spinning the straw of lust into gold

“Tip came from near Pattaya when she was 14 to find work that would help support her poor family. She came to Bangkok with a friend, knowing quite clearly what she would do. And she is proud to have built a new house for her parents, to have recycled the wealth of countless farangs into concrete and bricks which, to her, represent security, solid and tangible, the more impressive because it has been salvaged out of something so fleeting and evanescent as male desire. They have created something out of nothing, the material proof that they are dutiful daughters; like women in a fairy tale who spin the straw of lust into pure gold. This is where they feel they exercise their real power, even thought that power remains in the service of gratitude to fathers and mothers, working off the indissoluble bondage of duty to the kindred.” — Jeremy Seabrook, Travels in the Flesh Trade

Jeremy Seabrook is one of the two authors who inspired me to try to write something about Thailand beyond the usual expat writing of “wow, there are elephants walking down the street!”, and “Bangkok has great street food”. If you read one book about sex tourism in Thailand, read “Travels in the Flesh Trade”. It goes beyond the greasy approval of sexpat writers, and the voyeuristic condemnation of human rights activists to talk about the soul itself, loneliness, urbanisation, and the longing for love.

He talks about the link between sex tourism and development:

“The purpose of this work is also to reach some more difficult questions about the purposes and directions of forms of development that have caught up the destinies of rich westerners with those of poor country migrant women and men from Thailand. What has set whole populations in movement this way, what kind of uprootings and dislocations link the livelihood of the daughters of rice farmers with the vacation or the retirement trip, the gilded migrations of Western tourists?”

and also about the link between sex tourism and the urbanization of countryside people:

Moreover people in Thai society do not express emotion. It is often very lonely for those who come to the city. People find it difficult to reach out to each other, and this is perhaps why the longing for someone is so pervasive, even among sex workers. This is very different from the relationship embedded in family and kinship structures, this is the anguish of transition, if you like, becoming urban, learning to live in a different way.

I consoled my Thai friend Guy when he broke up with his foreign boyfriend. Guy was 20 years old, his boyfriend a 60 year old greasy Canadian man with bad posture and a wispy pate that made my skin crawl. I was just getting ready to say “I’m glad that ended. He treated you like a father, not like a boyfriend. It was creepy.”, when Guy sobbed “He was like a father to me. He showed me so much about the world”. I then understood something about these kinds of relationships that I didn’t understand before.

Guy used to proudly show me the bags and bags of expensive skin creams he bought with the boyfriend’s money, including, I am not kidding, tubes of “Botox with Gold” cream, containing flakes of real gold. He would invite me to “his condo”, which of course was a condo that the boyfriend rented, not owned, but it sounded more rich to say it like that. Guy was generous and good-hearted, using his boyfriend’s money to treat his friends, but he was also confused like a kid. “Why doesn’t he trust me?”, he wailed, after his boyfriend had accused him of cheating. “Because you cheat on him all the time”, I thought to myself, but I didn’t say it. But he was, in his way, a living embodiement of all the things Jeremy Seabrooke talks about: a good-hearted kid from the provinces, lonely and surrounded for the first time by the incredible and mostly unattainable wealth of the capital, longing for a connection that is difficult to find for all of us, from the wealthiest to the poor.

“until last week, or last month at the latest, Bangkok must have been a ghost city; because all the beautiful young women and all the sweet young men have only just arrived; perpetually new to the city, they have not yet been ruined by it. Theirs is a life of constant new starts, fresh pages, relationships just begun, a constant renewal of hope, even when they know the city devours their friends and the people they came with from the village. By saying they just arrived, they wipe out all the disagreeable experiences.”

8 Responses to “spinning the straw of lust into gold”

  1. 1 jan February 26, 2009 at 12:40 am

    Taksins Mia Noi apparently called him “Dad” as well (and his wife Mom). The age difference must have been not too different to your friends relationship. But then again afaik Thais call their friends parents “Mum” and “Dad”, so i’m not sure it is something that you can translate at all.

    What comes to my mind as well: When you compare the paid sex market for domestic and foreign males, the foreigner part is so small, i guess it’s under 10%. Does the domestic market not help to spread the wealth to the countryside?

  2. 2 julielavoie February 26, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Hey Jan,

    interesting commment about thaksin! yeah, I don’t know what’s up with the Mom and Dad comment, except that I think familial-styles of address are pretty common in Thailand to indicate respect, even with people who aren’t your blood family.

    I hope that a Thai reader will pipe up about this. But when I worked in a Thai office, I had a “Pee”, an older person in the office that I called “Pee [name]” who would help me with stuff and look out for me. The Pee-nong relationship isn’t exactly like older brother, younger sister, but it’s something related I think (again, hopefully a Thai reader can shed some light), and I’ve seen older people who are called “Lung” (uncle), and also Mae — mother. My guess is that since family is the most important relationship in Thai and most Asian society, everything else is modeled on that.

    But you bring up something interesting because I do think that the patron-client, and older/younger system that exists in Thai society is one of the things that contributes to the prevalence of prostitution, in the sense that there is already this existing, legitimate type of relationship that might include affection, friendship or love, but contains a strong amount of duty and obligation. It’s easy for prostitution to fit into this existing social framework.

    You’re right that the domestic market for prostitution is much bigger, if only because there are many more Thai men in Thailand than foreign men. However, I’ve grown quite bored of that idea when it’s used to argue that the preexistence of prostitution in Thailand made all forms of sex tourism ok. There was stealing between Thai people in Thailand before I arrived, does that make it ok for me to come to Thailand and steal?

    No doubt prostitution spreads wealth to the countryside, but I mean, by that same argument, so would child labor, contract killings, selling drugs, and many other forms of economic activity that generate income but might not be that beneficial for your society.

    It sounds here like I’m wholeheartedly condemning prostitution, and I’m not — like Seabrook, I think it’s a topic a lot more complex that it just being 100% good or 100% bad, being for or against it, but I really don’t think that the arguments that you mention are really good cases for it.

  3. 3 James March 2, 2009 at 11:53 am

    “However, I’ve grown quite bored of that idea when it’s used to argue that the preexistence of prostitution in Thailand made all forms of sex tourism ok. There was stealing between Thai people in Thailand before I arrived, does that make it ok for me to come to Thailand and steal?”

    No, you’re right – that would be indulging in the worst kind of relativism. But should we equate prostitution with stealing?

    Consent must be the prime moral issue particularly here (but also in general, I think… and stealing is wrong because it’s taking without consent).

    The question is does she consent here or not? Do both parties, the prostitute, and the customer, have a choice here or not?

    Here it’s a case of a third party making this judgment, this assumption, that she doesn’t have a choice, or that she isn’t free to determine her own actions. (But if she does choose, would you agree that there’s no problem or?) That would sort of be the human rights activists’ position, I suppose. Either that or there’s a blanket condemnation of prostitution made on the basis of hand-me-down deontological ethics, a missionary position…

    It seems obvious that the one (the sex-tourist) coerces the other through their material advantage. That there’s some power the purchaser has that the seller does not. But to treat it just like that diminishes the agency that the prostitute has here: her choice as a subject (in so far as we discount her contingent circumstances – material wealth etc – that would constitute her existential ability to choose).

    There is this tendency to try to represent people (i.e. ‘third world peoples’, a particular sort of right-thinking racism), a tendency to represent a party precisely without that party’s consent (which I think you also noted above, wrt to human rights activists etc), to speak for them, and so to diminish them…

    There often seems to be an implicit assumption in that they (the proposed ‘exploited’) couldn’t choose for themselves, that they’re just pawns being (or to be?) manipulated.

    It’s exactly this categorization of peoples, implicit racial & existential assumptions, that leads to this sort of paradoxical imperialism; when people are spoken for by those ‘better off’, supposedly, for ‘the right reasons’, it actually diminishes them as autonomous subjects, as agents of their own actions. The possible consequence is that they actually never have a chance to speak for themselves…

    I just think we should be careful who we’re speaking for, and why.

    *Also, I think the prostitution market we’re discussing here is all ‘domestic’ isn’t it? (But the foreign customer gets his wealth from aboard but the indigenous customer [presumably] doesn’t). Just speculation but I’d still guess the foreign customer spreads far more wealth to the countryside (in the form of ‘buffalo’) since I’d imagine the local countryside market is kind of zero-sum for the area (i.e. locals exchange with locals & with money made locally). That’s the sort of scenario I’ve seen in Vietnam, not sure about Thailand though.

    **Oh, I use the feminine pronoun here just for convenience, not because there aren’t any male prostitutes ;P

  4. 4 julielavoie March 2, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Hi James,

    interesting commment. The point you bring up about talking about speaking about and for third parties is a good one. Many groups that work for the rights of prostitutes talk about this, as in “stop talking about us, we’re not just voiceless victims, let us speak for ourselves” and in some ways they have a point. Certainly, their own point of view deserves to be heard about their own situation.

    But I mean, again, to me you have to look at who these arguments are coming from. When I see a sex tourist who is full of arguments about how prostitution helps the thai economy, farangs didn’t invent it anyways, the girls chose it so we need to respect their choice, etc — I ask myself — what are his real motives? Is he really such a humanitarian who care about womens’ right to choose their own profession and who just want to help the thai economy? I mean, *come on*. Especially when in the next breath, he’ll talk about how he’s a “refugee from feminism” back home or other such nonsense — if he really cared about respecting women or their right to choose, surely he would be in favor of something that would give her other options than being a 30$ whore?

    Or under his nice-sounding arguments, does he really just care about preserving his “right” to buy the bodies of poor women and exercise power over another human being in ways that are unacceptable at home?

    As for choice, it’s meaningless to say that someone *chose* to be a prostitute unless you understand what her other choices were. If someone can choose between being a prostitute and being CEO of CP group (that owns 7-11, btw) — ok, I’d say she chose to be a prostitute. But between being a prostitute and starving to death, is that really a choice?

  5. 5 James March 12, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    lol, sorry, I did actually respond to the last post but I managed to somehow delete it just as it had reached its denouement (it was very long) – and then I didn’t have time to write it all out again, and now I’ve totally forgotten what the main points were, so…

    But completely coincidentally, just found this: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=why-do-men-buy-sex – “In Thailand, where prostitution is illegal but socially accepted, one study suggested that a whopping 95 percent of men have slept with a prostitute.”

    So further proof that prostitution is completely naturalized in Th.

  6. 6 julielavoie March 12, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    Hey James,

    yes, I agree, for Thai men visiting prostitutes is a normal thing. Remember Saphan Kwai — you see them go in groups after work “pai teo pooying” still in their company outfits to visit the brothels there.

    Most Thai men have lost their virginity not with a gf or female friend like most guys at home, but with a prostitute.

    I mean, I even have guys friends who tell me: “hey, do you want to go get happy ending massages?”, sort of like the same way I’d propose “hey, do you want to get some ice cream?” — I’m always kind of shocked at how normal it is. Teachers talk about happy ending massages in class (these are Thai men)

    But I mean, a lot of things are considered normal here that we *know* are not good things — corruption, child labor, common place racism and discrimation, rich people being able to kill poor people and bribe their way out of it, the treatment of illegal migrants like the burmese which is effectively modern slavery, which are all examples of abuses of power, lack of fairness and universal rights. When I go to Siam Paragon, or look at the number of BMWs on the street, I don’t feel like Thailand is a poor country — but when I look underneath at how few limits there are to abuses of power in Thai society, all the things above — that’s where I see that Thailand is still a third world country, and this widespread acceptance of the idea that men are entitled to buy women (and other men) is an example of this.

  7. 7 jan March 18, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    very interesting topic i think, as the acceptance of commercial sex it sais quite a bit about society.
    i think one of the main reasons it is widely accepted is the “mia noi” thing. i recently read that most Thai women in a relationship do not even expect their partner to be honest, because they just can’t imagine that it would be realistic for the guy to stay monogamous.
    Actually most recently non-gay male prostitution seems to become increasingly popular. one reason is that women claim to have the same right as men.
    i found it somewhere in the links in the wikipedia article on thai prostitution, which is quite good.


  8. 8 James March 21, 2009 at 3:51 am

    “that’s where I see that Thailand is still a third world country, and this widespread acceptance of the idea that men are entitled to buy women (and other men) is an example of this.”

    I agree with this, if people feel they’re ‘entitled’ then it’s wrong, of course, but still regards prostitution in general; i have met prostitutes and read first-person accounts where the prostitute considers it a liberating profession, and even, yes, enjoys it… which is more than you could hope for than most jobs.

    I think to sum up, the problem is when the prostitute is coerced into doing it, I mean if the choice is between farm work & prostitution, I agree it isn’t much of a choice, but it’s still a choice… there were alternatives. Plus, the attitude of the buyer shouldn’t be one of entitlement, or of one of wanting to humiliate or abase the prostitute – as is so common, but I think a lot of that comes from just being so fucked up about sex, in general… but i do think this culture of respect would be better engendered if prostitution were like any other business, open, regulated, and discussed. (n.b. of course many prostitutes consider the ‘john’ to be the pathetic one, not themselves)

    Anyway, so far as people can be said to be free to chose, that will only happen with economic/political equality (i.e. most of the problems regards prostitution are systemic economic, liberating is inseparable from that) – that’s why I resent the reduction of what I consider to be far more serious systemic problems regards choice/equality to identity politics.

    I think it deflects from the real problems.

    btw I agree with you Julie, regards things that are considered ‘normal’ not always being good things. But that’s true of any society. Often the commonsense ‘realist’ view is the one that opposes true progress, obv. we need to forget about what’s normal to see how ideology really works… and btw some would say that in the ‘first world’ there’s still an implicit belief that people have the right to buy others, it just tends to be more abstract – not that that isn’t an advance lol ;P

    @Jan: “Actually most recently non-gay male prostitution seems to become increasingly popular. one reason is that women claim to have the same right as men.”

    This is the true formulation of (gender) equality for me! It’s seen as more-or-less OK for men to be polygynous, have extra-marital relations, mia noi etc but women are expected to be ‘faithful’, ‘pure’ typical patriarchal normalized doxa. Why should women be different? I know this is the case in the UK, there was a tv show about women going to places like Jamaica, North Africa etc to pay for sex and the tone was one of outrage, bordering on disgust ‘how can our women be doing this (etc)?’ (implicit message perhaps being: AREN’T WE ENOUGH FOR THEM?) – so-called purity is no more a virtue than chastity…

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A blog about culture and technology in South-East Asia.

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