I’VE HEARD TIRADES AGAINST HIM during human trafficking rallies. I read reports about him in newspapers. I know all about this ‘John’—this monster who is consumer of prostitution. John is that guy who occasionally descends from his ladder of privilege and preys on exploited women by paying for sex. I never thought I would actually meet John. Now I wish I had met him instead. It turns out that I don’t know some shapeless being that pundits call ‘John’. I know my friend.
I know a friend that is generous, hard working, and kind. I know that same friend paid for sex with an exploited worker while traveling in Thailand. It all started out so harmlessly. We were exchanging travel stories when he began to tell the group about the “best massage of his life.” Once he began sharing the details about his young, beautiful, and attentive masseuse—I had an idea where the tale was headed. Not surprisingly, my friend went on to candidly share the details of his “happy-ending,” an infamous traveler experience where massage patrons are offered sexual services at the end of a massage.
I really did try. At the time, I had been reading so many books that were screaming at me to react differently. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey told me “no one can persuade another to change.” Instead of trying to change him, I should have sensed his identity, individuality, and worth. In The Lost Art of Listening, Dr. Michael P. Nichols told me that I should first listen intently without the intent to reply.
WELL…I BLEW IT. He barely finished saying the word happy-ending before my rant began. I schooled him on the thousands sold into sex slavery and forced into labor at massage parlors frequented by travelers. I informed him about the young men who undergo sex changes to become Kathoeys or “Lady boys” as an avenue to escape poverty.
Was I effective at reshaping the opinions of a young Western male who was talking over drinks with a group of friends?
I often think about what I should have done differently. I accused him of failing to recognize the humanity of the young woman who offered the services. Yet, I was guilty of a similar crime. I had dehumanized him by relegating him to “John.” What I know now is that to truly be effective at influencing others, you must first seek to understand them. Instead of jumping to reply, I could have taken the time to understand that perhaps he truly visualized his travel experience as an opportunity to “escape” and engage in risky behaviors he wouldn’t dare try at home. Later, I could have sought a more reasonable time and location to have an in-depth conversation about the dire consequences of his risky behavior. Most importantly, that conversation should have come from a place of understanding—not antagonization.
I want to say that I got so angry when I heard this story because I envisioned the face of the exploited masseuse. In truth, a lot of my reaction was due to the fact that I couldn’t believe that I actually knew a real ‘John’ in my real life! There are many who, like me, are disgusted by “Johns,” believing they deserve the severest punishment available. However, I’ve come to realize that the amorphous caricature ‘John’ does not actually exist. ‘John’ is a general term to categorize real people who have hopes and dreams, but who also serve as the demand in the profitable sex trafficking industry. We may not have the power to eliminate the demand of the amorphous ‘John,’ but we do have the power to help influence the attitudes of real people we come into contact with every day. Disassociating ourselves from the imagined “John,” (who at times can also be called “Jane”), relinquishes us from the responsibility of doing our part to fight sex trafficking. Combatting an issue as dire as human trafficking starts with employing effective means to combat the demand.
ONE OF THE MEANS TO COMBAT THE DEMAND is by encouraging responsible travel. I love traveling. I believe that travel can unlock opportunities unimagined. However, I do not believe that travel is a chance to escape reality. Instead, travel is an opportunity to plug in and learn more about the world and your role within it. Sadly, my friend is not the only one “harmlessly” supporting sex slavery. In Thailand, another touted traveler activity is to visit a Ping Pong show. Even more popular than getting a “happy-ending,” travelers are entertained by circus-like sex shows likely hosted by forced laborers. In order to help reduce the demand, we need to focus on traveling responsibly. Your dollar sends a message. At all costs, avoid sending the message that your dollar supports sex slavery.
We all have a stake in decreasing the demand for human trafficking. It starts by recognizing your power to influence others. I’ve found that Stephen Covey was right. You cannot change any one. Instead, you can build understanding and influence others in a manner so effective that they choose to change themselves.
While my reflections primarily focus on my experiences in Thailand, please do not forget that human trafficking is a global issue. Human trafficking plagues communities in developing countries in Asia and in bustling metropolises like Los Angeles, California. Although widely discussed, human trafficking is a complex problem. Much of the data on sex trafficking is difficult to verify due to the concealed nature of the illicit activities. There is also a fine line between forced sexual labor and those who participate willingly. For many reasons, fighting human trafficking is difficult. We need all the help we can get.
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