Steve Schertzer

Why don't we ever learn?

ESL teachers, bar girls and the sex industry

"My only regret is that I should have asked for more."

---Response from a hilltribe woman after being asked by a reporter if she had any regrets about selling her 14 year old daughter into prostitution.... for only $12!

Mass tourism is one of the worst things that has ever happened to Thailand. I make this bold statement because of two stories I recently read in the Nation newspaper here in Bangkok. An editorial, "When will we face up to the sex industry?" and "A tale of woe and the Thai justice system", a letter to the editor. Both were published in the May 15, 2005 edition.

I hoped that I would never feel the need to write about bar girls or the sex industry, but these two stories stood out for the simple reason that both of them involved ESL teachers living and teaching in Bangkok. The editorial mentioned an "American citizen who teaches at a well-known school who has allegedly been buying sex from two boys under 18."

The "tale of woe" from the letters to the editor page was quite a classic. It told the story of a 63 year old ESL teacher who has been living here in Bangkok for four years. During that time he met a bar girl and decided to go into business with her and her policeman "brother." (I put "brother" in quotation marks, because some of us who have spent more than a small amount of time in the red-light districts know that bar girls have an unusually exorbitant amount of "brothers.")

Anyway, this ESL teacher, (maybe I should put ESL teacher in quotation marks too), buys this bar girl a 375,000 Baht pick-up truck for the business they were going to start only to have her and her "brother" take off with the vehicle. Now he's spending God knows how much more money trying to get the truck back along with some of his dignity. Would the same man spend $10,000 purchasing a truck for an American or a British hooker? Who knows? But it's an interesting question.

One of these stories is a tragedy. One thousand or ten thousand of these stories is merely a statistic. And in Thailand, there are many statistics. I wish the man luck in getting his money, (and dignity), back. But I doubt if it's ever going to happen. When will we ever learn? Don't we foreigners realize by now that, in the minds of many Thais-- bar girls and non-bar girls alike--- we are here for one reason and one reason alone: To support them and their whole family so that they don't have to support themselves. Such is the evil and pernicious nature of the mass tourism industry.

This industry has created a whole Thai subclass numbering in the hundreds of thousands--- perhaps millions--- who do little else but wait for ten million foreigners to pour into this beautiful country every year so that they can attempt to milk us out of every baht, dollar, euro, pound, yen, won, yuan, or peso. Mass tourism has created and is perpetuating a sick and perverted cycle of mutual dependence between the tourists and the locals. As TEFL/TESL providers and professionals, it should be our role and mission to break this cycle of pathological dependence. The choice is very clear: You either work to help solve the problem, or you contibute to it.

As for that pervert ESL teacher who allegedly molested two boys, (and others of his ilk), what else can be said but those who partake in the sexual exploitation of children, whether in Thailand or elsewhere, whether the perpetrator is Thai or a foreigner, should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The editorial in the newspaper, and so much of the vast amount of other literature that's out there on this issue, point to many factors for the continued existence of the Thai sex industry. Police corruption, the apathy of ordinary Thais, and the hypocrisy of the government are all cited as contibuting factors. Fair enough. But these excuses for the perpetuation of the Thai sex industry only begin to scratch the surface. No one seems to want to talk about the real reason why the Thai sex industry is so big and pervasive.

The real reason why the sex industry continues to exist, (and thrive), lies squarely on the laps of Thai mothers. Now I fully realize that any criticism of Thai mothers is tantamount to burning the flag, but so be it. Those who have lived here for any length of time know that the sex industry can be stopped dead in its tracks almost immediately if certain Thai mothers would stop sending their 14, 15, and 16 year old daughters to Patpong and Pattaya. These girls don't arrive in the red-light districts on their own. Someone sends them there. Someone in a position of authority and, supposedly, in a position of trust. Isarn, and other impoverished parts of Thailand, are replete with hundreds of thousands of uneducated, unethical, whiskey swilling, buffalo herding peasants who wouldn't think twice about sending their "cherished" daughters and sisters--- the very future of this country--- to Patpong and Pattaya so that daddy, brother number one, and mommy can spend their days drinking and enjoying the latest Thai soap operas on that new 42 inch plasma television that was paid for by, you guessed it, a member of the Thai sex tourist industry!

Some may see this as a financial problem, a problem of poverty. It is not. It is a social problem. A lack of morality and ethics within the population that was strengthened and fortified by a relentless mass tourism industry which really doesn't care about improving the lives of the locals.
Others may also see this as an economic phenomenon, purely supply and demand. And a demand will always be met with a steady supply. They opine that once the demand is eliminated, the supply side of the problem will disappear as well. But trying to tackle an economic problem by attempting to eliminate the demand first is not the way to go. Although the demand is a part of the problem, it is not the root cause. And until you get to the root cause of the problem, you will never solve it. This problem must be chocked to death at the source, the supply side of the Thai sex industry. But this will never happen. Why? Let's check the facts.

Too many people are benefiting. That's a fact. No one really knows how many Thai girls are involved in the sex industry, but the figure of about 500,000 keeps being thrown around by NGO's and academic researchers. In my opinion, it's probably a conservative estimate, but let's go with that. Now the money that bar girls earn is shared by a great many people--- all of her "brothers." Bar girls usually come from big rural families--- at least five or six in each family. A half a million multiplied by five or six gives us two and a half to three million people who live off the money of sex tourists. And this doesn't even include the bar owners and their families, the mamasans and their families, the police taking bribes and their families, and government officials and their families!

So even with a conservative estimate we can plainly see that so many people--- from greedy and morally challenged Isarn mothers, to the police and government officials and millions in between--- the Thai sex industry, based on mass tourism, has, for the last 30 years, kept millions of Thais from developing a work ethic that would have taken them out of the third world and put them squarely into the developing world. This industry has, in three short decades, taken a once proud and very self-sufficient people and turned them into indolent corpses. Certainly not something to be proud of.

All of this raises an interesting question for me. It is expected that newspaper editorialists and politicians will, from time to time, comment on the sex industry and the bar girl scene. Afterall, they have newspapers to sell and voters to win over. Their "anger" at the current situation--- if there is any--- is not at all surprising. Paying lip service to this problem is what politicians and newspaper editorialists are suppose to do. But what about the ordinary Thais? The ones that are not involved in this industry. Where is their anger?

I love to roam the bookstores looking at the latest farang "sex-pat" novels. And I admit I've read quite a few of them. Same old stuff. "Fat, stupid farang meets beautiful bar girl; fat, stupid farang falls in love with beautiful bar girl; fat, stupid farang loses all his money to beautiful bar girl." And on and on it goes. They do make for interesting reading sitting on the beach in Pattaya. But have you noticed that each and every one of these books were written by us westerners. Why is that? Where is the rage and fury and indignation of ordinary Thais? Where are the books by the Thai poets, philosophers, and writers lamenting the fact that for the last 30 years their beautiful country has been turned into the world's biggest whorehouse? You would think that there would be a lot of anger about that from the locals--- especially those who aren't benefiting in some way from the sex tourism industry. This lack of anger amounst the Thais seems a terrible tragedy to me. To watch your country go from self-sufficiency to pathological dependence on fat, horny foreigners can't be easy.

Thais aren't dumb. They're not stupid. Many of them have been made solely and completely dependent upon mass tourism for their financial survival, so they are not about to bite the foreign hands that feed and clothe them. A
perfect example of how mass tourism is ruining the lives of the locals by making them financially dependent upon foreigners is the island of Phuket. Eighty percent (80%) of the local population cannot survive without a steady supply of tourists, according to the Phuket Tourist Association. The recent tsumani has made it all too obvious that Phuket, and other parts of Thailand, are one-horse towns. Diversifying the economy is one of the obvious solutions.

The politicians and newspaper editorialists know this. They also know that in the west, money talks. But in Thailand, money screams! Perhaps the screams of the money hungry in this society drown out the screams of the moral and ethical. This may be the only society in the world where a man can stand up and proudly shout, "Yeah! My girlfriend's
a prostitute!"

If selling your 15 or 16 year old daughter or sister into prostitution is acceptable behavior in Thailand, then what in the world would be considered UNacceptable? If it's okay for hundreds of thousands of Thai men to live off the sex money of their sisters and daughters, then what on earth can be deemed immoral? I'm asking these questions because no ordinary Thais seem to be standing up and shouting from the rooftops that this is wrong!

What does all this have to do with ESL and teaching English in Thailand? A lot, actually. Remember, the original two stories from the Nation newspaper involved ESL teachers.

I must admit that I have been truly blessed living here in Bangkok and working at AUA. Most of my students are fantastic. About 70% of them have consistently been women. And that's significant because most of the young women here have been left behind in Thailand's attempt to modernize. The choices for young Thai women today are as stark as they are clear. Get an education, (if you're lucky), and work in an office or a factory for $200.00 a month, (again, if you're lucky), or sell your body to foreigners for $1,000.00 a month. Quite a choice!

I'm very proud of my students who work hard in and out of class. I feel a deep and profound responsibility for them. Some of these young women will succeed not because of their society, but in spite of it. What can you say about a society that tells its young women that what you have between your legs is worth at least five times more than what you have between your ears?

So as ESL teachers and TEFL providers in Thailand, we all share a huge responsibility. Firstly, not to get involved in the sex industry. If we're not willing to help solve the problem, then the least we can do is not contribute to it. Those who get invoved with bar girls do so at their own peril. Any honest bar girl, (now there's a wonderful oxymoron), will tell you that she will ALWAYS treat foreign men with the same disgust and contempt that her mother treated her. This is a great life lesson when getting invoved with any Asian woman. (Observe the girl's relationship with her mother before getting invoved with her.)

And secondly, to help our students to succeed. Especially the ones with very few choices. They are the future, and, by extention, so are we.

The great American playwright Arthur Miller once said someting to the effect that the truly fortunate people in life get to choose their own regrets. (I'm paraphrasing here.) I doubt that the regret of the hilltribe woman quoted above is what Mr. Miller was talking about. "I regret not finishing school." "I regret not spending more time with my children." "I regret not telling my wife more often that I love her." These are the real regrets in life. Not, "My only regret is that I should have asked for more", when selling your 14 year old daughter into prostitution for $12.

As ESL professionals, we have a profound responsibility to the daughters and sisters of Thailand. This responsibility presents itself daily. And by taking that responsibility seriously, by showing the daughters and sisters of Thailand that, as ESL teachers, we are here for them, that we are here to earn their trust so that they won't have to rely on the mass tourism industry to earn their living, we are presenting ourselves as the professionals that we were deemed to be. That, in itself, is a huge responsibility. The truly fortunate may get to choose their regrets, but the truly fortunate ESL teachers get to choose their responsibilities. And there can be no regrets about that.


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