I ran across this story about Thais who enter into prostitution to fund an affluent lifestyle and it hit home with me because I have often been frustrated with people who know nothing about Thailand claiming that women are “forced” into the profession. The same could be said for a drug user and drugs; no one is forcing you. Although, depending on your persistence, you may be pressured into becoming a resident of The Canyon.
As the article points out many of these girls are university students who do it simply so they can have the latest fashions or the coolest new mobile phone. None of them are “forced” into because of poverty. Rather it’s a choice based on greed and materialism.
In my experience prostitution in Thailand is has more to do with quick bucks than it does forcing someone to do something against their will. The common argument is that while the girls may not be forced into the profession by pimps or the mafia they are forced into the industry by poverty.
There’s no doubt that Thailand is a poor country but at what point does wealth become a deciding factor in terms of “forcing” someone into a life of prostitution? As the article points out some girls obviously feel that not having an iPhone has forced them to sell their bodies. So where do you draw the line and say that poverty is a legitimate excuse?
Personally, I think you draw the line at being able to sustain yourself. When it’s the difference between eating and not eating. When it means you don’t have a roof over your head if you don’t sleep with someone.
But is your average go-go dancer in Bangkok or bar girl in Pattaya or Phuket sleeping with guys to sustain herself? For the vast, vast majority the answer is no. Many of these girls make many, many times the average working wage that other Thais make. Working in the bars finances a lifestyle.
Certainly there are plenty of girls who get by customer to customer but they tend to be poor at financial management rather than forced into doing it. In other words; if the money wasn’t so easy for them to make they would do a much better job at managing their money so not to always be in a broke state. They might say “no” to friends and family who pester them for money. They may not buy that expensive new mobile. They might not blow a week’s salary on getting their hair done.
I don’t think there’s really any way to compare western prostitution to Thai prostitution which is, unfortunately, where most people go wrong when trying to understand the issue. We can’t view it through our cultural filters. It’s something completely different.
In Thai culture the man’s ability to provide and take of his family is held very highly. In some families I would speculate that it’s held above even love. A Thai girl who marries a man who can take care of her and provide for her family brings her merit and her family gains face within her village.
This mindset is characterized in sin sod where the groom makes a large gift to the bride’s family as a gesture designed to demonstrate that he can financially care for his new wife. It would not be entirely unheard of if the family refused their approval if the groom was unable to offer an amount deemed to be appropriate.
So if you’ve been raised from birth to believe that money is an integral part of marriage or a long-term relationship then it becomes very easy for the lines between love and money to blur.
Not every Thai girl thinks like this but I believe that it points to an underlying cultural issue that is seldom taken into account when people write (or talk) about prostitution in Thailand. Many Thai women are pragmatic when it comes to what in western culture we would call love.
Many Thai women will make a decision about a marrying partner based on his ability to provide and be a good husband and father. While it would be nice, she doesn’t need to be head over heels in love to marry a guy and spend the rest of her life with him. For her it’s a fair exchange which will guarantee her security and gain her family face within their community.
With that sort of mindset it becomes easy to understand the allure of prostitution for poor women in Isaan. One day young Lek is sitting in her village and her cousin comes home from working in Bangkok with fancy clothes, a new mobile, and lots of money. Everyone in the village pays Lek’s cousin respect because she has money and many nice things. Lek’s cousin also sends money back to her parents who have used it to buy a new house which has gained much face for her parents.
When Lek asks her cousin how she too can have all these nice things and gain face for her family the cousin tells her about this fantasy world where farangs spend more money in one night partying than Lek’s parents make in an entire month. The cousin tells her how rich the farangs are – which she’s heard over and over again growing up – and how most of them want Thai girlfriends.
When the cousin offers to help Lek get a job in her bar Lek can’t pack her suitcase fast enough. Soon she’s off to Bangkok with her cousin who introduces her to the bar mamasan who tells her how to get a man. She’s not entirely comfortable with dancing up on stage or having sex with customers but her cousin says it’s easy and they’ll give her 2000 baht!
Besides, it’s only a matter of time before some white knight comes in, sweeps her off her feet, and takes her away from all of this. He’ll shower Lek with money, build her family a mansion, and Lek will have gained much merit for being such a good daughter and providing for her parents.
Of course the white knight never comes. Or maybe she thinks she’s found a white knight but like all men he has his flaws and she discovers that the fantasy world where she became the Isaan queen to her farang king is just that; a fantasy.
Over time she’ll harden up a bit. The endless nights of drinking and having sex with anonymous strangers will wear on her. She’ll start looking to make the big cash before her looks run out so she’ll go on the hunt for sponsors who will send her large sums of money while they pine away for her affections back in their home countries.
When you meet Lek in her bar and ask her how she got into this life she’ll tell you she was forced into it because she was poor and needed to support her family.
And thus the myth of being forced into prostitution is born.