Monday, August 22, 2011

Hugs and Exploitation in Northern Thailand

In addition to their stories, I'll remember the hugs the most. In my many meetings I had with Alezandra Russell, the founder of Urban Light, before I left to spend a month at that organization this summer, she had cautioned me that it takes many months or even years for her clients to develop a sense of trust with anyone -- let alone a farang (foreign) man. I therefore should be neither hurt nor surprised when I leave after my month there and the young men barely acknowledge my departure. The reason for this is simple: I'm a farang man -- literally the face of the type of people that have exploited many of these young men for years. Instead of a casual or indifferent wave of the hand on my last day, however, I received hugs, many of them. One of them wouldn't let me go. It was an unexpected and emotional way to end my four weeks in northern Thailand.

With the generous support of the Sigur Center, I left DC on July 19 to spend a month in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand's largest city, at an organization called Urban Light. UL serves as a drop-in and resource center for young men who work in the bars of Chiang Mai's night bazaar, a major tourist attraction. Most of them do not have formal jobs at the bars such as waiters or bartenders. Instead, they primarily just hang out in the bars with their friends, play snooker, drink, and chat with customers. The customers -- about 80 percent farang and 20 percent Thai -- according to my interviews with the young men, do not come for the ambiance. Beyond a couple requisite rainbow flags, the poster of a shirtless Andy Roddick, and a few photos of good looking Asian men in their underwear, these bars are not any different than many others in Chiang Mai. The customers come for neither the atmosphere nor the drinks here: they come for the boys.

Both from numerous observations at the bars and from interviewing the young men who work there, when a customer enters and takes a seat, one of the young men will usually take a break from snooker or hanging out with his friends and go sit next to the customer. They'll chat and the customer will usually flirt with and start touching the young man. The latter will encourage the customer to buy cocktails instead of a beer because he gets a 20 baht (66 US cents) commission for each one he sells. Depending on the mood of each party, after a few drinks and groping by the customer, he may leave. Sometimes he will tip the young man 100-200B ($3-6) for spending time with him. If he wants more, though, he will proceed with negotiating the price and details of what he wants sexually from the young man. In Thai, this is called the Off fee or going Off. From the 12 interviews I conducted with young male bar workers age 18-25, they told me the Off fee is usually between 500B-2,000B ($16-$66) at these bars in Chiang Mai.

At this point I should make two important notes. First, there are many young men under the age of 18 who both do this work in the bars and attend Urban Light's programming and activities. The customers who purchase sex from these minors are de jure committing trafficking in persons (TIP) under both Thailand's 2003 law against human trafficking and the 2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, the primary instrument of international law that deals with TIP. Thailand has signed but not yet ratified this protocol and thus it is non-binding in the Kingdom. Thailand's domestic law does carry legal force, however. Both laws specify engaging in commercial sex with an individual under the age of 18 as one of the "worst forms" of human trafficking. But of course the real world, in this case the bars of Chiang Mai's night bazaar, are far from the halls of power in Bangkok and Rome where the two aforementioned laws were promulgated.

The second critical note is that few, if any, of the young men I interviewed and the dozens of others who go to Urban Light during the day and/or work in the bars at night are gay or bisexual. These young men are members of the MSM category, Men Who Have Sex With Men, which is a crucial to the discourse and literature in many disciplines, public health in particular. The young men of Chiang Mai's night bazaar engage in this work for money. There are not emotional attachments to the customers who often are old enough to be their fathers -- or even their grandfathers (one of my interviewees told me that "many old, old, old men, often with canes" come in to Off the young men). I asked each one of the 12 I interviewed if he thought this was a good job. They all said no. I asked each one if they would recommend this work to someone they knew who needed a job. They all said no. Many expressed shame and embarrassment when talking about their work -- which brings me back to the hugs.

I went to the Thailand with a straightforward assumption and a simple objective. The assumption was that few people or organizations (with the notable exception of Urban Light) has ever paid much attention to these societal throwaways or ever listened to their stories. Most people in Thailand and elsewhere just assume these young men do this work because they like it. After all, what straight 18-year-old man wouldn't want to have sex with a man 50 years his senior for $20? Therefore, my most basic objective was to simply listen to their story and then help them share it, if the interviewee so desired. Nearly every one of the Urban Light participants 18 or older (I chose not to interview any minors given the particular sensitivities of interviewing children about such difficult topics) agreed to speak with my wonderful interpreter, Neung, and I. Each one shared his story and I was constantly amazed with how open they were with us. They told us details I never imagined they would entrust us with, and I was honored and humbled by their decision to share so much. Once a few of them got started, they delved into graphic detail about sex and labor abuse and exploitation to which they were subjected, often as children. It quickly seemed to became apparent that having a sympathetic ear with which to share these stories was perhaps helpful, or maybe even a bit cathartic. This brings me to my last day at Urban Light.

Before I left, I sat all the young men down and spoke to them about how appreciative, honored, and humbled I was that they had shared so much of their stories and lives with me. I told them of my apprehensions about doing this research - namely that they would understandably not really trust what I was doing there. I told them how much I respected them and had learned from them and that I was truly sad to be leaving Chiang Mai and all of them. I expected a smile and a friendly "goodye" but instead, one of them came up to me and asked Neung to ask me if he could hug me. Taken aback, I said "of course" and outstretched my arms. He squeezed me tight and after a few seconds I started to loosen my grip but instead he pulled me closer and hugged me harder and wouldn't let me go. My eyes watered because I realized then that I had made an unexpectedly profound connection. As he pulled away and walked off to the side, I saw that almost all of the UL guys had lined up behind him to hug me. After each one hugged me and bade me goodbye, I was shaken and had a much harder time walking out of that center than I ever would have imagined. It is extremely difficult to know that I will probably never see most of those guys ever again. As I rounded the bend on the side street on which UL is located, I glanced over my shoulder to take one more look at the young men who had made such an impact on my life and my academic perception of sex work and exploitation. They were climbing on their motos and driving off toward the bars.

Matt Grieger
MA candidate, Asian Studies
2011 Sigur Center Summer Field Research Fellow

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