Prostitution has been the center of any discussion concerning Bangkok in the last few years and there seems to be no end in sight. Conversely, it appears all of the attention given to Bangkok's infamous red light district, Pat Pong, and the lucrative sex trade it harbours, has done little more than fuel the curiosity of foreigners from all walks of life and perpetuate the industry's popularity. From backpackers and tourists to sexual deviants from around the world, Pat Pong holds an incredible and guilt-ridden fascination. In fact, a large part of Bangkok has been labeled as a modern day Moulin Rouge minus the glitz, glamour and romanticized view of the "courtesan."
Pat Pong is a night market and in actual fact a lot of great shopping can be done in the area.
At the main causeway into the area, travelers are accosted by older, tattooed Thai men offering sex shows. They offer a variety of shows from rare full on sex involving a man and a woman to the infamous ping-pong shows among other deplorable and degrading acts.
Walking down the street, it quickly becomes apparent that the bars in Pat Pong serve one purpose only. The doors are open to lure curious travelers into taking a quick peek as to what is inside. Thai women dance around poles wearing bikinis and wave at passers-by attempting to coax them in for a drink.
Although Pat Pong is not littered with guesthouses like the Khao San road, it is just as overrun by travelers. The only Thais visible in the area are working either in markets or in bars. Much like Khao San road, the area is geared completely toward, and thus funded completely by, tourist dollars. However, the glaring difference between the two is that the item sold at Pat Pong is not a knock off Rolex as on the Khao San, but sex.
The prostitutes themselves generally come from impoverished areas in Northern Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia and almost all are still teenagers. However, there have been many reports of girls as young as four being used in the sex trade in Svay Pak, the red light district of Phnom Penh.
Most are recruited by bar owners luring them to Thailand under the pretence that they will be working in factories for high wages. Instead they are taken to brothels where they become property of the bar. Others are sold into the trade by families who cannot afford to provide for them. Still, others enter the trade themselves because they have no other way to subsist or are born into it as the illegitimate children of western tourists.
Once the girls are sold to the brothel owners and pimps, they usually work under a debt-bondage system. This means that pimps or brothel owners take all the money earned by the prostitute in exchange for the debt they have incurred while under the ownership of the brothel, pimp or mafia. The debts can take years to pay off as the tab can easily be tampered with, keeping it extremely high by adding medical bills or accessory costs as well as charging high interest rates.
Moreover, one must not forget what ownership entails. Once under ownership of the brothel, the prostitutes can be bought and sold at the whim of the brothel owner. Thus, terms and conditions of the transaction are discussed between the john and the bar, with the prostitute having no say. Usually the john negotiates a price and the girl is his for an agreed amount of time. In its most extreme form, this has resulted in johns signing papers at the bar and gaining complete ownership of the prostitute as his "wife." Alarmingly the distinction between a sex trade and a slave trade in South-East Asia is becoming very difficult to find.
Furthermore, the tragic effect of the sex/slave trade has been the beginning of a wide spread AIDS epidemic in South-East Asia. As prostitutes have no say in much of their trade, a foreigner not wanting to wear a condom does not have to. The AIDS situation was summed up quite poignantly by a prostitute in Phnom Penh being interviewed in a Malaysian newspaper when she said, "I would much rather die of AIDS in a few years than of starvation tomorrow."
One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome in fighting the sex trade in South-East Asia is that it is not necessarily regarded as taboo. Unlike prostitution here, there is little or no blame attached to the johns. There are numerous books and articles written by fellow travelers in South-East Asia that speak of respectable backpackers and English teachers sitting in guesthouses, chatting about the recent fantastic sex they had with a young Asian prostitute. This idea of a moral freedom when traveling in Asia is an alarming trend and has certainly lent itself to the burgeoning sex trade.
Fortunately, this is not the case here in Calgary. The Victoria Park community started the "Calgary Ho-down" initiative in 1999 which targets johns specifically by recording licence plate numbers of cars picking up prostitutes or continually circling the blocks in the area. The licence plate numbers and photos are subsequently published on the Internet. Furthermore, the government and police have become actively involved in attempting to crack down on johns. Fines for johns have grown drastically in the last few years as well as increases in prison sentences for pimps.
In South-East Asia, it is the prostitute and not the pimp that is looked down upon. Many johns and pimps are highly respected members of society. In recent Bangkok governor elections, one candidate was a well-known brothel owner who operated on a platform of loosening sex laws and keeping bars open later. Even more blatant was a member of the Vietnamese cabinet who was caught having sex with a nine year old girl. The cabinet member said that he had recently had a string of bad luck and thought sex with a virgin would help.
There are no grass roots initiatives in most of South-East Asia such as the "Calgary Ho-down" simply because there is too much money to be made in the market. There are many aid agencies working in Bangkok and Phnom Penh--the main centers of South-East Asian prostitution--such as the Calgary based Future Group. However, it is becoming readily apparent that the distinction between a sex trade and a slave trade in much of Southeast Asia is becoming increasingly more difficult to find. As long as us foreigners keep on pumping money into the industry and the system of violence, disease, degradation, and abuse continues to exist, these atrocities will surely continue unabated.