It’s our first day in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The streets are littered with merchants, temples and the portrait of Thailand’s king, Phumiphon Adunyadet. The Thai are the kindest and most hospitable people we have ever met. I am having a hard time reconciling how such a docile people could engage in the deporte of sex slavery. But amid the gentleness, there exist great sadness, trouble and suppression.
Thirty years ago, the Thai government cracked down on opium farming. With no real income, countless Hill Tribe people left the opium fields and headed inland in search of work. Thailand’s web of laws and restrictions keeps anyone born outside of a hospital from obtaining citizenship. Because the majority of the Hill Tribes do not speak Thai, just maneuvering through the maze of bureaucracy is nearly impossible. But without Thai citizenship and proper papers, one cannot marry, attend a government school or get an official job—and forget about medical or social benefits. In fact, without citizenship, the Hill Tribes cannot travel outside of their area. So even if they try to travel to the bigger Thai cities for work, they risk arrest. As a result, families are lured into illegal jobs and tricked into selling their children into slavery after traffickers promise to smuggle them to Bangkok to work as a waitress or a seamstress. The girls and boys end up as prostitutes or sex servants, and the Hill Tribes remain part of a repressed underclass, silenced by the government of a country they cannot even call their own.
We spent the past few days in Chiang Mai learning from the Hill Tribes about the poverty and the politics contributing to the trafficking of women and children. Tonight we saw the repercussions in the nightlife of Bangkok. I saw neon brothels stacked 10 stories high with men dressed in hot pink spandex and lipstick hanging out of doorways. I saw women with numbers tied around their necks and men bargaining on the evening price. I saw 5-year-olds selling roses outside a strip club. Sex in Thailand is a lucrative industry that some enter by force and others choose to buy into. And as long as there is a demand, there exists a supply. We learned that 90 percent of all Thai men visit brothels, and 75 percent of all customers are foreigners. Do the math—that’s a lot of demand.
So why doesn’t anyone try and change the demand? Sure, we can create all the economic and political resolutions to rescue the prostitute, but who is rescuing the customer? I write these words in a coffee shop known around the world. A shop that right now is feeding off the business Thailand’s sex industry generates. And I wonder, what if they said no? What if the international businesses stopped profiting from the male tourist driving sex slavery? And what if American men started saying no? What if we didn’t need to rescue a child from being chained to a bed for sex because the customers stopped coming?