Prostitution Trafficking and the myth of Asian Values
You walk anywhere in Thailand and you’ll see them – older men, usually expats, walking hand in hand with younger Thai girls. We’re in a condo complex in Hua Hin as I write this and just on this floor alone there are a few older men with younger girlfriends. Most are, I venture, in their 60s. The girlfriends appear to be in their late 20’s/early 30’s. So they’re basically young enough to be their daughters.
Every Thai town/city has at least one street dedicated to ‘girly bars’. Even in Hua Hin, a town not known for ‘sex tourism’, there is a long soi that must have at least 20 bars on it. Each bar has 5 – 10 girls sitting around looking for customers. If I walked down the street alone I would be called out to incessantly. Even with Lissette we get polite invites to come in for a beer. Unlike a few other places we’ve been (most specifically in Latin America) the ladies are respectful – if you’re with a woman they’ll never aggressively solicit you. Even walking down the street as a single man they entice rather than throw themselves at you. I remember more than once walking in the Dominican Republic and having a woman grab my crotch and offer ‘fuckie-fuckie’ or ‘suckie-suckie”. That’s never happened to me in Thailand or anywhere else in Asia.
The customers of all these girly bars are Western men, the majority older men. In Hua Hin, being mostly an expat town, I would say that a good 80% of the customers are 60+ in age. In other places where there are more tourists (Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Phuket) you’ll see younger tourists mixed in. But these girly bars would probably not be viable without the older men. You see them, walking, usually in pairs, going up the street. Girls call out to them, inviting them in for a beer. Other men are already sitting there, sipping on beers, often with a couple of girls talking to them, maybe rubbing their backs. Some are playing pool at the tables that most of these establishments have. They’re having a good time.
When most people think of Thai ‘girly bars’ they think of the bars of Walking street in Pattaya or Patpong, Soi Cowbow, or Nana Plaza in Bangkok; places where the girls are dancing around topless on a stage. Go-go bars. Sure, there’s a lot of those in Thailand. But those go-go bars are outnumbered 100-1 by the huge amount of ‘girly’ bars (or ‘beer bars’ ) where the girls just drink, talk, and play pool with the Westerner. But just like the go-go bars, Western men can invite a Thai girl in a beer bar to go home with them. I’ve never heard of a case where a girl has refused – it’s the primary reason these girls work in these bars in the first place.
When I mentioned a few weeks ago that I’d do a post on prostitution in Thailand I had a few people write me commenting that the Western men who fraternize with younger Asian women are incredibly stupid and that they should be condemned. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve heard people, especially feminists, complain about these ‘dirty old men’ and how they take advantage of young women. Fine, ok, you don’t have to like it and I can understand why most people don’t. But then they take it further, complaining about how Western “sex tourists’ ruin local culture and contribute to human trafficking and child prostitution. That’s where they lose me. These men are easy targets that only distract from larger, uglier issues.
So I’m going to disappoint all the people asking me to condemn these men. I’ll instead attempt to give you a more balanced perspective on the Western tourist/Thai prostitute issue within a cultural context.
I just finished reading “Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia” by Louise Brown, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Asian Studies at the University of Birmingham. Some say she’s a feminist. If so she pales compared to Sheila Jeffreys, writer of “The Industrial Vagina: the Political Economy of the Global Sex Trade” which I also read. Hard to take seriously a writer who compares prostitution to “other oppressive structures like marriage”. But if it was Ms. Jeffrey’s writing that got me riled up to write this post, it was Ms. Brown’s extensive research into Asian culture as it relates to prostitution that I found incredible pertinent to the Old Fart/Young Tart argument; namely that Western sex tourism, in comparison to the domestic Asian prostitution scene, is a pretty little pimple on an ugly elephant’s behind.
“Asian values’ are held in great esteem by the Western media as a model to emulate. Asia is commonly portrayed as the home of wholesome family values and conservative sexual morality. While that might be true in some respects, it couldn’t be further from the truth on the issue of prostitution. Part of the misconception is caused by looking at Asian morality through Western eyes, part is just hypocrisy on the part of Asian societies.
There is no doubt that Asian men hold family values very dearly; families stick together and divorce is frowned upon. But whereas in Western societies there is an assumption that fidelity is a requirement of marriage, most classes in Asian societies don’t make that assumption. Sex and the family are often two very separate facets of a man’s life and the average Asia man will have adventures with mistresses and prostitutes. These are accommodated within the framework of marriage because a) wives are not really threatened by their husband’s dalliances (after all, sex is not what their marriage is all about) and b) wives can’t really do anything about their husband’s sexcapades even if they object to them. In the above, there is no hypocrisy. The error is judging Asian societies through our Western value system.
Where there is hypocrisy is in the way Asian societies deny or play down prostitution within their societies. Asian societies hide their problems away. The differences are obvious just in the way prostitution is promoted (excerpts below from Ms. Brown’s book);
“Western sex consumers like to see the product…the whole business has to appear open and informal and bags of fun. Western sex tourism is therefore outrageously visible…they visit clubs with subtle names like ‘The Pussy Bar” or “The Hot Girl Club”. The sex business is incredibly blatant”.
“Asian men buy sex in a different kind of setting and in a different location…often it is in areas catering specifically – and exclusively – to Asian men”.
Those locations are karaoke clubs, barber shops, coffee shops as well as closed brothels. And they are everywhere, just not obvious to the Western eye. Thailand has a history of prostitution dating back centuries, way before mass Western tourism. It has been promulgated by socialized behaviour and beliefs.
A few examples of beliefs, customs, as well as some numbers:
– premarital sex is frowned upon and has contributed to prostitution. Having sex with a prostitute is a rite of passage – studies show that 95% of Thai men above 21 have slept with a prostitute and that most have lost their virginity with a prostitute.
– the activity of visiting a whorehouse has become a social activity in many cases, “‘Sex with prostitutes seems to be a way for men to enjoy each other’s company,’ cites Barbara Franklin of Care International. ‘It is often part of a night out with friends who share food, drink and sometimes even sexual partners.’’
– Many women in Thailand believe that prostitution protects “good” women against rape, and wives prefer their husbands visit commercial sex workers rather than take a minor wife, which is perceived as a greater threat to family stability.
– Raped women are marginalized by society and often turn to prostitution.
– Despite all the activity there is hypocrisy; prostitutes are looked down upon. Thai men don’t understand why Western men would ‘demean’ themselves by being seen in public with prostitutes.
– Westerners and Thais also differentiate in preferences. Bar girls servicing Westerners are generally darker-skinned girls from poor Issan province, the country’s poor agricultural heartland. Thai men have a preference for lighter skinned girls.
– It is thought that Westerners make up 5 to 10% of visits to Thai prostitutes.
– as noted in the link above, as well as this one, every day at least 450,000 Thai men visit prostitutes (there are thought to be approximately 2 million Thai prostitutes at any given time). Thus, much of the impetus sustaining the incredible rate of prostitution in Thailand is cultural; “Thai men think it is their right to have cheap sex, … and there are enough poor Thai women to make it possible.”
I’ve underlined and bolded the above because it is not entirely true. While about 10% of Louise Brown’s“Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia” deals with the issues of prostitution in Asian societies, 90% talks about the trafficking of poor women between different countries and how they spend years working as sex slaves in closed brothels where they never see the light of day. It’s an economic and demand issue – that is, how to supply cheap sex to men even at the bottom of the social ladder. That’s why even in Thailand, with all its prostitutes, you’ll hear of Burmese prostitutes being trafficked in. Chinese prostitutes from Yunnan province are also brought in for Thai men with money (and a preference for lighter-skinned girls). And if you think Thailand is bad, wait until you read about the human trafficking in India and Pakistan of Nepali and Bangladeshi girls, most who are under aged and forced to service 10-15 men a night in a cupboard sized room. And it is not only the men who are guilty – it is often female family members or female friends that sell the girls to brothel owners. A well written book but terrible reading.
Points I’m making with the above;
1) Western men meeting young women in beer bars is insignificant and the tip of the iceberg. Western feminists like to harp on it because it fundamentally bothers them that white men are out there sleeping with Asian hookers.
2) the Western media’s romance with ‘Asian’ values is a fallacy (at least on the issue of prostitution) that simultaneously undermines Western values.
3) Human trafficking, sex slaves, and pedophilia are real issues that should be covered by the media and governments. Asian governments should be held more accountable. Especially shocking are the volumes of human trafficking going into Japan and Pakistan, two of the worst offenders.
4) Human trafficking, sex slaves, and pedophilia are by products of the more secretive Asian sex market, not the market geared to the Western tourist/expat.
For some perspective, watch “Whore’s Glory“. It’s on Netflix.
Also, read this post on the war being waged in Thailand’s south. A story of Malaysian sex tourists and Islamic foundamentalists.
As I started writing this post yesterday I met an older man (mid-60s) with his Thai girlfriend in the elevator. She couldn’t have been more than 30. They were accompanied by the building manager and were checking out some of the condos in the building. He started speaking to me; he’s from Scotland, has a house in Hua Hin but wants to invest in a condo. His money is not doing anything in the bank. I looked at him and his girlfriend; they look obviously happy and both seem quite excited to be touring the building. Nobody is twisting this girl’s arm, she is chatty and seems happy. Again, a feminist seeing this would probably see red. We assume he met her in a beer bar – but in actual fact she might be a bank teller or any girl working in a store. In the ‘developed’ world we tend to think of prostitution in terms of black and white. But in most places it’s not that simple. Many years ago when I was a single guy in my 30’s I traveled around Latin America as well as Asia and met ladies along the way. It’s easy, just show up by yourself in a bar or restaurant and women make advances. I invited a couple of them, in the Dominican Republic and Colombia, to travel with me for a few weeks. They were the best tour guides I ever had. I paid for food, lodging, and any outings we had along the way. Does that make me a ‘prostituter’? (as ultra-feminist Ms. Jeffries likes to call us). The line can be blurry. Other Westerners immediately assume prostitution when they see a white male with a local girl. I remember the glares I would get from Western women.
As far as these men being ‘stupid’ about relationships with Thai women, or more specifically bar girls; statistics prove that it is stupid. They rarely ever work out and the person who actually ends up suffering the most is the Western expat/tourist. Check out Stickman’s site or the news on Thaivisa (which most expats here subscribe to) – every day there is a story of a Westerner losing his money to a bar girl. Just the other day I read about a tourist killing himself because he had lost his life savings. Many Westerners fall for the illusion of the Thai bar girl but in many ways they’re the same as sex workers back home. A few days ago Lissette and I were walking down the street and overheard a Thai girl on the phone “Yes, I miss you so much. I luv you”. No doubt talking to her ‘sponsor’ overseas. She was holding hands with a Thai guy as she was saying this. I don’t have any moral issues with Western men and Thai women having relationships. It’s what both parties want and accept. But as far as smart decisions go, I wouldn’t give money to a stripper back home just as I wouldn’t start sending money to a Thai bar girl overseas. Worse yet, I wouldn’t get into a relationship with them only to end up supporting them and their whole family. I don’t think it’s a wise financial decision. I also wonder what friends and family back home think of a father or grandfather going overseas and finding a Thai girlfriend more than half his age. How does it affect those relationships?
I’ve addressed a few complicated issues. What do you think? I know people have strong opinions on this – the only thing I ask is that you be respectful. Otherwise feel free to tell me how you feel about the above.
Related: A Guide to Nong Khai, Thailand
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