“As long as a women can be bought or sold, no woman is free.” – Maria Castaneda, Filipina Activist
The brilliant haze of neon lights gives the appearance of daytime. Hundreds of bodies fill the narrow streets. It is almost midnight, but the air is balmy and thick. There is no breeze, no room to breathe. It smells of fried fish, noodles, opium and sweaty flesh. Street vendors shout the same phrase in broken English, “I’ve got good price for you. Cheap, cheap. 200 baht, but for you only 100 baht.”
The consumers, white men and women, sun kissed from days spent lying lazily on the pearly sand beaches of Phuket, elbow their way to the front of lines to pick over cheap trinkets, bartering in mangled Thai, bringing already reduced prices even lower.
Little brown children meander through the crowds, selling flowers – not for lovers, but for idols – to place in front of spirit houses, to appease the gods of the land for allowing these vendors to use their property to buy, sell, and trade.
Designer baggage, brilliant skirts, and handmade jewelry are not the only items available to buy, sell or trade. There are men standing on the street corners with menus advertising girls.
“I’ve got good show for you. One woman. Two woman. Three woman. Only 500 baht. Very sexy.”
500 baht – the equivalent of US$12.
The menu has pictures of girls in assorted sexual positions and girls doing tricks with different parts of their body, like some twisted human circus that one could only imagine in hell. What the man is not saying is that for the equivalent of US$17, one could purchase a girl for the entire night.
I look behind the man to the entrance of the bar. Two pre-pubescent-looking girls are standing in a smoky brume behind the door made of beads. Red pieces of string and lace barely cover their naked bodies – bodies bearing the straight lines of 12-year-old boys. Their faces are powdered white, to appear more Western, or to appear less Thai. And their eyes – their eyes are what make me shudder. They stare, but they see nothing. They are lifeless, bored, and empty.
This is Patpong; the infamous area compromising the red-light district of Bangkok, Thailand, where a flesh-seeker can have any sexual wish fulfilled for less than 20 bucks at the expense of a young girl. Over 100 bars are crammed into two streets that run side by side – an area that can be no more than 1 square mile – with an estimated 4000 women selling sex on any given night.
The sex workers in Patpong represent a small percentage of the total number of commercial sex workers in Thailand. An estimated 2.8 million men, women and children work in the sex trade of a country with a population of 63 million. In 2003, the sex industry in Thailand generated US$4.3 billion, 3% of the Thai economy.
Non-profit organizations have discreetly opened shop in the middle of the red-light districts of Thailand to provide rescue for these victims of sexual slavery. Rahab Ministries is one of the many organizations attempting to rescue women and children from prostitution by providing opportunities for sustainability outside of human degradation. Rahab operates as an agency by day and a salon by night.
Sex workers file into the salon at nightfall to have their hair and make up perfected before servicing customers. The hairdressers are survivors of sexual slavery. Everyone knows the intimacy that is cultivated between an individual and their hairdresser. These visits turn into opportunities for the hairdressers to say, “Look, I’ve been where you are. That life is not your only option.”
During this time, relationships continue to develop and trust is built. The Rahab staff informs the women that during the day, if they are tired, they can come rest at the salon. There are beds available and food is always provided. More often than not, these women start visiting the salon during the day, getting to know the former sex workers and staff. As these friendships develop, the sex workers begin to believe that there is another option to generate income.
With the powerful exchange rate of the US Dollar to the Thai baht, it only takes $300 to rescue a woman from prostitution. Rahab Ministries spreads this money over six months to provide housing, counseling and education for a woman desiring to leave the sex trade. After six months, the woman has usually arrived to a place where she can generate income on her own by the skills and education she has developed during that time.
Although six months may be enough time to establish monetary sustainability, it does not provide enough time to heal the horrific wounds that have been afflicted to a woman’s body or psyche. Most of the women continue to reside in housing provided by Rahab for several years with other women who have survived sex slavery. During this time, they learn the truth: that they are not commodities to be used and discarded. They learn that they are powerful women filled with purpose and value; women who are capable of using their mind and talent to produce an income, not their bodies.
During 2006, Emily worked as an independent researcher and client advocate for Rahab Ministries. If you would like to participate in supporting survivors of sexual slavery, please visit http://www.rahabministriesthailand.org.