British Sex Tourists in Thailand
by Julia O'Connell Davidson
According to the Tourist Association of Thailand (TAT), Pattaya is Thailand's ´premier beach resort.' Travel brochures depict it as both an ´exotic paradise' of palm trees and white beaches and as a ´single man's playground' of bars and women. Once the site of small fishing villages, Pattaya bay began to develop in the 1960s and 1970s when the US military used it for ´rest and recreation'. Today, nearly one and a half million tourists visit Pattaya each year. According to TAT figures, Germany, the Arab Emirates and Britain supply most tourists, but they also arrive from Japan, Australia, North America, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and even mainland China. Around 70 percent of the tourists are male; the majority coming for one reason--to buy the sexual services of Thai women, men and/or children.
Why do Thais become sex workers? The factors range from kidnapping, to debt bondage to poverty. In a country where the annual per capita income ranges from US$ 235 in the Northeast to $1,000 in Bangkok, there is nothing mysterious about the supply side of the sex industry. But who are the sex tourists and why do they come to Thailand? To find out, I visited Thailand in January to interview 25 sex tourists in Bangkok and Pattaya and to speak to many others.
The British sex tourists I interviewed fell into different types. One type was made up of ´Macho Lads"--skilled and unskilled manual workers in their early 20s, many with tattoos and semi-shaven heads that are associated with the far-right in Britain. All the ones I interviewed were not on a package tour. Most made their own travel arrangements and had visited Pattaya once or twice before. They came on the personal recommendation of another sex tourist. They often travelled in groups of three or four. Most said they used prostitutes regularly, or occasionally, back in England. They like Thailand because sexual services are much cheaper and because, "Over here they're not low life like English prostitutes...you don't really think of them as prostitutes...they treat you well."
In Thailand "anything goes", according to Macho Lads; they can indulge in anonymous sex with large numbers of women and their masculinity is so powerfully affirmed that they do things in Thailand that would dishonor them back home, such as having sex with transsexuals. They were aware that rural poverty leaves most sex workers few alternatives. They conclude from this that sex tourism is a highly positive phenomenon, almost a form of welfare that the West can give a ´backward' nation. One Macho Lad, with a paternalistic air, said to me, "If these men stopped coming here, I'd hate to think what would happen to these girls."
Mr. Average is another type. Usually older, widowed or divorced, the ones I spoke with were also in Thailand for their second or third time. All had first come on package tours, some specifically for ´single men'. Mr. Average may be a skilled manual worker, self-employed or in a junior or middle management position. He is primarily, though not exclusively, interested in simulating some kind of emotional or romantic relationship with a woman or a series of women. They claim never to visit prostitutes at home and the fact that in Thailand "you don't feel as if you're going with a prostitute" is of central importance. Mr. Average spends a great deal of time telling himself and others about how ´different' Thai women are: ´they' think differently, are more innocent and loyal than western women, and find white skin attractive. He explains the women's involvement without referring to the commercial transaction which is taking place.
Some are aware that poverty forces the sex workers into the industry. This is clearly a source of anxiety for Mr. Average. They cannot fully convince themselves that they are truly desired or that a fair exchange is taking place. They then strive to ´treat the girls well', by which they mean giving tips and gifts, which are hardly generous by British standards. A number of these men expressed great ambivalence towards the sex workers, moving from paternalistic sympathy ("They do it for their families") to hostility ("They're hard bitches really") in the space of a few minutes' conversation. I was assured that most of the Pattaya bar girls were really earning huge sums of money, and wasting it away, and that many had accumulated great wealth by tricking elderly English gentlemen who fell in love with them. One Mr. Average complained, "It's all changed now. You never saw a girl drink or smoke when I first came to Thailand. All the business with whisky and cigarettes is totally new. They were nice girls then, soft, very soft. Now it's commercialised. They're hard and they're after money."
Cosmopolitan men are more bourgeois, often well educated and travelled. They are keen to differentiate themselves from their compatriots: "I am not a sex tourist", "I am not a package tourist", "I am here on business." They visit more remote and less developed spots, spend more time in Bangkok, but visit Pattaya to relax. Several said they would never visit a prostitute anywhere else in the world. Thailand is different because first, "it's very easy and convenient" to buy sexual services here, and second because Thai women are so ´natural' and ´innocent' that the transaction does not feel purely commercial.
These are the common ´pull' factors for these different types of men: first, sex is cheap in Thailand. A man can buy 24 hours of a sex worker's time for as little as 350 baht (approximately US$ 14 or DM 25). This sum would not buy ten minutes of oral sex from a British prostitute. In Britain, too, the client specifies his requirements in advance and the prostitute indicates her charges. Sexual services are sold by the piece, less frequently by the hour.
In Thailand, a man usually buys access to the sex worker for the whole night and day, either by paying a ´bar fine' or by paying her directly if she is freelance. Most sex workers provide some non-sexual services as well, acting as translator, tour guide, masseuse, companion or even laundress for the client. But perhaps more important for British clients than the cheap price and inclusive service is that the non-contractual nature of the exchange conceals it commercial nature. This makes it possible for clients to buy sexual services without having to see themselves as the kind of men who use prostitutes. But sex tourism does more for these men's self-image than simply make them feel okay about using prostitutes. It also helps them construct a powerful and positive image of themselves as white men.
One unexpected characteristic of the sex tourist was that he appears to be obsessed about other sex tourists' morality. At first this seems like hypocrisy. It is acceptable for heterosexual men to take a 16-year old girl back to a hotel for the night, but ´disgusting' for a homosexual man to take a 15-year old boy back to his room. Where does this sense of moral superiority come from? I think it is a way to define an unpleasant variant of Western heterosexual masculinity. Once a Mr. Average was ranting to me about how sickening it was to see ´old gay men' with young boys, when his friend interjected that it was also sad to see ´beautiful young girls' on the arms of ´fat old men'. "But at least that's natural," Mr. Average said. His friend agreed. The moral issue was not whether there can be genuine consent between people who are unequal in terms of age or economic power, but whether sex tourists' actions transgressed rules about ´normal' male sexuality.
The construction of moral hierarchies by British sex tourists is not only about reinforcing a particular kind of masculinity. It is about constructing a specifically white, British masculinity. The most powerful moral condemnation is directed towards sex tourists from the Arab Emirates. Almost every sex tourist I spoke with told me that Thai women hate ´Arabs' and avoid ´going with them.' This is because ´Arabs', unlike European men, rape and cheat them, because ´Arabs' are ´dirty', ´smelly', ´do it with boys and girls' and are unattractive to Thai women because they are not white. In Pattaya you can see British skin heads, one arm around a Thai woman, the other raised in a Sieg Heil salute as a citizen of the Arab Emirates passes by. One British owned bar displayed a poster of a pig in a yashmak with the words, "We respect your religion--that is why we refuse to serve you."
A small British travel company, Thai Holidays (York), currently specialises in trips to Pattaya, the ´single man's paradise.' The company's directors had recently visited Vietnam and Cambodia, where they negotiated with hoteliers, and now offer trips to Vietnam. Several Macho Lads I spoke with in Thailand had either already arranged to visit Vietnam, or were considering it. All had heard that "Vietnam is supposed to be like Thailand six or seven years back. More natural and unspoilt." A friend told me that recently a Vietnamese official was quoted in Chinese newspapers as saying that Vietnam would have to ´sacrifice' several thousand women in order to modernise through tourism. Laos and Cambodia are also opening up their borders, and sex tourism may develop there over the next few years.
Deciding on a political response to sex tourists is difficult, as the term ´sex work' covers such a wide spectrum of activities. At Jomtien Beach I saw sex tourists ´playing' overtly sexual ´games' with children as young as seven or eight. It seems to me that there must be possibilities for direct action against this kind of child prostitution, and that news of such action would travel and act as a powerful disincentive to this particular type of sex tourist.
Deciding on a political response to sex tourists who buy the sexual services of adults is more difficult. Sex tourism seems a pernicious phenomenon because it not only involves economic exploitation but also helps to maintain and reproduce white racist myths and a virulent concept of masculinity. I am haunted by the images of the men I saw who were able to draw a boundary between their own humanity and that of others, and by their enormous self-serving self deceit. But I also think it is necessary to ask whether, when literally thousands of people are directly or indirectly economically dependent on sex tourism, it is useful to call for its immediate termination. Is the direct action against sex tourists Kathleen Barry reports in International Feminism: Networking Against Female Sexual Slavery (1984) or that taken by the Philippine guerilla movement with the slogan "Kill a sex tourist a day" really likely to improve the lives of Thai sex workers?
Like some groups in the West, some Thai women's organizations argue that a distinction must be drawn between child and forced prostitution and those women who enter into sex work in the same way most workers enter into wage labor (that is, on the basis of a rational decision in view of their economic and other circumstances). If this distinction is made, it follows that political campaigns for legal and civil rights which empower sex workers vis a vis sex tourists and political struggle against the economic colonialism which denies people alternatives to sex work must take precedence over campaigns to prevent sex tourism per se. After much soul searching, the only thing I feel really confident of saying is that academics and Western feminists must seek out and listen to the views and wishes of sex workers themselves. We must offer them our services, rather than presume to give them advice on the politics of resistance.Julia O'Connell Davidson is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Leicester, UK. A longer version of this article is available by contacting the WRI office in London.