It’s called “walking street,” and it’s here to entice you. Situated near to the soothing churns of the ocean, walking street is a mecca for tourists on the cheap. Lighted signs of bars and shops wink at you from both sides, chalkboards display prices for beer cheaper than even water and for a measly sum of bath, massage parlors promise wearied travelers pampering to ease aches and pains.
But in this district of Pattaya, Thailand, it’s almost too easy to ignore these attractions. Instead your gaze strays to the overwhelming presence of girls. They are spilling out of the bars, flirting with male passersby and coaxing all men arm-free of wife or girlfriend into lurid propositions.
Earlier this year, I visited Pattaya. Along with plentiful tourist activities, magnificent weather and gleaming beaches, Pattaya’s fame comes through its reputation as a hotspot for prostitution in Thailand. Yet, it was not the twinkling beaches that I remembered. It was the sight of scantily-clad young girls capturing men with their welcoming smiles that etched itself in my mind, though I tried with all might to forget.
A 2009 Human Rights Report by the U.S. Department of State found that in Thailand, “There were 76,000 to 77,000 adult prostitutes in registered entertainment establishments.” However, the reality may be far greater. The report goes on to say, “NGOs believed there were between 200,000 and 300,000 prostitutes.” Deena Guzder, in an article for the Pulitzer Center says that sex tourism “comprises 2 – 14% of South East Asian countries’ economy.”
Guzder’s article also notes the view of Taina Bien-Aime, the Executive Director of Equality Now, a human rights organization that focuses on women’s issues. She says to “focus not only on the women, but who are the contributors to this billion dollar sex trade.” Guzder relays Bien-Aime’s belief that “ending the multibillion dollar trade must begin with holding buyers accountable rather than nurturing any illusions that sexual exploitation is beneficial to women.” Solving the apparent disconnect between this underground industry and our own world comes through the hard-wired mindset of tourists and what contributes to the formation of their mindset.
Our culture declares that gratuitous pleasure and sex is not only permissible, but it’s desirable; all taboos have been lost. It’s a mutual goal for the “young & the restless.” The thick line that once dictated all pornography into its own distinct group is quickly eroding. Aldous Huxley forewarned us through an exaggerated future dystopia of “Brave New World,” the direction society was heading; the hedonistic form of entertainment was open acceptance and encouragement of the continual viewing of pornographic material, as the audience sat in a state of mindless euphoria. Comparing, possibly the most pure of cinematic releases, “It’s a Wonderful Life” released more than a decade after Huxley’s novel to the quotidian movie releases and music videos of today, we seem to be a stone’s throw away from Huxley’s anticipated future.
With these same attitudes and cultural concepts in mind, we seek to travel, but for some tourists, their lasciviousness is deeply ingrained. The destination countries respond.
Prostitution, at its most callous simplification, is a business fed by demand of tourists. By guile, force or as a last-resort, women and girls enter the business. Their wide smiles do not suggest their desire for potential clients, rather the assurance of food, schools fees, and basic housing for the next day. The majority of tourists have the decency and ability to refuse. Yet, for those easily persuaded by culture’s overarching prescription for happiness, while under the influence and standing before an alluring young girl, the ability to say no is seriously undermined.
Although seas apart, our society and the commercial exploitation of women in developing countries is steadily linked. The silver lining is that we determine our demand. Once in a while, skip the comedies with a ribald script in favor of more wholesome fare. It seems an extrapolation, but as demand for the bawdy diminishes, our culture is redirected toward a more respectable avenue; whether or not this can eventually lead to cleaner minds of tourists, there is never any harm in turning off MTV and re-watching a favorite Disney classic.