I would have liked the tall, red-headed American man who sang Johnny Cash songs with me as we hung out doing nothing on the island of Ko Phangan in the Gulf or Thailand. The whole cast of characters at the resort was pretty good. Except for this one thing.
Red-Headed Guy had a paid companion, a young Thai woman by his side. And Handsome American and Skinny Brit showed up with “companions” too. (I heard the one with the Brit more than I saw her. Either he was the world’s greatest lover or she thought that pretending he was would earn her a good tip. Guess which one I think is more likely.)
The young woman with Red would say something to him quietly and he would laugh and shake his head and say, “I tell you. They’re not stupid.” No buddy, I didn’t think they were. The imbalance I was worried about was not one of intellect (which could have been swinging the other way), it was one of power.
I fully admit that the women were beautiful, plentiful and available. So maybe it wasn’t that surprising to see men partaking of one of Thailand’s most famous attractions. But I was surprised that they didn’t seem to be the least bit ashamed or embarrassed by what they were doing. Do these guys use prostitutes when they’re at home? Obviously, I have no way of knowing, but I’m betting that if they do, they’re more discreet about it.
Perhaps this issue is not as black and white as I would like to think. It’s conceivable that a few (very few) of these women might live better lives because of having this avenue available. And there are probably a lot of relationships that are closer to the trading-sex-for-security end of the spectrum than any of us want to admit. Indeed, if I thought these women had options and were making this career choice free of coercion, maybe I wouldn’t judge. But I don’t think that. And I don’t really believe that Red, Handsome or Brit think so either. These women are not Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places. They’re not even Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
As travelers, we are the ones with the power. We have the money to fly to the other parts of the world. Having power also means, or should mean, having responsibility. Do I find it a little fascinating that women can shoot darts out of their vaginas? Yes. But its not something I want to support so I didn’t go see it. Sexual tourism means that women’s bodies are turned into a commodity – something people can make money on by controlling. Sexual tourism could not exist without sexual tourists. It’s there because of us.
To me this seems like a pretty straight forward case for applying the Golden Rule. If you would not want your sister/daughter/mother/child put in this position, then don’t put someone else’s sister/daughter/mother/child there. Simple as that.
Hats off to all of the western men (and there are a lot of them) who travel to Thailand and do not participate in “sexual tourism”. I hope Red, Handsome and Skinny Brit will reconsider before their next trip there.