Selling Sex in Siam

Trafficking and sexual slavery aren’t new. Nor are they such overlooked or ignored issues anymore. The women’s movement, the courage of Korean "comfort women" who told their stories, and the AIDS crisis are just some of the reasons that trafficking is out of the closet. But the selling of women for a burgeoning sex trade remains a growing problem, often overtaking domestic violence and sexual abuse as the number one issue for activists internationally.

In countries like Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, and Cambodia, the Philippines, Nepal, and India, mainly poor, uneducated girls – children, really – are lured from their homes, sold by their parents, lied to by the people they trust. They end up as little more than indentured slaves in brothels before they know what happened to them. Their stories break your heart and make you wonder how anyone could be so base as to sell a wife, a sister, a daughter into sexual servitude.

In Thailand, Joyce and David Moore, a retired couple from Kansas, are among the many people of faith who became angry and now try to help. The Moores invested their life savings in a safe house they operate for at-risk girls in Chiang Mai. Nineteen girls currently live with them and another five will arrive next May, all referred by missionaries who work with hill tribe people. But they have room for 40 girls and would like to help post-trafficked girls, too.

However, Joyce Moore says their neighbors don’t want prostitutes around. "You can’t get them out," she adds. "There is just no way other than a raid, and there hasn’t been one of those for three years. The sex tourism industry doesn’t want them."

When asked if the police are in collusion with that industry, Joyce Moore shrugs and rolls her eyes. Whatever one may think about the religious proselytizing associated with efforts to rescue girls sold into sexual slavery, there is no doubt that the Moores are, as she put it, "trying to set free those held against their wills." The children they manage to house receive an education and a way to reclaim their self-respect. Many of them learn a trade; a few go on to college.

In Southeast Asia, Thailand – known in some circles as the world’s brothel – is at the center of this disaster. It boasts an enormous domestic market and caters to sex tourists from around the world. It is also a transit hub in a time of globalized trade. Girls and women from China, Burma, Cambodia, and elsewhere pass through on their way to Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and beyond.

Females in northern Thailand are particularly vulnerable. They are gorgeous, uneducated, poor, and eager to "make merit" or give back to their parents, all of which makes them highly recruitable. They quickly fall prey to false promises offered by charming men and women alike. The lies these unscrupulous recruiters tell them quickly feed the unending demand for virgins, rendering the girls "vaginas with a price tag," as Brown puts it.

On the face of it, the girls aren’t necessarily coerced. Nor do parents always know what they have set their daughters up for when they accept a "bride price." But most people realize, or at least suspect, what is about to happen when their female relatives leave home. Also, when you are starving, or have too many mouths to feed, it may become a little easier to sacrifice one child, especially in cultures where girls are undervalued.

In the Mekong region, often referred to as the Golden Triangle, it used to be mainly opium that was loaded onto trucks or secreted across the border at night. Today it’s children. Some of them are delivered to order, others are sold at auction, and still others are taken to "employment agencies" where they go on sale if they aren’t purchased quickly enough.

Here is one girl’s story, as recounted by Brown: "I lived with my mother in a little village. My father had left us and we found it hard to manage. … We never had enough food and we were always hungry. There was a woman who came to our village. … She said she could find good jobs in the city. … I went for an interview. There were two men and they asked a lot of questions. … [A group of girls] left the next day. … We thought we were going to work in a shop but instead they sold us to different brothels."

These girls could not resign their inhuman jobs because – unlike the men who have built an industry buying and selling them – "slaves have no choice," as Brown puts it. Their shame is paralyzing. They are trapped, physically and emotionally. They have no other identity, no security, no safe haven.

In northern Thailand, the prospect of government action is currently just a dream. But in brothels from Bangkok to Burma, there is little more for girls to go on than dreams, and the hope that one day they will wake up to something better.

Elayne Clift, a writer and women’s studies lecturer, is spending a year teaching and writing in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This article first appeared in the November 25 issue of the Vermont Guardian.