The Other Victims of Prostitution

A writer in Thailand looks at the the unexpected suffering found in the web of sex trafficking.

His name was Shane. He was a crooked-toothed, cockney-spitting Brit from Essex. He called himself a “traveler.” Not one word came out of his mouth that I would repeat to my mother. When he finally quizzed me on my travels and doings in Thailand, I told him I was trying to make friends with prostitutes and help them find other jobs. After patronizing me for a few minutes, telling me I couldn’t save the world, he charaded himself tying a rope around his neck as if to hang himself. He told me I ruined his night and he needed to head home. Best buzzkill ever.

We all know the playground saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We also all know that’s cute, but not at all true. Shane went his way and his bitter exasperation went with me, haunting me and disillusioning my previous callow disposition toward my mission.

I am living and working in a thriving red-light district of northern Thailand where prostitution is illegal. Don’t worry, there are policemen on every corner. My eyes follow them as they parole in and out of the bars, night bazaars and disco clubs, but don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. These law enforcement officers and public figures are collecting their bribes and payoffs. Essentially sending the unmistakable message that it is completely acceptable to buy and sell women and children. Thailand receives more than 5.1 million sex tourists a year, and the actual numbers may be exponentially higher because many men will never admit to their personal reasons for travel and “business.” Yet it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to determine these “tourists” are not just hiking or working on their tan. These bar districts are teeming with Western men providing me with endless conversations with the faces of the demand serving Thailand’s sex industry. These “johns” are the source of the perpetuation of Thailand’s, and thus the world’s, thriving multibillion dollar sex trafficking cartel.

Before you read any further and are tempted to disparage and judge these johns, namely my friend Shane, allow me to expound my graceful perspective, transpiring my temporary disillusionment, based on my endless conversations with these men.

He is paying for an illusion; he is so fooled he pays for it over and over and over again, hoping each dollar he shells out will purchase the belief he seeks to achieve in his own mind. He suppresses the uncomfortable truths he knows all too well deep in the recesses of his subconscious. The truth is that aside from basic human instincts, he needs intimacy and connection with someone. He wants to forget responsibility and fulfill his most selfish desires by disregarding the humanity of another person. His wants, needs and desires reign supreme. This experience is all about making him feel good.

The bottom line that keeps the flood of Western men flowing into this country seeking cheap women is the basic assumption that men who buy sex are just doing what men do—“boys will be boys.” But undoubtedly, wherever I sit in a bar, after some flirting with some of the local Thai girls, a john will float over to me, simply because he is starved for deeper English-speaking conversation ... only to eventually float back to groping the women at the bar and leaving to take a girl back to his room.

Many conversations consist of family back home, why he is traveling, discussion about the meaning of life and many other contemplative topics. The most frustrating part is I can relate to so many of their questions and rebellious dispositions. Lost and grasping around to hold onto anything to fill the voids in their souls, they invariably wake up the next morning still gasping for the air of meaning. Any self-aware person could have a conversation with one of these men and conclude that they are broken.

The most mystifying part is that I am easily desensitized to the catastrophe of their business with these girls. I watch it night after night and I myself justify their acts with my numbness toward this reoccurring scene and critics arbitrarily flinging their agnosticism on my hopes for these girls’ lives.

I fight to keep my mind from committing mutiny against my very passions that have driven me here to work. It says my precious Thai friends’ comatose revelry is not so bad; these men do have primal needs and at least they pay to help the girls support their families. A john will stare me in the eye and tell me how much he loathes moralistic conversation. He will point his finger into my very existence and bitterly spit words like, “You’re so young and naïve, you don’t understand the culture—these girls are desperate, they don’t care about relationships and they only want your money.”

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As I ride my bicycle home, wondering once again if I am wasting my time, I feel drunken, dubious laughter echoing through an alley and stinging my ears as I ride by. I look up at the black night sky and squint my eyes to make sure, but it seems as if even the moon is laughing at me. I doubt my presence here, I doubt my efforts and I doubt even my mere smile of kindness.

I have to shake that heavy demur off my shoulders into the streets I leave behind. I lift fierce prayers up to God for these broken men and for renewed passions to seek justice for my exploited sisters in the bars. Their countenance looks different, but both the faces of the users and the used display nothing but hopelessness. It’s a leveled playing field, the one that pays for the sin and sins for the pay. They both need endless intercession.



Michelle Miller commented…

I love your heart - and fantastic writing! Thank you for your good work in Thailand. I do similar work in Vancouver, BC with an organization called Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity (REED) and am well aware of the complexities we encounter as we seek to love well.

I'm delighted that you are drawing attention to the 'demand' link of the trafficking chain. So often as Followers of Jesus we focus on showing mercy to prostituted women but remain utterly blind to the men who are buying them. I'm not sure if this is from our collective patriarchal hangover and resulting fear of messing with some wildly entrenched power structures, or just ignorance, but it's refreshing to start some clear naming so we can get at the root of this injustice.

I have to say that I think calling johns "victims" is entering into dangerous waters. Calling johns "victims" because they are lonely and chasing illusions does a grave injustice to the very real power abuses that are happening when a white western man buys a poor woman in a developing country (or anywhere, for that matter). Issues of race, gender, economics are obscured under the banner of pitiable sinner, and we are that much further to eradicating sex trafficking.

The word "victim" elicits pity, which in turn makes us feel all soft and gooey towards the man and not hold him responsible for his crime. Grace, yes. By all means! I adore men. Enough to hold them accountable.


Anonymous commented…

This is spot on. I was just in Phuket Thailand, with a ministry called SHE. We'd go into bars to talk to the women & men there too. It was hard not to judge the men at first... but God definitely soften my heart towards the hopeless "johns". Like you said, this situation needs endless intercession.

I believe that every conversation, connection, and eye contact that you make in those bars WILL shine light into the stand firm & keep fighting for hope!!

...These passages helped heaps while I was in Thailand...

"She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come." Prov. 31:25

"Let light shine out of darkness, made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of Gods glory displayed in the face of Christ.

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." 2 Cor. 4


Alucky7 commented…

The scene you described sounds sadly similar to a scene in a bar in the US or in England. People are empty and hungry for meaning or connection. How can we stop this in our own country as well?
Thanks for doing the challenging work you do there in Thailand.


Kristin R Bruce commented…

matt, i am such a fan of your heart, God uses you in such big ways- get after it brother!

Adeleina Loto-Meleisea


Adeleina Loto-Meleisea commented…

Holy Moly this is a great article. Thank you for slapping some truth and reality onto our faces.

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