Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sex Tourism and Exploitation

(Me, with an Elephant! Which has absolutely nothing to do with this post, except that it happened in Thailand)

I just returned from a three-week vacation to Southeast Asia. It was incredible. Seriously, I wish I was there right now. But cheap food, exotic sight-seeing and brilliant weather aside, I did see a few things that disturbed me, while I was traveling through this popular region; An extremely large amount of older western men, with very young, very beautiful Thai women. By older I mean, older than 60 and by younger, I mean 30 or younger.

Had I seen only a few people of this demographic, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, other than, “Oh, two people, who despite substantial age and cultural differences, have been able to meet and fall in love.” But rather, seeing it so much, in a region quite commonly known as the “Las Vegas of Asia,” made me wonder a little bit about this trend.

Having lunch with a couple that fit this description (plus a few of the Western man’s cronies) gave me some further cause for concern.

Sex tourism and exploitation: this is how the situation played out to me.

Allow me to illustrate; I was backpacking alone through Southeast Asia, meeting some of the friendliest and most-interesting people that I’ve met in a while and so, when two older gentlemen spotted me perusing the menu at a restaurant they were already patronizing, and they invited me to join them for lunch, I accepted.

Oh, how naïve am I?

The two men, one from England, the other from America, began to flirt with me the moment I sat down (and I say this from a place of humility, remember I’ve been backpacking for two weeks, I basically looked like crap).

For about ten minutes they joked back and forth about flirting with me, telling me about their travels and advising me to “scoot in closer” as they had two more friends about to show up (the table was massive). They told me about their favorite bars and hot spots, about how they met, and on and on.

And then, up walked their friend and his, young, beautiful Thai girlfriend. They sat down across from me and so began my increasing disgust. The girl, who’s English was quite good, was frequently patronized, condescended too and ignored. The buddies all joked about their last trips to Chiang Rai (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) despite the presence of his girlfriend. They bitched about their ex-wives and regaled me with stories of their drunken exploits. The man sitting closest to me even leaned over and rubbed his ribs, telling me in a mournful voice that they’d been at a Discotheque until 5 am a few days ago, and he’d gotten so drunk that he’d fallen down some stairs and bruised his ribs.

And you thought I would be impressed by the story of you hitting on younger women and getting drunk and falling down the stairs? Are you joking me? (Here’s the other sad thing about this lunch, not only did I have to listen to this for an hour, the food at the restaurant gave me food poisoning and I spent two days in a Thai hospital for it.)

I swiftly came to the conclusion that I was sitting with a bunch of 65 year-old frat boys. I was disappointed and I have to say, I’ve met loads of much-younger, mature, responsible, fun and decent male travelers who impressed me far more with their conscientiousness, their decency and their intelligence.

Here’s my point. We shamefully still live in a world where this kind of attitude is ok. Nay, it’s more than ok, it’s actually great isn’t it that these older men could escape from their loveless marriages and move halfway around the world and be with a beautiful, younger woman. Aren’t they just living the dream? I mean, I swear I’ve seen this movie before; Adam Sandler and Tim Allen were probably starring as two, slightly overweight American men who go on vacation (from their stifling lives of Western conformity) and finally learn to be men by abandoning all sense of decency….

Can we just forget exploitation? Forget the father-like controlling attitude towards women that this suggests? Forget the blatant disrespect shown to the young woman across from me? Even I felt like a fun toy for their afternoon meal.

I was disgusted by their entitled and insensitive attitude.

Thailand currently has a massive sex trade. The joke, a massage with a happy ending, is a sad one because of its real prevalence. Sex slavery and prostitution abound. For those seeking an easy sexual experience, outside of the moral boundaries of the west, it is easy to obtain.

In speaking with several male travelers I encountered, all of them had been offered prostitutes and “massages” such as these, while just walking down the road. Hostels will even have an explicit policy that you cannot bring women back to your room because the use of these prostitutes is so prevalent.

And logically, it makes sense. If all of these western men are constantly being offered these kinds of services, it means that enough men are using them.

It’s a heartbreaking situation I think; Western men are exploiting sex slavery. That’s right, read it again, SEX SLAVERY.

These are not willing prostitutes, but young girls who have been SOLD into slavery at a very young age.

Such practices are banned in the west; why then, would it be ok to go to another country and do something that is not only illegal (I mean, I jaywalked in Southeast Asia a lot) but also morally reprehensible? What mentality exists among Western countries that they think this is ok?

Now, it’s not all Western men utilizing these services, Japanese and South Korean tourists make up roughly 25% of the people exploiting Southeastern prostitutes.

And, I’ve heard, that a good portion of Thai women who are in these kinds of relationships, will scam these men out of money and real estate. And, to share some positive, non-cynical message, there probably are real love stories out there between these unorthodox couples.

However, to me, that doesn’t the change the fact that there is obviously STILL a huge problem with the mentality our young men are receiving in the West, when young men utilize foreign sex slaves and older men ditch their Western wives to exploit younger, Thai women. It speaks of an ideology in which these men still seek control over the women their with, to be the ones with the upper hand in the relationship (an upper-hand that is offered by the use of wealth).

I loved my time in Southeast Asia, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are some very disturbing things going on over there, that we are contributing too….And I didn’t even mention the massive amount of Elephant abuse that happens over there (I know it’s kind of silly, but I really love Elephants, ok?).

How can we counteract this, folks? What can we do to help remove social injustice from these areas? What do you do to help fight against exploitation, either in your own country or abroad?

What can we do to change this mentality?


  1. This is an issue very near to my heart, since I spent so much of my childhood living in Thailand and seeing this happen. This is such a complex issue. (Incidentally, male prostitutes in similar situations have propositioned me on the street also; you'll also find transvestites in this situation, which raises a whole bunch of other issues.)

    Ultimately, when it comes to sex trade in Thailand, I think it's less productive to push for better attitudes in Western men and women than to search for ways to encourage the legalization of prostitution in countries like these.

    Currently, prostitution is illegal in Thailand, and that's actually contributing very highly to the problem there. Because it's illegal, those sold into prostitution cannot go to the police for help without being arrested and jailed (and probably being sexually assaulted in jail). They're stuck as sex slaves, without money, without education, and without any way of getting out of that horrible situation. Police will often go under cover to catch prostitutes, but instead of arresting these women, will instead have sex with them, THEN reveal that they're police, and will blackmail the prostitute into having free sex with them in exchange for not being arrested. These women also don't have access to the health care they need - so they're constantly at risk for all sorts of STIs, etc., and their children are filling the orphanages (and in the future, the brothels) of the country. Legalizing prostitution in a country like Thailand would give these people the ability to approach the police in order to free themselves from sex slavery.

    In terms of the broader issues you mentioned (elephant abuse, wider social injustice, etc.), I think the issue again isn't to focus on Western attitudes. Western influence is, I think, the problem. Thailand's economy depends almost entirely on the tourist industry, and so many of the problems you could list stem from a desire to maximize profits. Since Thailand depends so much on the influx of outside money, they struggle to address internal issues. Ultimately, I think anything that would help the Thai economy revolve more around the needs of Thai people first, rather than on the needs of Westerners, would start to remedy these problems. So, "in what ways will helping elephants help Thailand?" becomes an important way of looking at things. You didn't see elephant abuse happening in Thailand before Westerners starting coming in and exploiting the country - elephants are sacred in Thai culture.

    Of course it's helpful to work not to exploit the people in countries we visit, but I think on the Western end of things, it's not so much what we do when we're IN a country that matters, but what we do when we're at home. Okay, so when a person visits Thailand, he or she doesn't exploit the sex workers. But when that person is at home, does he or she purchase merchandise produced in Thai sweatshops because it's cheaper? On the Western end of things, I am FAR more interested in the insidious influence we have in these countries in terms of trade. The way we treat these countries in terms of trade informs, and I would argue even causes, a great deal of the issues you see culturally. The Western sense of entitlement needs to go.

    (Incidentally, the sex tourism in Thailand really took off during the Vietnam War, because soldiers went there for R&R and the war was causing so much uproar in the Southeast Asian economy that prostitution was the only way for many families to feed themselves. American soldiers felt entitled to this treatment, because after all, weren't they protecting the Thai people?)

  2. You both are foolish biased feminists with no idea of reality.