I really, really never thought I’d spend a Monday night this way:We walk into the side entrance of a swanky, gold-marqueed hotel and towards a back room that promises ‘turkish bath massage.’ “How do farang know that this is sex massage not massage/massage?” I ask my friend Rin. “You have to look around, look at the environment,” she grins as she pushes open the door.
There, inside the murky bar, we see what can only be described as a ‘lady aquarium’ – a brightly lit, glassed-in corner where sex workers in brightly colored dresses sit on red velvet risers, waiting for customers. They smile at us and wave; Rin shows the bartender her giant bag of condoms and pulls me toward the entrance of the aquarium. We stumble inside and Rin starts handing out condoms and promoting my English class. I smile shyly at the ladies and feel oddly under-dressed in my jeans and fleece. Some of the women are watching a Korean soap opera on a tv in the corner, one is painting her nails, several are barefoot. They’re incredibly sweet and coo over my hair and skin and promise to attend class if they’re not sleeping or hung over at when it starts at 3 pm the next day.
We slip back out and the customers seem unconcerned by the appearance of two be-jeaned NGO workers. They turn back to the aquarium to watch the ladies in the sparkly little nothings.
I spent the last week in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand teaching English to sex workers with EMPOWER, an NGO that works towards safe, fair working conditions for sex workers. And to be 100% honest, I took this gig completely out of curiosity. What would these women be like? What would they look like? If I met them on the street, would I be able to guess that they were sex workers?
Before coming here, I imagined 14-year-old girls sold to pimps by their families, smuggled across borders in the back of a truck and then trapped in brothels, humping 70-year-old men.
Or maybe that’s just me and my tendency towards hyperbole. The reality is significantly less shocking.
* Every sex worker I met had made an active choice to be a sex worker. No one had been ‘sold into’ prostitution. No one ended up in sex work because she’d failed at other jobs. They all wanted to be there.
* Despite what investigative news shows would have us believe, child prostitution is actually very, very rare in Thailand
* Thai sex workers don’t see themselves as victims and they are not interested in rescue/rehabilitation/retraining. One woman asked me “Why do I have to learn how to use a sewing machine? So I can be a tailor and make no money? And I can’t send my children to school? When I’m a sex worker, I can make a lot of money to send my children to school and university. I can help my parents and I can build a house. I don’t want to sew!”
* All the sex workers involved with EMPOWER have taken a pledge to use condoms with every customer, every time
* Just like any job, sex workers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. I met model-esque 20-year-olds in tiny dresses and false eyelashes. I met 40-year-olds in track suits and no make-up, playing bingo on the patio outside a bar.
* There are married sex workers, divorced sex workers, single sex workers. There are sex workers with children.
* Sex work in Thailand is actually quite different from other countries. Most sex workers are employed by a karaoke bar, where they work as employees, with shifts and work schedules. They wash glasses, serve drinks, chat with bar patrons, dance, sing songs, give massages and give tours of the city. EMPOWER estimates that only about 2% of their time is spent performing sex acts.
What are your thoughts about sex work? Degrading to women? Serving a need within society? Should be legalized? Should be banned?