As travellers, it is our responsibility to set a precedent
Disclaimer – I understand that talking about the sex trade industry in Southeast Asia is an extremely sensitive subject, but this is something that I’ve wanted to write for a while now. I had a number of photos that went with this article, but I decided to remove them due to their defamatory nature. As such, this post isn’t as visually colourful as my usual ones, but I hope that the content keeps you reading.
I look around the room to see 12-year-olds smoking and drinking in the corner, ladyboys prowling the room for business, and perhaps the worst of the lot, sexpats sitting at the bar, leering at the local girls. They are sipping beer, chatting to one another with smug smiles upon their faces, as comfortable as they would be in their own pubs and bars back at home. A few backpackers are dancing, oblivious to what’s going on around them, or too closed off to care. I have to admit, from the moment I’ve walked into the room it feels as if it’s fuelled by depravity and immorality, a place where truly anything goes.
Minutes later, this is confirmed to me as a ladyboy walks over wearing a skin tight sequined skirt that barely conceals anything. With lust in her eyes, she asks me if I’m having a good night. She asks me the usual questions – where am I from, what do I do – but before things get out of hand I quickly tell her I have a girlfriend. She tilts her head at an angle, looks at me as if nothing’s wrong, and says “it’s okay if you’ve got a girlfriend. Maybe I can be your boyfriend for the night?” Shocked, I walk away.
As I take in what’s going on around me, I notice there’s a huge gulf in age; those who are 15 and under, and those who are 30 and over. A handful of us in our 20s make up the rest of the crowd. Wanting to know what the huge attraction of Pacita’s Disco Bar is, I ask a middle-aged European standing near me. “The girls. They’re beautiful and cheap,” he replies drunkenly.
Soon after this, I see another European guy sitting in the corner talking to a couple of local girls. He must be 50 or 60, whereas one of the girls – presumably the mentor of the two – is around half his age. The other girl is 20 at a push, and it’s this one that he’s cuddling up to, his arm casually draped over her shoulders, his fingers playing with her hair as he whispers something in her ear. Quickly, she looks away, and our eyes meet across the room; they are glassy.
As the night draws to a conclusion, there’s a beauty pageant for the local girls. One by one they get up on stage, dancing provocatively, whipping up the crowd into a frenzy. Westerners stand head and shoulders above the rest, their drunken whoops heard over the music, lapping up every single dance.
With booze and testosterone running through their veins, they head to the dance floor with a false confidence, looking for one thing and one thing only; all I can do is stand and stare, shocked and appalled.
I would like to say that this is a vivid dream or a figment of my imagination, but this is a night I recently had in Southeast Asia. I would like to say that this is a one-off, but nights like this are happening with frightening regularity.
This is my sixth time that I’ve been to Southeast Asia since 2006, and I’ve grown to love all the countries that I’ve been to and the people from this area of the world, but one thing that’s always surprised and confused me is the sex trade industry that’s rife in certain parts.
I remember travelling around Thailand as a naive 21-year-old, not quite understanding the workings of the world (nor do I now for that matter).
It was then that I learnt a number of Asians marry for money; putting their family’s security first is far more important than love. That I can understand, and it’s not for me to say whether that’s morally right or wrong as Asian culture is very different to one we’re used to in the West.
However, when it comes to money, emotions can become clouded and therefore exploited, hence the prevalence of the sex trade industry in Southeast Asia.
Even though I’ve become more cynical since 2006, and therefore more aware of the sex trade industry in Southeast Asia every time I go back, there is evidence that it has been increasing over the years, with some reports stating the industry has doubled from a period of 2007 to 2010 compared to 2003 to 2006. How is that right?
On what level is it right for a 50 to 60-year-old guy to seduce an unwilling girl in her 20s when the only thing they have in common is money; he has it and she wants it. And it’s not like this scenario is unique; it’s happening day after day. For those of you who have travelled to Southeast Asia, you will know that.
On what level is it okay for guys to keep coming back to these countries because the girls are “beautiful and cheap”?
Do we as ‘morally just’ individuals step in and say something, or stand by and watch people get exploited?
It’s all too easy to argue free will, that it’s the choice of these women, but that’s not an excuse. Whether these women choose to be a part of this profession (which sometimes they do) or are forced into it, there are severe and dire consequences of entering an industry as dark and dangerous as the sex trade industry.
Whichever way you look at it, it’s incomprehensible why a Westerner would want to engage in the sex trade industry when they inevitably should know how damaging it is, not just for the individual involved, but for the overall reputation of the country too. I understand that these guys are sometimes looking for love, possibly trying to rebuild their lives after they’ve been irrevocably torn apart by divorce or by other means, but there is never an excuse to become a sexual predator.
People think that a number of countries in Southeast Asia are morally and socially corrupt. Often it’s not the society that’s corrupt, but the people that visit it. In many cases, that’s us.
On that night described above, I didn’t want to stand aside and watch a young woman getting exploited, so I asked her if everything was okay, and she assured me that it was. I did everything in that situation I could, bar fight the man. However, outside that situation, as a writer, I have the ability to fight with my pen and my tongue.
If I can raise more awareness to something we already know about, and challenge us, as individuals, to question whether it’s right or wrong, then collectively something can be done.
In the future, if you see something that’s questionable, don’t just turn a blind eye but challenge yourself to do something about it. If we expose these people and places a lot more than we currently do then we’ll begin to help, directly contributing back into society.
As travellers, it is our responsibility to set a precedent. As people, it is our responsibility to do something about it.To find out more about the discrimination of women, check out CEDAW, which is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Also, you can check out CEDAW specifically in Southeast Asia, which is something that I’m deeply interested in.
And if you want to directly help out, you can donate some money knowing it’s going to the right people. My chosen charity is CATW, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and they are an international non-governmental organization opposing human trafficking, prostitution, and other forms of commercial sex until it has been completely eradicated. You can donate directly here:
If you’ve ever witnessed the sex trade industry and you want to raise awareness of it in those who don’t know about it, please share this post and spread the message. Collectively, we can do something about it…