Prostitution with compassion

For hours, night after night, Steinar Nilssen has visited beer and go-go bars in Pattaya and investigated the meeting between Western men and Thai bar girls.
     And there are plenty of both in Pattaya.
     In central areas of town you will have to search a bit in order to find bars that do not offer a lot more than food and drinks. The various places range from beer bars staffed with a lot more women than is necessary to serve customers alcohol, to go-go bars where it is all about sex. Men who could not be bothered to pay the salary of a bar girl so they can leave with girls, pick up freelance girls on the beach sidewalk.
     “What have made the strongest impression on me, is that it is possible to create such a convincing illusion which Pattaya is. And that so many people actually buy this illusion. This is a place where there exists a moral amnesia,” Nilssen says.
     In a go-go bar once he met a couple on their honeymoon. They found Pattaya to be a pleasant place where it is catered well to tourists. Nilssen would rather spend his honeymoon in his dormitory room back in Trondheim than in Pattaya.
     He is working on a Norwegian master’s degree in social anthropology at the NTNU University in Trondheim, Norway. After having spent half a year collecting data for his research, he is surprised that Pattaya is sold so broadly as a tourist destination for the entire family, when the target is narrow.
     “The target group is sexually frustrated men whom the women tend to avoid in their home countries,” Nilssen says.
     “Between 70 and 90 per cent of the men who buys sex in Pattaya has not done so in the West. Moreover, they would not even consider to. The difference is that they are offered an extremely intimate form of prostitution in Pattaya that does not exist in the West,” Nilssen says.
     Among the justifications used by men for buying sex, is that they view it as “their humanitarian duty” and that “everybody does it in Thailand”. The master student has found that several men view themselves as knights on white horses coming to rescue the women from destitution.
     Nilssen divides the sex customers into two categories: The romantic tourists and the sex tourists.
     The sex tourist’s goal is to have as much sex as possible when in Pattaya. The romantic tourist is looking for emotional involvement and might be considering marriage after having spent three weeks with a bar girl.
     “There are many men here who fall hopelessly in love. Many men live in a world of dreams. They are far away from home and more easily influenced by impulses. And impulses they get: The bar girls whistles and calls out for them. Some men talk to more women here in one night than they do in five years back in Norway,” Nilssen says.
     He has found that the women provide a very personal service. They make the men feel important, and interesting to be around. To a large extent the meeting follows the typical pick-up-pattern of the West. The man find a woman he likes, makes contact, buys her drinks, they talk and enjoy themselves, and might go out for dinner before they go to bed.
     The only thing the customer pay, is buy the girl off from work. Beyond that, payment might take the form of gifts. Some women do not tell what their company cost, but leave it up to the man to decide what, or how much, they want to give them.
     Many men consider proposing after a couple of weeks. After they have returned home, they might transfer between 5,000 to 10,000 bath a month to the woman.
     “What they don’t know is that the girl has three or four men who send money,” Nilssen says.
     He has listened to many touching stories about men who have been unable to get a partner at home. A 60 year old widower told that he had not been touched by another person in 15 years since his wife died.
     The traditional Thai female is reserved, feminine and not seeking contact. Nilssen has found this to be completely different in Pattaya. Here the women are the ones who are aggressive.
     To make contact with Thai women is not a problem. For the sex tourist this opens up a wide range of possibilities.
     “The typical male fantasy of having two women at once is obtainable for 1,500 bath. It is also possible to walk into a bar, point at a female and take her home. This is another fantasy of many men, especially for those who have limited access at home,” Nilssen says.
     The girls’ reactions to their customers differ. Some of them, Nilssen found, are sad every time they see a man leave. Some are even with men without making money of them. Lack of income lead many to financial difficulties. Other girls manipulate their customers.
     The researcher has found the bar girls to be experts at determining men’s expectations and adapt to those. With one man a bar girl might be playful and flirtatious. With the next one the same woman might be shy and feminine.
     “When in the company of a sex tourist she might dress up in a short dress, get drunk and kiss in public,” Nilssen explains.
     Many of the girls come from Isaan, one of the poorest regions in Thailand. They all send money back home to their families. They finance education of many of Isaan youth, contribute toward car payments, and aid family members who start up new business.
     “The pressure on these girls to leave is great. They depart as inexperienced school girls, and return rich and glorious, the master student says.
     Initially Nilssen wanted to focus on the men in this interaction. However, this has proved to be difficult.
     After having surveyed the activity in Pattaya for the first few weeks, he focused on a few bars where he felt he stood spending extended periods.
     “Some places were just too repulsive,” Nilssen says.
     After he got to know the girls working there, he also got access to the men they were with.
     “The bar girls had difficulties placing me. I did not fit their stereotypical image of a tourist: A man who gets drunk every night, feels them up, pays the bar bill, and take them home,” Nilssen says.
     However, without adopting some of the approaches that the sex tourist applies, he would not gain access to the women. At the same time his challenge was to maintain his professional integrity.
     “My natural reaction when at a go-go bar is to feel that this is grouse. Displaying this would not get me anywhere.”
     He has been served many a tear dropping life story night after night. This has been strenuous and demanding. Soon he’ll be on his way home to Norway, something he is looking forward to.
     He is saving most of his conclusions for his thesis. He is however, willing to say this much:
     “I have strong feelings about the men who exploit the bar girls in Pattaya. I also have strong opinions about the mother working in the same bar as her 17 year old daughter, who negotiated price with me for her daughter. The daughter should rather be in school,” Nilssen says.
     On the other hand, he think it is just fine if a 60 year old man from the West finds himself a 45 years old bar girl and live happily with her for the last 20 years of his life.
     However, as long as the sex industry in Thailand is so prevalent, Nilssen thinks all people coming here should make up their own opinion about it.
     “To come here without going to a go-go bar is culturally ignorant. Those who do not take a stand on a reality that is so forceful, sticks their head in the sand,” Nilssen says.

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