In the off-hours of Bangkok’s busy nightlife, massage parlor workers take off their number badges and step out of their “fish tank” windows where they have sat waiting for customers to choose them. Dancers unhook themselves from ropes that supported their athletic prances. They gather around steaming cups of tea and catch up on the latest television soap operas. While these daily routines restore a mood of normalcy to the intense, burned-out life of these young women, everyone is aware that nothing about this life is normal. Many of them must provide sexual as well as entertainment and massage services. And since the AIDs epidemic hit Thailand in the l980s, sex work has become a game of hide-and-seek with death.
Non-governmental organizations, government programs and women’s groups have made sure that AIDs awareness has reached the entertainment business. Public health clinics have been set up in the midst of the neon-lit glitter of the infamous Pot Pong tourist district. These show nonstop video health education programs for patients in the waiting rooms. Women’s groups also established outposts in the same area. Activists are determined to raise the gender bias issues. They have highlighted the plight of child prostitutes, the near slave conditions of massage parlors, and the sexist bias of health programs. And their mission is urgent.
I ventured into Pat Pong with a government health worker. An elderly Chinese couple that owned the bar greeted us with a bow and told us that they hoped all the scare about AIDs was just rumor. We told them that the situation was very critical and that their cooperation was an important contribution to remedy the problem.
As the time approached for the health education session to begin, the bar girls came down the stairs from their quarters. I quickly surveyed their faces that were freshly scrubbed and had no makeup. These were young beauties, some looked like they were in their teens, although they probably had false identification cards. They chattered on like Bangkok swallows, pushing close to each other as they settled into the bar booths.
When the NGO nurse arrived, the noise subsided into an obedient silence and the bar girls sat up attentively like students starting the day with their teacher. The lights dimmed and the slide show began with hopeful musical messages about how sexually transmitted diseases are treatable and where to go for help. A somber tone quickly replaced the gay mood. The photos were unusually explicit, showing skin sores and the cancer-eaten flesh of AIDs patients. Some bar girls looked away. Everyone was pretty scared by the end of the slide show.
The young women were very receptive to the main message of the day: “Use condoms.” Heads bobbed in agreement. Lights up. The nurse took out her packets of condoms and did a perfect finger demonstration of how they slip on. Then, she offered one packet to each girl. One by one they knelt in front of this tall figure who assumed an air of a high-class merciful angel. The bar girls received their unusual gifts with their eyes to the ground and hands folded in respect.
Then, one young woman dared to ask: “How can we get men to wear these condoms? Do you have any suggestions?” The nurse answered with an authoritative voice. ”You must tell men that they might get AIDs or diseases if they don’t.” That comment ended the friendly session and everyone said farewell.
The leader of the group, known as “the men’s favorite,” sat down with my translator and me. She assured me that the bar girls took these education messages seriously and were grateful that NGOs wanted to help. The only problem is that they could not make men put on condoms. They couldn’t explain this to the nurse, but this was their biggest problem. Besides, they had learned to be realistic about the tourist business. “If we tell men that they will get AIDS, they won’t come back and we will lose our jobs,” said the leader.
I compared this situation with that some European countries where sex workers were mostly mature, assertive adults, capable of organizing themselves into semi-unions. But these bar girls had barely crossed the threshold from childhood to womanhood. From their perspective, the grand vision of the feminist movement about empowerment for young women would seem out of reach. In the eyes of Thai society, prostitutes are “bad girls,” and, while something must be done about their problems, they live in a world of drugs and crime that is largely hidden from sight.
Nevertheless, a few women’s groups are working to shed light on an underground world of crime, kidnapping and rape. They are beginning to attract public attention. Prostitution is officially illegal, but enforcing the law is another matter. There are networks of sex slave traders who have cast their nets across Thailand’s hill tribes and poor north and northeast regions to entrap more girls. Some of the victims are as young as ten years old. The age slips lower as the AIDS epidemic progresses and the demand– and prices –for virgins increase.
Feminists report the underlying causes of prostitution are poverty at one end of the problem and efficient sex trafficking organizations at the other. Impoverished rural parents “sell” their daughters under the guise of paying a job “broker” to help girls find a city job at prices as low as $200. But the broker is really trafficking girls from rural villages to cities. Changing hands many times, the victims may find themselves in tea rooms as child prostitutes; later, they are moved into the bars and massage parlors servicing international tourists and businessmen.
Clients from Germany, France, and England have been lured by ads like this one posted by a Swiss travel group: ”Slim, sun-burnt and sweet, they (Thai prostitutes) love the white man in an erotic and devoted way. They are masters of the art of making love by nature, an art that we Europeans do not know.” Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Arab businesses also entertain at establishments where customers can to step into the back rooms for a little “special treatment.”
The tragedy of prostitution in countries such as the Philippines, Korea and Indonesia, is that the victims have often been blamed for the AIDs epidemic. In many countries, sex workers are portrayed as the new “Typhoid Marys” who are the carriers of the HIV virus. Health campaigns often focus exclusively on the health education, control and surveillance of prostitutes — not their male clients. And as if this was not enough, improved surveillance among prostitutes has meant that those who have contracted the virus lose their jobs without health insurance or job compensation to cushion the blow.
It is time to stop blaming the victims. Women activists have called for more legal action and health education directed at the organizers of sex trafficking and at male clients. More concerted action is needed because the HIV/AIDS epidemic kills the most vulnerable women and girls. Worldwide, more women than men have AIDS and UN AIDS reports that HIV prevalence among female sex workers ranged from 6.1 percent in Latin America to 36.9 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.
But let me end my story with a reminder of how rural poverty lies at the heart of the matter. Several months after my Pat Pong visit, I traveled in the poor northeast region near the Laotian border. I met a couple on their farm who were caring for a young child. “She belongs to our daughter,” they told me. “There is no father, so we are taking care of her.” Then, proudly, they told me of their beautiful daughter, how she left to find work in the city and is now working in a big restaurant. I asked the name of the restaurant since I would go back to Bangkok and might take her greetings from them. They said that they didn’t know, but the job must pay very well since she sends money home every month. I looked at the child and remembered the bar girls in Pat Pong. I told the couple that perhaps I will meet their daughter in the city, but I did not say where it might be — in a restaurant, bar, or hospital for AIDS patients.