Last June, I left Canada during the highly controversial G20 Summit and flew to the other side of the world to investigate an even more contentious issue: sex tourism in the red-light districts of Pattaya, Thailand, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
People often assume that my interest in this deeply troubling subject stems from knowing someone who was a victim of sex tourism. That’s not the case. But in 2006, I did meet Andrea, a fellow U of T student who was a sex-trade worker. She was in her early 30s, a single mother of two sons, and a prostitute by night. She hated the work, but, from her perspective, it was the only job that would enable her to financially survive. The day I met Andrea is the same day that I became more sympathetic to the plight of women who, for reasons related to social inequalities, choose to enter the sex trade.
As a result of my encounter with Andrea, I began volunteering with OneChild, a Canadian organization dedicated to eradicating the commercial sexual exploitation of youth throughout the world. While working one evening a week from home, I became aware of some horrifying statistics. For example, the International Labour Organization estimates that 1.8 million children under 18 (most reported cases in the 15-17 age range) are exploited in the sex industry each year, experiencing extreme physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
This past summer, Cheryl Perera, director of OneChild, and I headed off to conduct research on the major sex capitals of Southeast Asia. The material we collected will be used for OneChild’s fundraising projects. We wanted to find out what local agencies across Southeast Asia are doing to combat youth sex tourism and what their financial needs are. From there, OneChild will try to raise the necessary money on their behalf.
One of our first stops was “Walking Street” – the red-light district in Pattaya. We saw dozens of Caucasian men wandering the neon-lit streets with their much younger and more attractive escorts. The lack of job opportunities available to women with few skills, coupled with a low-quality national education system, makes prostitution one of the few viable options for those in need of money. Some women are sold into prostitution by their parents during childhood, while others are runaway youth who stumbled into the “glamorous” world of sex and drugs.
As Cheryl and I made our way along Walking Street, two locals tried to sell us tickets to the infamous Ping-Pong Show. We had heard about these types of performances where women (who are often underage) insert ping-pong balls into their nether regions and then bounce them out. What makes the reality of ping-pong shows absolutely horrifying to me is that we – whether we are Canadians or Europeans, part of the wealthy business class or the backpacker community – perpetuate the demand for these types of “exotic” dances by attending them out of sheer curiosity.
We decided to leave Walking Street and head over to “Boyz Town” – the gay area of the red-light district. Even though the two areas were adjacent to one another, we got lost. We approached an older Caucasian man – an individual whom we correctly assumed was a sex tourist. It turned out he was heading over there and offered to guide us. He was an Australian expat living in Tokyo, and a retired pilot who enjoyed free flights around the world. And where did Mr. Retiree fly? The red-light districts of New York, Paris, Amsterdam and Bangkok, of course!
We asked him where we could find the youngest boy. Roger froze. “You don’t want to go too young,” he said. According to our guide, police all across Southeast Asia had begun cracking down on sex tourists who exploited youths. Sex with a minor was not worth a jail sentence of 20 years, he said. Cheryl and I exchanged glances. We both recognized the value of this information. We knew what our next project would be: We would pressure governments to develop and enforce laws allowing their citizens to be prosecuted for sexual abuse of young people and exploitation crimes abroad.
Katie Palmer (BA VIC 2008, MA 2010) has returned to Southeast Asia until March on a CIDA-funded internship.