How to fight the sex trade in Bangkok

Nana... the main "sex for hire" area for expats in Bangkok

Huge risk

“They actually walk up to bar girls and other trafficked women in bars and brothels and try to offer them ways to escape.

I was listening to a friend of mine who I’ll call Kim.

“It’s a really bold approach. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it really backfires. When it works they can sometimes work with a UN agency that can transport the trafficked women back to their home countries. When it backfires the pimps find out, it gets ugly and you’ve got to get out quick.”

Jammie and I leaned in with interest. We had never heard of any organization tackling sex slavery this directly.

The trap of sex slavery

“Sometimes they can get enough time with the girls that they are able to befriend them.

The stories are so sad. Whether they are Thai women from up north or young Cambodian or Burmese girls, many come here because they are promised well-paid work through which they can support their families. When they get to Bangkok they are forced into the sex industry.”

Kim continued “It’s very hard to leave. Thai girls that are forced into prostitution are often controlled by pimps that threaten them and hold them in economic bondage.

Due to their low levels of education, prostitution is often the most lucrative work available. If they don’t bring in enough “work” they are fined by their handlers and they fall into debt. It’s nasty.

With foreign girls it is even worse because they are often here illegally. Unless they cooperate with their employers, they can be reported to the authorities and locked up at the Immigration Detention Center without documentation.”

It was deeply depressing to listen to.  And the results of what Kim was describing are on open display in Bangkok.

The sexpats that fuel human trafficking

Walk down the street after dark in areas like the Nana district of Bangkok (a major shopping and eating area) and you will see middle-aged male tourists leaning in to negotiate prices with Thai bar girls.

Everywhere you look, men are pulling purchased women into cabs and others are being stopped in the street by prostitutes pressured to meet quotas.

Fighting back

As much as most visitors to Bangkok are shocked by the strength of the sex industry, and while many Thais and foreigners agree that something must be done, most are left scratching their heads about what to actually do to help.

Which brings me back to what Kim was talking about. There are a handful of organizations that are tackling the issue aggressively.

To protect individuals and “undercover” organizations from unwanted mafia-like intervention, I am going to omit names of specific individuals and organizations.

Heroes

But I will say that I have the utmost admiration for their bravery and willingness to step up to the plate.

One lady that I talked to had moved to Bangkok from the US with her husband and kids to work with a ministry that taught ex prostitutes valuable life skills including how to make a decent living making jewelry.

A handful of organizations do what Kim described at the top of this post:  Female aid workers walk Nana, Soi Cowboy and Patpong (the biggest red light districts) and try to start a dialogue with bar girls, massage parlor (often a front for brothels) staff and other prostitutes.

They befriend their contacts and offer them alternate ways to make a living or ways to get the financial and legal means to return to their home countries if they are foreign.

It is hard work. Although prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, police are paid off by pimps and bar owners to look the other way. So it is hard to count on support from the authorities.

Sometimes you feel like you are not even making the smallest dent in the problem. Everything feels hopeless and the challenges of fighting sex slavery seem insurmountable.

Not impossible!!

But I want to end on an admittedly sentimental note: As I write these words I am on a British Airways flight 32,000 feet above Russia. Jammie and I have completed our three months in Bangkok and are headed to Buenos Aires to start our work there.

It’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotion as I think back to the orphans we said goodbye to a few hours ago, the inmates that we had the privilege of working with and the dozens of friends that we made during our time in Thailand. We leave feeling incredibly inspired by the stories they have told us and the way each of them works to improve their community, their city.

One of the most inspirational things I got to personally witness happened during the coffee hour at a church I visited one Sunday.

I was quizzing an aid worker and she told me about the results of her organization’s work fighting the sex industry.

“There’s an entire table over there full of women that have been liberated from prostitution. They are now making a living for themselves and their families creating jewelry. This can work. They can have a brighter future!”

Indeed they can.

This, my final post before I start chronicling our Argentina adventures, is dedicated to the brave heroes that take the risks to rescue those that are currently enslaved. We will forever be inspired by your bravery, dedication and service. Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you do.

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26 thoughts on “How to fight the sex trade in Bangkok”

  1. Great piece. It breaks my heart considering many of the girls are so young. ADRA has a great organization–“keep girls safe”. Through their gift catalog, you can keep an at risk girl in school for 900 a year or 75 a month. I’ve been giving to that organization for some time now. It certainly helps me feel like I am doing my part.

    1. Tristan, thanks for the great suggestion…. I just googled the “Keep Girls Safe” program. I like what they are doing in Chiang Rai. You’ve given me some ideas!

  2. This is a sad reality. But what is surprising to many people is that it happens right here in the United States, even in our San Bernardino area! I’ve had female clients who were kidnapped and forced into prostitution. I honestly couldn’t believe my ears, that it could happen right here. There are some organizations that are starting up to try to find solutions, but I also scratch my head about how to effectively intervene. It seems to require a whole-systems approach. We need to help the victims. But if we just focus on the victims, we may never end the problem. We also need to aggressively go after the pimps and the sexpats or the men who pay for these services. We need to change their mindsets. We also need to educate and punish the parents who sell their children, and the countries that send their women into these developing areas. The problem is that the whole system is broken and we need real leadership at the top to change it. In the meantime, we can find little ways to help intervene.

    1. Wow, I can’t believe you’ve actually had clients that have been targeted! I know when I lived in Hollywood that there was a major trafficking problem in the area… But when I was there I never met anyone that identified as a victim… I definitely agree with the idea of using legislation to punish trafficking. As trafficked women usually get drawn in by the promise of money, the charities that work to find alternate income streams for the victims are very interesting…

    2. “We also need to educate and punish the parents who sell their children, and the countries that send their women into these developing areas.”

      Educate, yes. Punish… perhaps in some situations. But from what I’ve studied in most countries parents are tricked into it thinking they are sending their child to work as a maid or laborer. In Thailand, you are dealing with refugee situations that dubious people prey on. Poverty, lack of basic education, lack of opportunities and employment are the real issues that need to be addressed.

  3. What a mess! I echo what Thomas was saying. Intervening to help those directly affected and in danger, the girls, is initially most essential. But this issue runs deep. There does need to be punishment for those that sell their children and also for those that are doing the pimping or the police that are taking the bribes. But over all the issues is the MINDSET. Now how to do that? I’m not exactly sure. That would take some major brainstorming sessions. Perhaps starting with finally implementing some fines and punishments for all parties involved from the bar owners to the pimps?

    1. Jamie! Thanks for commenting… And yes, changing the mindset of all parties involved is going to take a lot of effort from several different directions… As I mentioned with Thomas, alternative income is key. If you can find alternative employment for the girls before they are even recruited… then you go a long way toward finding a solution…. Tristan’s ADRA program is a practical that I thought was great…

  4. I am just talking without knowing a lot about the local issues, but I would think that if you legalized prostitution and moved the workers to a brothel run by the government, you could stomp out the market for human trafficking and get rid of the pimps. I am pretty sure that is how it is done in Amsterdam, but I am not positive. Of course, culture where bribing police is really easy makes eradicating this seemingly impossible.

    1. David, that’s an interesting point. I haven’t done the research on legal prostitution in developed countries. I am assuming that there would be more safeguards to prevent human trafficking and slavery. I would rather use legislation the other way, recognize the economic drivers of prostitution and spend money on developing alternative employment opportunities in poor areas that provide the labor for prostitution…

      1. I agree that economic development is much preferable, but prostitution even exists in developed countries. More importantly though, I think it could help curb the slave trade in the short term.

        1. Well, I am all for being pragmatic… I’d be interested in seeing some data on how this may have limited trafficking in countries where prostitution is legal…

  5. IWhat an awful situation humans put themselves in order to be able to survive. What that missionary family did when going there with their family to teach the girls to work with jewelry is one of the best ways that we mere civil can do to help them in some how, beside other things.

    For me doesn’t matter if prostitution is legal or not, girls try it for the same reasons. It seems that they can get a lot of profit from it and doesn’t require any “skill” or “intellect” to do. In many countries or areas where there is no job or education accessible, it gives false hopes to the girls that they can do something easy and lucrative. What they don’t know is once there, they will never be the same in many ways, specially emotionally.

    So, in order to help some of those girls I think that psychotherapy and a psychological awareness of the consequences of it is crucial to help them, specially the ones that have the potential to start and the ones that have abandoned it.

    When I finish my studies in Psychology, I have In my humble dreams the desire to volunteer helping people in this situation to overcome such traumatic experiences. Every time that stories like this one are written, its reminds me that my life is good, but there many people suffering and If I can help in some how with their pain, that is what I will do.
    I cant forget that I am here for something greater, and that those people need to see Christ in human faces.

    There is not just one solution but many ways to change lives, we just need to find how we can use our talents to do so.

    1. Lisia, I think you would make a great psychologist! And yes, why not use therapy to help people that have suffered the kind of trauma involved in trafficking… I am sure you could do a lot of good. Way to have a sense of mission:) Thanks for checking in!

    1. Thank you Lisia! Jammie and I are inspired by the example you and Courtney set in your hospitality and warmth… Good stuff!!

  6. Bjorn – congratulations on surviving the first leg of your journey. Sounds like the people on the ground combatting prostitution are doing God’s work! It feels so hopeless and like you can’t really create a dent in the problem. But ultimately, seems as basic a social-economic issue where women are resorting to alternatives to earn a living. Education and improving working conditions for all people is the only real solution to getting women out of the brothels. But in the meantime, all the aid workers, nonprofits and people like yourself are allowing some women to break out of prostitution.

    The small successes are the glimmer of hope to keep fighting this battle.

    1. Thanks Vishnu… and yes, even small steps are important… especially in building momentum for something greater… Addressing the economics of it all is definitely key…

  7. Bjorn,

    Great post. This problem is so large, complex and overwhelming, but I think that every little bit helps. I applaud these groups of people who are going to the front lines of this war. In addition to offering financial support to these charities and ministries we need to keep them in constant prayer.

  8. While extremely sad to know about this, it’s encouraging to hear about those who are fighting back. And, even though it’s a huge problem, those who are brave enough to step in are making a difference–one person at a time.

    Not long ago, one of my public speaking students did a persuasive speech on the human trafficking that occurs in Indiana. Yes. Indiana. Incredibly sad and unfair that this happens anywhere — and it seems to be even more prevalent where the economic conditions are extremely low.

    Thanks for sharing this Bjorn.

    1. Thank you so much Tami. Hard to believe that we’d have these issues in places that we would not suspect.. I am glad your student took the chance to speak up against it!

  9. You forget sometimes how blessed we are to live in a country with so much more opportunities. Thanks for the blog and the info. Will keep your journey in my prayers.

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