Today is our last day in S.E. Asia. We’ve had a full trip . . . I’m still processing what we’ve seen and learned, and have so much that I want to share. We hit the ground running and had little down-time so I wasn’t able to write as much as I’d hoped from the road, but have so much I still want to share and I hope you’ll still follow along. I thought I would start with explaining exactly what sex trafficking is, and how it is different than sex tourism.
One of the first things we did was visit a red light district in a city with a thriving “sex tourism” industry. Exodus Road wanted us to see this to provide some context for sex trafficking. It’s easy to confuse all sex tourism with trafficking, and there are certainly some blurred lines. However, not all sex tourism involves human trafficking. For many women in S. E. Asia, sex work (or prostitution as it’s often referred to) is a chosen profession made by an adult over the age of consent. In the particular country we are visiting, sex tourism is big business, accounting for a large chunk of the nation’s economy. While there is much that could be said about the dynamics of sex tourism . . . men coming from all over the world to pay for sex with young women, and an economy and culture that makes women feel like they have few other options . . . Exodus Road‘s mission is to address trafficking specifically. The United Nations defines trafficking as:

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

When looking at sex trafficking, Exodus Road is investigating cases in which minors are involved in sex work, as well as cases where women are kept as prisoners, are unable to leave, are not there by their own consent, or have been coerced or manipulated into an indentured servitude relationship. Unfortunately, these kinds of scenarios are quite common . . . in fact, almost every evening we met women who appeared to meet some criteria for trafficking. I’m going to share those stories over the next week or so.
The majority of women working in the sex industry in S.E. Asia are not trafficked, and as uncomfortable as it was to visit these red light districts, it was useful to understand the landscape. The red light districts we visited were packed with “go-go bars.” A typical go-go bar features a crowded stage of women, dancing in little to no clothing, wearing numbers so that patrons could indicate to the “mamasan” (female pimp) what girl they would like to choose. These clubs were startling. My only exposure to strip clubs has been in movies or tv (hello every HBO show ever), but this was quite different. The stages were crowded and there was little emphasis on performing or dancing. Most of the girls seemed distant and bored as they stood on the stage. The audience was predominantly male, though we were not the only women and our presence did not seem unusual. Seeing all of the girls on the stage wearing numbers conjured up imagery of a slave auction. It seemed so dehumanizing.
The process in most clubs is that patrons can choose a girl to sit with them (for a drink fee), and then, if mutually agreed on, could then take the woman to a “short-time room” for sex. The mamasan takes the money for this exchange and then the girl gets a cut. This isn’t an underground process- it’s blatant and obvious and talked about openly. On our visits, we split up into pairs with the Exodus Road investigators and each choose some girls to chat with by buying them a drink. We met several girls . . . all of them very sweet. A few of the girls were so smart and witty that I thought, in different circumstances, we would likely be friends. Most of the girls we met had children they were supporting. It was clear that most of the girls in the mainstream red light districts were there by their own consent. However, there were a few girls that appeared to be under age 18.
Some of the girls we sat with made it clear that they were open to being hired for sex. Some were almost aggressive about it. Others indicated that they didn’t “go with men” and instead made their money from the commission they get from having patrons buy them drinks. In addition to the go-go bars, there were hundreds of women who stood on the nearby streets who worked as freelancers, and negotiated their own rates. One nights, we hired two freelance sex workers and paid their evening fee in exchange for an interview. This was the most poignant moment of the trip, and their life stories really illustrated the fine line between voluntary sex work and trafficking. I will share those stories in a later post.
After we had a chance to see the mainstream commercial sex tourism areas, the investigators took us to some of the more rural brothels, which are the focus of most of their investigations. The majority of sex trafficking cases occur outside of the main cities. Often, trafficked women are kept in more rural locations or in secretive clubs outside the main strip. In many cases, girls have been removed from their own country and their passports have been taken away, so that they have no other options. Some of them came knowing they would be doing sex work, and others were manipulated or deceived, but it both cases they have no ability to leave. In other cases a “debt bondage” is established where women have been given a ticket to travel but then must pay back the loan through work. Often that loan amount equals over a year of work, and women are on restricted movements with their pimp keeping tabs on them at all times. In other cases, girls (or boys) are kidnapped or purchased from their parents.
I will be sharing more stories in the coming weeks, including the poignant interviews we had with two women and our night observing an investigation at a more rural brothel. After seeing it first-hand, I have a lot of Big Feelings about the sex industry. I saw a lot of lonely men, and a lot of entitled men, and met some lovely girls who have big goals but feel like this lifestyle is the best (or only) way to support their families. There were many aspects of it that were disturbing to me. But I wanted to clarify that the focus of our trip is not the sex industry, but rather the girls and boys who are unwilling victims. More on that to come.