Thursday, May 7, 2009

No Dogs, or Whores, Allowed

Walking through a central Bangkok park at night, my friend Terry explains the rules: "No dogs or whores allowed." "How do you know when someone's a whore?" I ask. He pauses, and then responds, "Well, how do you know when someone's gay...?"

Later, entering the lobby of Terry's building, a pretty young woman in a tight skirt eyes me up and down and fixes me with a delicious smile. Well, she's certainly not a dog...

For a middle-aged white man in Southeast Asia, the politics of sex are unavoidable. There are about three million sex workers in Thailand; by some estimates, prostitution provides up to 3 percent of Thailand's GDP. Most of this trade is Thai-on-Thai, but a single white man can't escape being the subject of people's projections. To some, I'm the walking ATM, the ticket out of poverty. To others I'm the symbol of patriarchy and of economic privilege in an unjust world. How do you know when someone's a whore? Well, how do you know when someone's a John?

All over town, the older white man holding the hand of the pretty, young Thai woman is a ubiquitous sight. It's hard not to see pathos in this picture, but I try not to impose my own mores on a reality that revolves around a different moral compass. One has to remember that the same ambivalent liberalism that permits the sex trade also helps make Thailand one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world. I think Americans could learn a thing or two from these people.

But I recognize that, for a single white man, it is impossible to hold an abstract intellectual position on these matters. Thailand makes it personal, any expression short of moral outrage easily countered by the response, "What do you expect him to say? He's a single man in Thailand..."

In the evening, Terry and I meet a few middle-aged male expat friends, and over drinks the conversation turns to sex. Several men commiserate over their Thai girlfriends; a few tell horror stories about jilted lovers turning to revenge. All agree that "working girls" provide a clarity often lost in these cross-cultural relationships. "I don't pay women to have sex with me," one man quips, "I pay them to leave." This statement strikes me as both honest and sad. 

Without judging others, I wish to say this has never been my scene. I spent years in Southeast Asia, and never acquired "the fever." But I have sympathy for all parties involved - the lonely males, for whom, in many cases, purchasing affection is the only option, and the women, some driven into the flesh trade by poverty, but others just upwardly mobile, using the money to purchase luxury items or, if they're really lucky, a foreign husband. It's sometimes hard to tell who is the exploiter, and who's the exploited. (Note: I restrict this discussion to consensual relations between adults. Child prostitution and sexual slavery are reprehensible, on this there can be no doubt).

Terry tells me not to write of these things. "People will criticize you" he says, "for taking an ambiguous moral stance." My response is, those looking for unequivocal morality should not travel to Southeast Asia. Being here requires a constant checking of one's impulses, a constant effort not to judge. There are so many things that just don't fit into one's traditional moral framework, and it's different when you're able to see people's eyes.

All suffering, said the Buddha, comes from desire. 


  1. Hal,

    You are a good writer. i am enjoying every bit of this blog. Keep writing.


  2. I could use one of each right about now! I love your blog...go Hal!