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A Plea to Travellers: Stop Buying Sex in Thailand

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KRABI, Thailand--Travelling through Southeast Asia is a rite of passage for many curious adventurers. And Thailand, for most, is an unmissable stop on the itinerary. After all, the "land of smiles" is beautiful, Thais are renowned for their hospitality, and money can buy literally anything one's heart desires.

But there is a seedy underbelly to this confluence of rare traits: sex tourism. (While not the subject of this post, widespread child prostitution remains, perhaps, the most reprehensible side-effect of Thailand's sex industry.)

The apparent absence of restraint -- admittedly an industry of indulgence encouraged by some locals who stand to profit handsomely -- is not synonymous with a license for farangs (foreign visitors) to embark upon a sexual rampage through Bangkok's red-light districts and the country's ethically decaying, yet exquisitely inviting, island retreats. Even the existence of a tolerated, and semi-regulated (though officially illegal), multi-billion dollar prostitution regime is an inexcusable justification for such behaviour.

I'm well aware this makes me sound like a conservative moralist. I'm not at all. But one's inner compass for decency cannot help but be challenged at every turn here. Too often, I watch as a Thai woman (or a "lady-boy," or, increasingly, a Thai man) walks by clasp-handed with her foreign male patron. Her cherubic face belies the truer appearance of an imprisoned consort.

The volume of sex tourism in Thailand is suggestive of an epidemic -- that the men who cavort in Thai brothels and pickup bars must be sex-starved sociopaths in their home countries. Perhaps they're unlucky in love. Perhaps they're just misunderstood. Or, perhaps they just fetishize the exotic "other."

Either way, it is fallacious and naïve to presume that sex tourism is supply-driven. It's baffling that, should they need to so badly, these men cannot pay for sex in their own countries. If they fear the social stigma associated with exchanging money for sex, why should one feel any more comfortable doing so in Southeast Asia?

All this should not detract from the completely normal, loving, and long-lasting Thai-farang relationships that, ostensibly, should be no different whether embarked upon in Canada or Thailand. I've asked myself what it might look like to go out on a legitimate date -- you know, some flowers, a picnic, and a bike ride -- with a Thai woman in Bangkok. The answer, regrettably, is easily divined: Looking on as an outsider, I would be quick to judge my motives.

It's also difficult to pity Thai men for tolerating the foreign sexual crusaders gallivanting through their lands and conquering their women. For in Thai society, indulging in prostitution is accepted, if not encouraged for Thai men. Some women may even condone prostitution for the belief that it minimizes instances of rape against non-prostitutes. To be sure, such circumstances evoke myriad questions surrounding traditional gender roles and domestic relationships.

Anticipating a possible, though far-fetched, criticism from some corners, this narrative might appear to disempower women, or to paint them excessively as victims. Some studies, like anthropologist Cleo Odzer's personal accounts in the early-90s, document the shrewd use of sex by Thai women to secure greater financial independence, and, surprisingly, to offer alternatives to marriage -- an institution considered less than progressive when it comes to women's rights.

Indeed, exchanging sex for money may be viewed as an asymmetrical assertion of power in a male-dominated society (a theory complicated by considering the role of pimps and brothel managers. But, interestingly, there seems to be evidence that excessively punitive enforcement of anti-trafficking measures harms more sex workers than those exploited by traffickers.)

One Thai sex worker with whom I shared a drink the other night seemed to embody this notion. After conversing for some time about her work, she became far less endearing when I turned down her proposition, accusing me of wasting her time and preventing her from courting other clients. To me, the moral choice for both of us was clear. However, she didn't see things the same way. Honestly, it's difficult to blame her.

Trading in sex is undeniably more remunerative, perhaps 10 to 20 times so, than many alternative livelihoods available to, and promoted for, young women without the resources and opportunities to succeed in Thailand's bustling knowledge economy. Rather than slinging hash, crafting wares, or occupying some other vocation to service the country's enormously profitable tourism industry, a one-night stand -- or an extended rental as one's faux-companion -- can be patently more attractive for a young woman's financial prospects.

But, as much as the economic argument bears certain unattractive truths, sex tourism would not exist -- nay, thrive -- without the demand-pull provided by men unable to check at the airport, or to fulfill elsewhere, their hormonal desires. Worse, still: Apart from curbing demand, the exchange of sex for money will never end without equally rewarding alternatives -- of which, financially, at least, there are few. And for that, there's much about which to feel shame.

While incredible organizations, like She Thailand and EMPOWER, exist to help women who want to escape the clutches of the commercial sex trade, far too little is done to crack down on, or even to shame, the consumers who are driving the industry.

So, fellow travellers, young and old, fat and thin, Caucasian and Asian (because lewdness is colourblind), please, I implore you: Stop bringing your unrequited sexual fantasies to Thailand (and to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar). It's demeaning. It's perpetuating. And it's embarrassing.