PATTAYA – In any other city, in any other country, a patron would walk into a bar, sit down and order a drink. A bartender or waiter would serve the drink, and the patron would consume said drink. At this point the cycle is repeated until the patron has decided they have had their fill, they settle their bill and leave. The process is fairly standard throughout the world, with slight variations depending on location—tipping practices are different in virtually every country, as well as the selection of beers on tap or the availability of specialty cocktails.
In Thailand, however, the typical scenario of a patron walking into a bar—beyond being the popular opening line of a joke told at a bar—could lead to a separate type of transaction, one that may begin with the purchase of a drink but ends with the purchase of something else. It is this type of experience that has made Thailand one of the most popular destinations for foreign tourists from all over the globe, responsible for the creation of a new category of travel: sex tourism.
While not as popular as family travel, or as trendy as eco-tourism, the category of sex tourism has resulted in major economic gains for countries like Thailand that have become known for its availability. According to their website, the World Tourism Organization defines sex tourism as “trips organized from within the tourism sector, or from outside this sector but using its structures and networks, with the primary purpose of effecting a commercial sexual relationship by the tourist with residents at the destination.”
Stated more plainly, sex tourism is travel for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity with the people of a particular place, usually through prostitution. The stereotypical sex tourist is usually an older white male from a place where prostitution is illegal, with a healthy amount of disposable income that will go far in poor countries like Thailand. This profile, however, is not inclusive of all sex tourists, as many more types of people are traveling for sex, from young college-age men to older, unmarried or widowed women. Whatever the demographic, it is indisputable that the principal factor for the existence of sex tourism is economic.
In an effort to fully understand the concept of sex tourism, it is important to note the difference between a transaction that occurs between what is assumed to be two consenting adults and one that includes one party that is being forced to participate. In many of the countries known for their sex tourism industry, including Thailand, there are both legal and illegal forms of prostitution. It is unfortunate that in many cases children are sold off by their own families. This form of sex tourism represents the seedier, more underground side of the business—in addition to the abuse of women who are captured and sold into slavery.
The principal catalyst for the increasing popularity of sex tourism is money, for both the sex worker and the customer. For a tourist in poor countries, the average transaction is very affordable, as their money will typically go a lot further in a place like Thailand than in their home country. For the worker, who can be either male or female, prostitution represents a lot of money to be made in a short period of time.
Many of the workers arrive in cities like Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket from rural communities, where farming is the predominant industry and any other type of work is scarce. As a result, workers can use the money they earn to send back to their struggling families, many of whom are aware of the way in which it was earned. Many will also use the money to pay for school, or in some cases, pay for a very expensive operation that has become somewhat commonplace in Thailand.
One aspect of sex tourism in Thailand that is not unique to the country but certainly more popular there than anywhere else is the prevalence of kathoey, or to use the English colloquialism, ladyboys. Kathoey refers to a person that is born as a biological male but identifies as a female, though not all kathoeys are transsexual. Many kathoeys go through life as females without ever undergoing any type of transformative surgery or participating in hormone therapy. Conversely, there are many who strongly desire to have surgery but find earning the money to pay for it very difficult. Some then turn to sex work as a way to quickly make enough to pay for surgery.
While many tourists go to Thailand specifically seeking an encounter with a ladyboy, many kathoeys are forced to deceive their customers by concealing their genitalia or by strategically guiding the encounter in a dark place. While the reason for the pervasiveness of katheoys in Thailand is unknown, they can be found in many other occupations that are considered mainstream, from air hostesses and secretaries to cabaret performers and factory workers. They have even found their way to Hollywood, featured in such films as Beautiful Boxer, a depiction of the real life Thai boxing champion Nong Tum.
It is important to note, returning to the bar scenario, that not all bars in Thailand peddle sex to their customers. There are more traditional bars than any other type, and while it is possible for a tourist to come across other types of bars unwittingly, it is much more likely that a patron looking for sex will know exactly where to find the appropriate establishment.
When such a patron does find what they are seeking, the customer will enter the bar and after being greeted by a host, who is sometimes also the manager, will be shown to a seat facing a stage. This is similar to the process in a typical theater, as many of these bars also provide a performance of some kind. The host will ask if the customer would like to order a drink, and the customer can accept or decline. The customer should still expect to pay a fee even if he does not want a drink, as this will serve as a form of cover charge, or ticket for admission. If he does order a drink, he should expect to pay more than he would in a traditional bar.
If the performance has not yet begun, the customer will see on stage a number of scantily dressed workers (either male or female, depending on the preference of the patron. This scenario applies to both gay and straight bars, which are generally in different neighborhoods, and not likely to be confused by a tourist seeking sex). Each worker has a number pinned to their body, and every few minutes they are given a signal to rotate in a conveyer belt-like fashion, giving the customer the opportunity to browse everyone without having to get up.
If the customer sees a worker he likes, he will then inform the host of his or her number, and the host will retrieve that worker from the stage and have them sit next to the customer. The customer will then buy the worker a drink and they will watch the performance together.
The shows that take place in these types of bars vary wildly, usually involving a mixture of dance and drag, both dramatic and comedic. Some of the performers are naked, while some have bodies covered in paint that is only visible through the use of a black light. Performances usually culminate in a live sex act, at which point the lights are turned back up and the workers return to the stage, to start a rotation before another performance begins.
During the show, or after, the customer and his chosen worker will get to know each other, with the customer deciding if he wants to stick with this particular worker or choose another. This is when the negotiation takes place, where they discuss what type of services are available, how much time they will spend together, and how much the customer should expect to pay.
If the customer and worker reach an agreement, the customer will settle his bill with the host—which now includes an extra fee paid to the bar for taking the worker away, a finder’s fee of sorts—and the two will leave together. If they cannot agree, or if the customer was merely seeking conversation and companionship during the show, he will pay the bill and the worker will return to the rotation.
None of this is intended to mean that sex is the only reason why tourists visit Thailand. A tourist can have a satisfying journey to Thailand without even being aware of the popularity of sex tourism. A recent list compiled by TheRichest.com, however, ranks Thailand as the number-one country in the world for sex tourism, confirming the notion that sex is, for some, an integral part of their visit to the country. For now at least, it appears as though this will remain the case, as Thai culture has come to accept sex tourism as a vital part of the economy, as well as something that sets Thailand apart from Western tourist destinations.
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