Why Sex Tourism In Thailand Is Not As Black And White As You Think

Ray Smith
Ray Smith

I can still remember the first time I heard about Thailand. I was around 15 and watching Hard Copy. It was one of those late afternoon “news” shows in the 1990s that focused on “hard-hitting” journalism but was really a precursor to sites like TMZ. Hard Copy was doing an exposé on sex tourism in Thailand. The program showcased the Marines and old men who came to Thailand to buy the services of young, sometimes under-age girls (and boys). I remember being very grossed out by the images they showed.

When visitors to Thailand encounter the sex industry, their immediate reaction is something along the lines of “Ewwwwww… gross!” followed by a bit of gagging. Old men, young girls – it’s disgusting. Those girls are being taken advantage of by slimy, old, Western men. Awful, right? It’s exploitation if there ever was any. For those who never get away from these places (which also happen to be tourist areas), Thailand forever becomes associated with sex and exploitation, leaving a bad impression of the country, especially with female travelers.

But sex tourism in Thailand is not at all that you think it is.

It’s not black and white.

It’s a large shade of grey.

After living in Thailand for many years, seeing everything first-hand, and having this conversation with expats, journalists, and Thais, I can tell you that the myth of the exploited underage girl is mostly that – a myth. The girls you see at go-go bars take advantage of foreign men as much as you think foreign men exploit them.

Before I get into why it’s not so black and white, let me preface this article by saying wherever there is prostitution, you’ll find some exploitation. You can find it in Amsterdam, America, Australia, Germany, Mexico, or Colombia – anywhere. I think that girls forced into prostitution should be freed and the people involved prosecuted. And I am not in any way advocating for child sex slavery.  What I am talking about here is between willing adults – not children or girls sold into sex slavery.

So back to Thailand…

Prostitution has always existed in Thailand but it exploded after World War II with the arrival of Western troops and then grew rapidly during the Vietnam War as US soldiers on leave came to find a “release” from the stresses of war. Following the war, Thailand became a haven for sex tourists and pedophiles from all over the world. HIV, human trafficking, and child sex slavery exploded. It was a nasty situation. In the 1990s, following a number of exposés, news stories, and NGO involvement, Thailand finally began to crack down on sex tourism and child prostitution. They cleaned up a lot of the nastier stuff.

But Thailand hasn’t shaken its sex tourism past completely and in many ways has quietly embraced it. Prostitution is illegal — but everyone turns a blind eye. It’s hard to say how many people come to Thailand just for sex but I bet it’s a very large number. And it’s just not old men – I encounter a lot of young travelers who visit go-go bars, get a Thai “girlfriend” for the week, and engage in this type of behavior. Yet despite this, you aren’t going to find the incredibly exploitative environment that prevailed in Thailand twenty years ago.

Everyone is bothered by the old man/young girl dynamic they see in Thailand but there is a lot of hypocrisy with that opinion.

First, where is the outrage when it happens in the West? When you see Michael Douglas and his 25-years-younger wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, are you repulsed? Harrison Ford and Callista Flockhart? Or the reverse – Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher (before they split)? Or are you just outraged that it looks like the old ugly Western man who couldn’t get laid back home decided to come to Asia and “exploit” a poor, innocent, “naïve” girl? We become outraged when we see the old white guy holding hands with a young Asian girl but we buy gossip mags about how Alex Baldwin is getting married to a girl 26 years younger than him.

The girls you see in Thailand are young, and while Asians have a tendency look young and the girl may be younger than her client, she isn’t under-aged. Thailand did a great job in the 1990s of cleaning itself up and you just can’t walk around with a 12-year-old on your arms. Those girls you see in Nana Plaza, Patpong, or Pattaya are of legal age. Does Thailand have some underage prostitution? Sure it does, but so does every other country in the world. But no old guy is walking into a bar and out again with a girl who is 14. Officials may turn a blind eye to a lot of things but 14-year-olds working the bars would bring back a lot of heat and Thai officials don’t want to relive the 90s.

“So what?” you say, “Even if they are legal, the girls are still being taken advantage of and exploited.”

But are they? I don’t think so. Most of the prostitutes come from an area of Thailand called Isaan in the northeast. It’s the poorest region of Thailand and the girls know they can make a lot of money being a prostitute. Many have families to support. Not all the girls from Isaan end up as prostitutes but many do. It’s an easy job to get, requires very little English, and the money is good. Most of these girls usually have a friend who is a prostitute and tells them about the money. And while you may have certain feelings about prostitutes, walking into a go-go bar isn’t going to bring 93,483 forced sex slaves to you.

(Note: Trafficking does remain a problem in many go-go bars as it does anywhere in the world. I’m not saying that it never happens. What I’m saying is that not every women is there against her will.)

There’s an expression called “the white man’s burden.” It relates to the fact Westerners feel that we have a responsibility to save poorer nations and people. We see these girls, think they must be exploited (why else would they be with these old men?) and find ways to save them from this awful life.

But, don’t sell these girls short – They know what buttons to push. They know what to do to get the money. The older women look after the new girls and teach them the tricks of the trade – how to bat their eyes and say the right things to get the guys to pay for them.

Plenty of men come to Thailand solely for a quickie. Wam, bam, thank you ma’am. In fact, stroll through Thailand and you will see a lot of men (young and old) traveling with Thai girls they bought for the week. You can usually tell by the fact the Thai girl looks extremely bored.

But there are a huge number of men who come to Thailand, fall in love with a bar girl, and then try to rescue her from her “awful” life. She’s just a girl who is stuck in a bad situation but given the right circumstances, she’d definitely go to school and make something of herself, the thinking goes.

But you know what? These girls don’t want to be saved. You are just another sucker to them, one who is going to pay their bills. And if they do end up “dating” you it’s simply because you are supporting them.

I have been in Internet cafes where a girl, ready to go out at night, is on Skype talking to four other people who are her “boyfriends.” That means that there is some Western guy who is sending her money – and she always needs money. She’s going to school, her mom is sick, she needs food, or her bike broke. There are endless reasons. And men are more than happy to provide the money thinking they are keeping that girl out of prostitution when it reality, she’s doing it all over again once she signs off Skype.

High-end escorts in Bangkok make over $4,000 USD per month. Most prostitutes you see in Bangkok make about $100 USD per “session.” To put that in perspective, the average Thai salary is $4,700 USD per year – a lot lower in rural areas.

Men are cash cows to these girls.

We look at the prostitution in Thailand through Western eyes. We think that if there is an old man and young women there must be exploitation going on and that these naïve girls are just being taken advantage of. We all want to come and rescue these girls from their lives.

But that’s because in the West we equate sex with love and view prostitution as dirty. However, Thais have a very different notion of sex and love.

Sex in Thailand involves a huge set of contradictory values. Thailand is a very conservative culture. On the one hand, prostitutes are generally considered lower class and the profession is looked down upon. On the other, Thai men frequent prostitutes and, despite the conservative nature of Thailand, this behavior is tolerated.

And this is an often overlooked fact – the vast majority of sex tourism in Thailand comes from locals. Western sex tourism pales in comparison to this massive industry. The difference between Thais and Westerners? Thais are more discreet.

In Thailand, prostitution is a job and prostitutes are simply workers. Sure, in Thailand’s highly classed social structure, “good Thais” would never have a daughter who was a hooker, nor would a good Thai boy marry one.

But compared to the West where we really look down at prostitutes, in Thailand the social stigma is not as great. Thais walk by prostitutes the way we walk past everyone else. During the day, the same girls you saw shaking it will be walking down the street covered up.

In fact, most of the prostitutes tend to have Thai boyfriends or husbands. Why? Because it’s just the girl’s job. It’s a job that brings in a lot of money and the Thai boyfriend doesn’t care. Work is separate from every day life.

Thais don’t equate sex with love like we do in the West; relationships aren’t just about love. They are more complex than that. In the West, we always ask “Do you love him?” as if that is all that matters. If you came home and told your parents you loved a garbage man, would they be happy? Maybe not, but “if you loved him” then that’s all that would matter. Love will find a way.

In Thailand, class, job, and family matter just as much as love (if not more). If an upper-class Thai girl found love with a cab driver the family would put an end to the relationship. It wouldn’t matter how much they were in love. A bank executive isn’t going to marry a farm girl from Isaan. You always marry up.

And so girls who go with foreigners do so because that man provides money, security, and higher social status. A man must be able to provide for her family and a Thai women who can bring home a husband that provides raises the status of her family.

The security and class aspect of relationships in Thailand can not be understated. It’s very important here. And in the hierarchy of class, Westerners are high up there because with them comes security, money, stability. Getting together with a Westerner (male or female) brings that security.

And while the family may not enjoy their daughter becoming a prostitute, once the money rolls in they may sing a different tune. Being a prostitute is bad until you start making money from it then it’s a good thing because women in Thailand are supposed to take care of their families.

There are villages filled with expensive mansions up in poor rural Thailand that have been paid for by Thai girls who became prostitutes, made lots of money, and were able to support their families.

At a recent dinner, one friend told me about a girl who went to Malaysia and made $65,000 USD in one year. She wasn’t going to quit because the money was good and she could provide for her family.

Thais do not see what we see when they see prostitution.

(Bangkok Podcast had a wonderful discussion with Kaewmala, a Thai woman and writer, about the contradictions and attitudes of sex, prostitution, and romance in Thailand. It’s an hour long and a must listen if you want to understand this complex attitude more.)

My point is that we look at prostitution in Thailand through our Western values and morals and declare that these innocent girls are being exploited by old men and need to be saved. And while anyone forced into prostitution should be saved, for the girls who come and consent – what are we saving them from?  A life we don’t want them to lead? Are we just quieting our conscience? Or are we just grossed-out because everything is so open and we would rather these dark aspects of humanity were kept behind closed doors? Maybe the real problem is we just don’t want to know it exists.

I am not going to visit a prostitute and I think a 50-year-old and an 18-year-old together is disgusting but who am I to judge the relationship, no matter how messed up, of two consenting adults? Is it really any different someone just marrying someone else for their money?

Is the situation gross? To me, yes. Is what you see exploitation? Not really. Is it really any of my business? No.

If you go into the go-go bars, the girls aren’t all smiles. Most would rather be a million other places but if anything “forces” these girls here, it is the socio-economic environment in Thailand. Lack of opportunity, education, and development are big and important issues in Thailand but as City High told us in the past, you’ve got options!

And that’s a big issue Thailand has to solve. Girls should be given better options. But if they pick this one, who are you to judge. Moreover, how Thais view what these girls are doing is through their own cultural values, not ours.

So the next time you are in Thailand, don’t be so quick to judge. We travel to learn about other cultures – so don’t be shocked when other cultures have different attitudes about things like sex and prostitution.


STRONGLY Suggested Reading:

Private Dancer – A 2005 book that highlights the complex relationship between western men, sex workers, and those who fall in love with them.

Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia – A 2001 book that focuses on sex trafficking, especially among Asian men.

Learning the Sex Trade – An interesting account from 2005 by a British journalist seeking the details of the sex industry. Also discusses the dual aspects of the industry.

Thai Woman Talks – A blog by Kaewmala about Thai sexuality, women, and relationships. TC mark

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