Guest Post by Tabitha Sikich
January 6, 2014
Nana Plaza, Red light District
Four weeks ago a friend of mine and I found ourselves crowded around a small high-top table, sitting side-by-side on cushioned seats that faced an elevated stage in the middle of the dimly lit room. We sat with our backs against floor-to-ceiling mirrors that lined the entire venue, colored lights flickered and swung overhead to the pulsing music. We were doing our best to look inconspicuous in a place we were obviously not the usual clientele.
Sitting across the table was a young Thai girl, only thirteen years old, smiling at us as she answered our questions in well-tuned English.
“I’ve worked here one year.”
“Yes, I’m from far away. In the country.”
We smiled back, trying hard to pay attention to our new friend’s words in spite of the noise. I was distracted. By the fact that she (and every other girl in the building) was wearing only what you’d see in a Victoria’s Secret ad. And by the agonizingly uncomfortable presence of the middle-aged caucasian man sitting two feet to my left. He was here for a different reason than I was.
So were the other non-Thai men that sat in the dark corners around the room, prowling eyes fixed on the girls that swayed on stage, looking like hungry dogs waiting to devour a meal. If one of them saw a girl he preferred, he’d pick her out by the number she was wearing and add her to his bill. Along with his drinks. Once he paid his tab, he could go, taking his numbered token with him until he was finished with her.
Melissa, my American friend, and I were there in Thailand with a group of others who had partnered with The Sold Project—a non-profit organization that works on the ground in Thailand to prevent the ongoing movement of workers into the human trafficking machine that exists and is growing all over the world. Rachel Goble, director of SOLD and our guide for that two weeks, was to take us on an educational trek across the country to observe the economic, political, and social intricacies of an entire nation that’s riddled with the overt and toxic sex industry.
While we were all on the trip to learn, our education was far deeper than the close-up, gut-wrenching exposure to man’s capacity for exploitation, which was what I’d expected to gain from our time there.
I’d been familiarized with this sort of ugliness before. Sex trafficking — the commercial trade and usage of humans for sexual exploitation by using force, fraud or coercion. Most of us by now have heard that horrific, and all too familiar tale. The one about children getting kidnapped off the streets, locked in a warehouse basement somewhere and forced to give their bodies to any grotesque creature willing to pay a few bucks and keep a secret. Those are true stories. Horrific nightmares that have escaped the realm of imagination and clawed their way into the gruesome reality of this world we live in.
And in the last decade, it seems, the West has been rattled awake to the reality of this kind of injustice. We’re being shaken out of our ignorance and our apathy and are being forced to acknowledge the truth of its existence. Our eyes have been opened with the telling and retelling of that nightmare. It’s been a good, necessary, storytelling. But many of us have been unaware that there is another side to that story. That “other side” was the education I received while I was in Thailand for two weeks.
What I learned is that we humans aren’t just capable of exploitation, we are its master engineers.
The shape of the sex industry is more complex than awareness campaigns in America often portray. Like any other economic system, this one runs on supply and demand. As the demand (men buying sex) skyrockets, so must the supply (women, and men, being sold). What’s happening in Thailand is an ever-widening pipeline that fuels the industry as a result of poverty, corruption, religion (and the list continues).
“Vans don’t come to the countryside looking to pick up girls to work in the bars anymore. They don’t need to. The girls are coming to the cities on their own,” said one of the leaders we met on our visit.
There is more than the ugly narrative of kidnapping and chains—it’s deeper and more systemic. From rural areas, people are flocking to the city in droves to look for work. In the countryside jobs are scant, and hardly pay enough to support individuals, let alone entire families. Education, if it’s available in rural areas, is often inaccessible due to cost or inadequate. Parents, having to choose between their survival and education, aren’t able to send their kids to school, disqualifying them from any jobs that might have been available in the first place. (We were told that a university degree is required for employment at a fast food chain in Bangkok.)
Besides limited jobs and education, another problem is that Thai culture as a whole seems to have grown numb to this kind of exploitation. From the time they’re little, youth are conditioned to view inequality, abuse and promiscuity as acceptable parts of the social structure. An accepted cultural norm in Thailand, but one that’s not to be spoken of, is the assumption that husbands and boyfriends regularly seek and pay for sex outside of their primary relationship. It’s “just the way it is” in Thailand (and elsewhere in the world).
An added nuance to the equation is religion’s role in the mix. A buddhist nation at large, Thai people believe in gaining merit. Boys earn merit for their families by becoming monks for a period of time. Girls however, because they’re excluded from religious roles, earn merit by bringing in an income. But if they’re without education options for work are, as we’ve said, hugely limited.
One field that doesn’t require an education, though, is the booming sex industry. And because there is demand the most vulnerable are those filling the spots—as it appears on the surface—voluntarily. This is the other side of the story. This kind of human sickness, trafficking, isn’t just bad men stealing kids off the street. There are greater complexities. In Thailand, as Rachel Goble put it, “poverty is the trafficker.”
So there we sat, across the table from this child who’d found herself entangled in all the wreckage. Perhaps not chained physically, but bound essentially within the system of her own exploitation. She was there because she had to survive. She was there because, like the majority of the others, she had to send money back to her family in the country. Because she had no other options.
The reality of this atrocity points to entire systems — systems of economics, culture, and religion — that, complexly combined, create opportunity for exploitation of the vulnerable. And we’re not above it. But the enormity of the problem isn’t meant to leave us overwhelmed, and paralyzed with inaction, though the temptation for that response will always be an option.
What it also ought to do is point out our own hand in the equation. That when it comes to systems, we the people make up those systems. We create them, and allow them to perpetuate. And if we begin to acknowledge our role in their existence, and then identify where our hands are invested in the broken systems, we can begin to remove them. And in so doing, fulfill our calling to be agents of redemption, bearers of light in dark places. That begins with our eyes being opened to the entire story.