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The Economics of Commercial Sexual Exploitation

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Deena Guzder, reporting for the Pulitzer Center

Economics of Exploitation

PHUKET, Thailand -- Thailand's sex tourism industry is primarily driven by acute poverty.  "All forms of prostitution are about comparatively rich men buying poor women," writes renowned feminist scholar and law professor Catharine MacKinnon in a recent email correspondence. "Anything that accentuates that inequality increases the abuse that can be demanded" and "anything that makes women relatively more powerless, including living in the global South, makes the abuse both sexier and easier to get away with," notes MacKinnon.  In Thailand, a tourist with money is tourist with unchecked power.  The World Bank estimated in 2008 that the average annual purchasing power of Thais is $7,703 per person, compared to $46,716 in the United States.

Women and girls from poor rural families make up the majority of sex workers in Thailand. As a result of the current economic downturn, hundreds of factories and projects have closed across Thailand, leaving thousands of workers--both Thai and non-Thai--unemployed, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review.  Unemployment is rising at a rate of about 100,000 workers a month, and may climb to 1.5 million by the end of the year. Even if a migrant laborer finds an increasingly elusive unskilled factory job, the paltry salaries are ten to twenty times lower than those paid to the lowest level sex worker working at "beer bars," according to the nonprofit organization Ashoka.

The women trapped in the freakish sexual circus of "ping pong shows" often worked in factories before the economic downturn. Left with no alternatives after being laid off, many women migrated to Thailand's most notorious tourist hotspots such as Pattaya, Phuket, and the Patpong District of Bangkok.  Once lost in Thailand's seedy underbelly, these women are further robbed of their individual agency, economic independence, and bargaining power by domineering pimps who keep tabs on debts owed for room and board, and deliberately foster discord among workers who may otherwise attempt to unionize.  Even if language barriers and calculating brothel managers did not prevent women from collectively demanding more rights, most women accept their conditions silently since a stream of even poorer migrants are steadily available to replace any dissenters.

If history repeats itself, the situation for poor Southeast Asian women will only further deteriorate with the global economic downturn. During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, many Thais lost their jobs in the manufacturing, finance and tourism sectors. Siddharth Kara, a board member of Free the Slaves, an NGO based in the United States, notes in his recent book, Sex Trafficking, that the International Monetary Fund's interest-rate policies and cuts on social-welfare programs not only contributed to the economic problems but also made poor migrants more vulnerable to changing market forces. During that period, writes Kara, the sudden increase in the rural poverty in the Mekong region led to a mass migration from the villages of rural Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia into urban centers such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai.  Uprooted from their communities and transplanted to unfamiliar metropolises, destitute migrants were easily exploited in factories and brothels. 

In the world's largest Red Light District, Bangkok, there are stark differences between the go-go dancer types--who are similar to those prevalent in every global city across the world--and sex entertainers subjected to egregious forms of human zoo tourism at "ping pong shows." Extreme forms of sex entertainment in Bangkok are disturbing, but logical, extensions of an inherently misogynistic industry, notes feminist scholar MacKinnon. "Pornography of Asian women sold in the West has been almost entirely a pornography of torture," writes MacKinnon. "This is just presenting that in the flesh."  MacKinnon also notes that these shows perpetuate a stereotype of the "exotic East," which Edward Said correctly dismissed as a racist and Orientalist fantasy.        

In Phuket, a notorious tourist hotspot in Southern Thailand, a young performer who goes by her first name only, "Peung", looks more girlish than womanly. She confides in staccato sentences: "The first time I performed, I was so shy. I was so scared. I felt so ashamed. I just wanted to cry." Looking at her alabaster hands while talking in hushed tones, Peung says she dropped out of school after sixth grade to help support her family. "I worked in many different factories and, each time one closed, I looked for another," says Peung who recently was laid-off from a car manufacturing plant where she assembled CD players. "The economy is very bad, so I came to Phuket to become a waitress," says Peung who is originally from northeastern Thailand. "I couldn't find any work and did not have any money to go back home." Now, Peung works at Spicy Club off Patong Bangla Road where sex shows feature women performing with everything from eels to snakes to catfish for chortles of Western men. "No Thai men ever come here, unless he is with a Westerner," says Peung who looks barely old enough to legally drink alcohol let alone perform at a live sex show. Peung, who has worked at Spicy Club for a little over three months, says her family has no idea how she makes a living in Phuket, but appreciates the little money she sends home.  "They don't ask too many questions," says Peung.  Most of Peung's colleagues are either from Laos or northeastern Thailand; they lead double lives and keep their professions hidden from their parents and children. At Spicy Club, Peung earns a monthly salary of 6000 Thai Bhatt (USD$ 181) and is given two days of vacation.  Cocktails at Spicy Club cost 550 Thai Bhatt (USD$ 17) and Peung receives a commission of 50 Thai Bhatt (USD $1.50) for every drink a customer buys for her. "I don't drink because I don't like the taste," says Peung whose layers of make-up seem like a ruse to add years to her cherubic face. When pressed about her age, Peung replies quickly, "I am 21 years old."  She responds to a journalist's askance look of skepticism by repeating herself a little too forcefully.

Centuries of soldiers, seamen and teachers have used their wealth to fully exploit the erotic possibilities of the Far East. The role of the U.S. military is creating a fictional sexual utopia in East Asia is especially sordid and shameful. "Thailand becoming a sex tourism destination was condoned and sanctioned by Robert McNamara," says Taina Bien-Aime, Executive Director of Equality Now. Kenneth Franzblau, also of Equality Now, adds, "In the Philippines, most early sex tour operatives were former servicemen stationed there during the war." One legacy of the Vietnam R&R days in Thailand is Soi Cowboy (between Soi 21 & Soi 23), a strip of hostess and go-go bars cater not to curious voyeurs, but old-time consumers.  Bien-Aime notes that the media preponderantly focus on the age of consent rather than focusing on who is responsible for keeping the industry alive, whether in the days of the Vietnam War or in the days of U.S. economic hegemony. "Let's focus not only on the women, but who are the contributors to this billion dollar sex trade," says Bien-Aime. "Women are not for sale whether they're on a stage or not."

Convincing visitors and voyeurs in Thailand's sex tourism hotspots to speak with a journalist is infinitely more difficult than convincing exploited women and children to speak, although the latter have far more to lose.  One Westerner who refused to give his name said, "Chill out, it's all in good fun."  He added, "This is what Thailand's known for and you got to live a little." Another says, "Sex is part of these people's culture," and "they wouldn't be here if they didn't want to." Another, speaking specifically about ping pong shows, says, "It's like a form of art, these women are really talented. They're making money the same way any other athlete makes money."  Human rights organizations scoff at wealthy men's self-exculpating explanations. They insist that reducing impoverished women's sexuality to a spectator sport is inherently degrading. "The attitude that [sex work in places like ping pong shows] is empowering gives a green light to traffickers. We're trying to fight the commercial sex trade, not empower the sex trade," says Bien-Aime of Equality Now. Bien-Aime says that ending the multibillion dollar trade must begin with holding buyers accountable rather than nurturing any illusions that sexual exploitation is beneficial to women. 

Of course, not all tourists are willfully ignorant. Tom Grundy, a human rights activist visiting Bangkok, says he finds these shows disgusting. "I don't know how tourists justify coming to Thailand and doing things they would never consider doing at home," says Grundy. "If a ping pong show occurred in the U.K., people would immediately express outrage, start a letter writing campaign, and get the police to shut down the place."  Boycotting ping pong shows is a start, says Grundy, but tourists should also donate to human rights organizations. 

Unfortunately, Grundy's view remains in the minority.  To witness how deeply entrenched sexual exploitation has become in Thailand, one needs only to walk through the Patpong district of Bangkok, Thailand. Middlemen stop male tourists and whisper "What you looking for, mister?" Money exchanges hands and keeps the industry thriving.  Pattaya, which first exploded as a sex tourism hotspot for American GI's during the Vietnam War, receives almost 6 million visitors, according to the Tourist Authority of Thailand.  The female concierge, who speaks only on the condition of anonymity, confides that she receives 65% commission for every woman she hires for a tourist.  "Once a year, many U.S. soldiers come to Pattaya," she says, "and it is our busiest season." She continues, "Once a group of forty men requested only two women. One ended up in the hospital." One reason the Royal Thai Government is not more proactive about curbing sex tourism is because the underground industry comprises 2 - 14% of South East Asian countries' economy, according to the ILO. Recent political instability has also deterred efforts to regulate the sex tourism industry. Before the 2006 military coup, End Child Prostitution And Trafficking (ECPAT) had been collaborating with the Ministry of Tourism on creating a National Plan of Action to address the issue of child sex tourism. The initiative was suspended shortly after the ouster of the Thaksin administration. Now, the global economic downturn has made the Ministry of Tourism reluctant to reinvigorate efforts and give the outside world any impression that Thailand is anything but the "Land of Smiles." Giorgio Berardi, Program Officer for Combating Child-Sex Tourism (CST).at ECPAT, says Southeast Asia continues to harbor a reputation as a destination for sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism. "We still need far better enactment and enforcement of effective extraterritorial legislation," says Berardi.

In Thailand, as in many countries, the stigma of poverty is doubled for woman. "Good girls do not have sex before marriage," insists a businesswoman in her mid-30s who is the general manager of a pineapple export company in Bangkok. "In my culture, a good girl would never sleep with a man she does not know. I think maybe these women have some deep problems.  I think they go crazy for Western men," says the petit woman who insists the word "virginity" is synonymous with "honor."  She thinks that some Thai women's fetish for white men runs as deep as some western tourists' "yellow fever" (the colloquial term for white men who gravitate towards Asian women).  "I am not proud that my country is known for sex tourism," says the businesswoman, "but many of these women are lazy and not from good families. They don't want to work. They are materialistic and just want to live off of Westerners."  When asked about women who are direly poor, the businesswoman responds, "Yes, but if you or I are poor we would still never think about doing something like this." In a country where sexual promiscuity is laden with moral judgment, economically stable women subscribe to a conveniently Manichean worldview in which they protect their "honor" from a self-righteous pedestal while their poorer sisters who are forced into brothels are forever branded with a Scarlett letter.

While some Thai women admittedly view Western men as status symbols or economic benefactors, the majority of women trapped in Bangkok's seedy underbelly are single mothers from desperately poor families who have benefited from very little formal education and have no other financial alternatives.  Many women are economic refugees from northeastern Thailand, the country's poorest region; some women are trafficked from repressive countries such as Burma; still others come voluntarily from Thailand's poorer neighbors such as Cambodia and Laos.  Although Thailand is still a developing country, its per capita GDP is 12 times, seven times and 5.5 times higher than that of Burma, Cambodia and Laos, respectively. A relative sense of deprivation compels workers from the poorer nations in the Mekong region to seek better opportunities in neighboring Thailand, which has an estimated 1.5 to 2.5 million undocumented migrants living within its borders, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review.  John Padorr who works for the Mercy Center in Klong Toey, Bangkok's largest concentration of slum communities, notes that undocumented women and children are the most vulnerable groups in Thailand and the most easily sold into sexual servitude. Narisaraporn Asipong, a Mercy Center outreach worker who has assisted street children in the slums for 7-8 years, says the Thai government is "only treating the symptoms, not the cause."  When asked about the cause, Asipong answers with one word: "Poverty." 

Sex workers who live in and work for brothels are vulnerable to extreme forms of abuse and exploitation by brothel owners who regard them as sex slaves. In the major cities of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, an estimated sixty percent of sex workers work in brothels, according to Ashoka.  Although prostitution has been illegal since the 1960s, many sex entertainment venues double as brothels.  At Nana Entertainment Plaza, adjoining guest-houses facilitate trysts.  Inside Bangkok's brothels, women--some Thai, others trafficked from Burma--stand akimbo with numbers pinned to their tops like animals at a county fair. A manager encourages patrons to pick from the group.  A 23-year-old who goes by the name "Bhu" says she sleeps with a different client every night except her two days off.  "I am saving money so I can continue to go to college once a week," says the young woman with a perfectly symmetrical face and dilated eyes.  For sex workers in both bars and brothels, information about legal rights and such issues as sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, is not widely and consistently available. When asked if women in the brothel practice safe sex, "Bhu" shrugs, "most of the Western men will use a condom because they think we're dirty anyway." Although police are easily bribed, pimps remain palpably afraid of police raids. When I tried to discreetly film inside a brothel, a pimp aggressively confronted me and was only placated after my translator insisted I was using a cell phone to send a text message, not a mini-camcorder to film.

On July 8, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI raised greater awareness about sex tourism by speaking out against the industry: "It is sad to note that this activity often takes place with the support of local governments, with silence from those in the tourists' countries of origin, and with the complicity of many tour operators."  Renowned feminist scholar MacKinnon suggests that "the best approach to the live forms of the sex industry is the Swedish model, which criminalizes the johns and pimps and decriminalizes prostituted people."  Unfortunately, the exact opposite often happens in Thailand. Human Rights Watch reported that the Royal Thai Government, rather than punishing officials and other traffickers, has wrongfully arrested and deported hundreds of Burmese victims in the past, in clear violation of Thailand's obligations under national and international law.   

Globally, an estimated 27 million human beings are trafficked and exploited as forced or bonded laborers in factories, fisheries, fields, streets and brothels as part of a business that is raking in more than $30 billion in profits annually, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review. South Asia, where an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 people are trafficked each year, is often the focal point for this bourgeoning humanitarian catastrophe.  Human traffickers follow the money trail: women from China, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos are trafficked to Thailand; whereas, women from Thailand are trafficked to Japan.  Western sex tourists are conspicuous consumers in homogenous populations; however, human rights organizations such as UNICEF note that the majority of sex tourists in Thailand still come from richer Asian countries, such as Japan. While these regional sex tourists rarely gravitate towards "ping pong shows" with the same morbid fascination as some Westerners, they do funnel billions of dollars into myriad sexually exploitative venues that incentivize traffickers. 

Equality Now says human trafficking is a natural outgrowth of sex tourism, whether that tourism involves prostitution or ping pong shows. "There are certain people who believe you should separate prostitution from trafficking, saying one is work and the other is slavery," says Bien-Aime. "But sexual exploitation is always extremely intrusive, permanently damaging, and a form of violence against women."  She adds perceptively, "working 14 hours [a day] in a factory or blowing ping pong balls out of your vagina should not be a person's only choices."

Special thanks to my translator in Bangkok, Faai (Kanokkwan) Thamavit; my translator in Phuket, Fab (Kasemchat) Thamavit; my fixer in Pattaya and Bangkok, Nuch Ruplek.  

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Read the whole story at Pulitzer Center.