers are nice to their clients to please them. It’s a way of ensuring tips and recurring clients. But that doesn’t mean it’s genuine.
James, 35, an industrial electrician from Calgary, Alberta bases his fascination with Thai women since ‘They have long black hair, they age nicely and they do what I want them to do’. He explains, "Thai women are beautiful, sexy and compact and well-put-together. Dating a girl from back home is excruciatingly difficult, and they think too much. Here, it is simple, I pay them for limited sexual services, no strings attached, they go home happy and me too."
Jame’s statement, on the surface, sounds like a fair arrangement because they are both 'happy.’, however, can the men speak for the sex workers who they've only known for a night?
Some sex tourists acknowledge it’s exploitative but still indulge in it
There are some sex tourists that acknowledge how sex tourism is exploitative but still prefer to visit red-light districts. Michael, aged 39 from Australia accepts his hypocritical stance, "Of course it may appear like some kind of sexual neo-colonisation. But at the end of the day, both parties are happy, me with a fantastic night and she with a nightly wage that some people Issan (one of the poorest regions of Thailand) make in a month!" Men often think they're doing a favour by providing a livelihood to their chosen sex worker.
He continues, "If anyone is to blame, it is the men in power who in my opinion have a look the other way policy. They have recognised the problem many times, but do nothing to ensure that there are work opportunities. I'm sounding too hypocritical"
These men come and go as they please. They enter the dimly lit bars, intoxicated, for the most part, have their cake and then revert back to their 'normal' lives. But what about the women that relive the same night over and over again?
The Story of Peung, forced into sex work due to lack of economic opportunities
Women and girls from rural families form most of the sex worker population in Thailand. Even for the educated city dwellers, there is a severe lack of economic opportunities in these Asian cities. Many high school graduates aren't able to get jobs since jobs require degrees, even ones as doable as working at a fast-food outlet. A call centre job is an option but women often lack a high level of proficiency in English for qualifying for such a job.
"Peung" (her stage name) is one such case as she narrated her story to the Pulitzer Center. Peung dropped out of school in the sixth-grade to financially support her family. She looked for jobs in car factories but unfortunately, each one she worked at got shut down. Dejected by the economic downturn in her hometown, she travelled to Phuket. It’s there that she found the infamous Spicy Club at Patong Road, her gateway into the world of sex tourism.
She explains how harrowing her first time felt as a young girl, "The first time I performed, I was so shy. I was so scared. I felt so ashamed. I just wanted to cry." At Spicy Club, Peung earns a monthly salary of 6000 Thai Bhatt (USD$ 181) and gets two days off from work. Through this line of work, she is able to send money back home. However, her family has no inkling of her real profession similar to most of her colleagues who lead this double life to keep their profession hidden from their family.
The forgotten generation: Children born out of one-night stands
Since prostitution is illegal in popular sex tourism destinations, sex workers don't have access to birth-control measures. It is up to the tourist to use a condom at his discretion. Often they don't by the virtue of either being too drunk or their lack of concern for the sex worker’s sexual health. These sex tourists often leave behind offspring born out of the sex trade. People refer to them as the 'stolen' or 'forgotten' generation because the sex tourists (the father) often abandon them with a stolen future that could have been. According to the Guardian, almost 40 to 50 per cent of Phillippines sex workers conceive kids from a sex tourist, who reject to support or acknowledge them.
The Guardian reported the story of "Francine", a 7-year-old- girl, born of an Australian father. He met her mother outside the Angeles Town at a dance bar. Her mother claims that the Australian sex tourist has a family abroad with two kids but sent her $300 as child support before cutting all ties. Francine and her mother live in poverty and like her mother, Francine could be forced to join the sex industry if they don't acquire more finances.
No birth control and abortion options available
Abortion is illegal in the Philippines but according to the Daily Mail, the pharmacies sell medicine that can make a pregnant woman bleed causing a haemorrhaging. This makes it more likely for hospitals to admit her, but there are high risks involved. Other options include emergency contraceptive pills that cost 2,500 Philippine pesos which is too expensive for sex workers to consume so often. So, ultimately sex workers are left with no option but to raise their children despite having no finances, while the children bear the brunt of the taboo of being born illegitimately. We need to realise that sex workers have a life outside the sex trade, they often have a family that they’re supporting and ambitions that they wish could’ve been.
We need to humanise sex workers
Despite journalists reporting on the sex trade and several studies on commercial sexual exploitation, the system remains stagnant. Sex tourists are content believing 'sex trade is a part of their culture.' While pimps are satisfied with the commission they make. An infuriating statement by a westerner was reported by the Pulitzer Center. He said, "Chill out, it's all in good fun. This is what Thailand's known for and you got to live a little."
Another man claimed, "Sex is part of these people's culture," and "they wouldn't be here if they didn't want to." One gentleman describing ping pong shows, said, "It's like a form of art, these women are really talented. They're making money the same way any other athlete makes money." What a flawed comparison and illusioned perspective. Sex workers are viewed through such a narrow lens that their humanity is overlooked. The male gaze that objectifies these women derives pleasure from viewing them as submissive, naive, friendly and exotic girls. The idea of a perfect woman that they are unable to acquire back home. But these girls are much more than their ability to show you a ‘good time’.