Recently a friend of mine asked me why I didn’t write posts about Thai bar girls and the sex scene to increase traffic on my blog. Everyone else does!
The answer was short and simple, yet the explanation slightly longer.
In short, quite frankly, it’s boring. The subject matter of bar girls has been discussed into oblivion on hundreds of other websites.
Blog and forum owners happily let people thrash out misogynistic musings on their sites as link-bait to drive traffic. But this isn’t what I set up my blog to do. And the reality is that Thailand is so much more than the bar scene.
It is part of it, but I think many expats would agree that the longer you live here the more insignificant it becomes.
I don't want to waste time discussing questions like, “Can bar girls ever be faithful”? or “Are bar girls getting fatter?” Or discussing stories of men who feel aggrieved at having struck up a relationship with a bar girl and spent tons of money, only for her to move on to a new “handsome man”.
I don't enjoy degrading people, either. I don't enjoy talking about women as if they are inhuman, as if they are objects to be sexually exploited. I have a daughter, a mother, and a wife…Go figure.
Don't get me wrong: I have no problem with casual sex. I am not a prude. What consenting adults do together is up to them. Neither do I pretend that men can stop mentally objectifying women. It's nature. Men are designed to see women as potential mates, and vice versa.
But we do have moral agency. We are capable of respect, of understanding, of compassion, of kindness.
And for all the hatred and dehumanizing comments on forums and blogs, people would do well to remember that these girls are daughters, sisters and mothers, and at one time children with dreams and aspirations – just like our own children.
The point of this article about bar girls is to go beyond the heavy make-up and high heels and look at the industry from the ground up. To strip naked (no pun intended) the circumstances that have resulted in so many women entering the industry and ultimately being dehumanized by punters and society at large.
Life Before the Bar
Firstly, let’s look at the demographic of the average Thai prostitute.
A sub-standard school education, usually incomplete.
Married young in a rural village – usually in the North or North East somewhere – and partnered by her family with an ill-suited young man.
The husband usually tires of the novelty of marriage quite quickly and swaps puppy love for boozing, gambling and womanizing (or at least 2 or the 3) like his father did, and his father before that.
Boy leaves girl with one or two kids. Girl receives no social security money from the state and no child maintenance from the father of her children.
So, pressure falls on the girl to find work to support the children and her aging parents, who, by the way, she has already disappointed by having a failed marriage, and further upset by now being a single mother and scarring the face of family pride.
Girl then becomes determined to provide her children with a better life, and to elevate the face of her family in the village.
Girl hears from another girl (friend, “cousin”) that working in a bar in Bangkok, or on one of the popular tourist islands, is the best way to make fast money. The added bonus is that she can meet a rich foreign boyfriend who will be prepared to take on her kids and support her parents (or a story very similar to this).
Due to her lack of education, the girl then weighs up the other options as a cleaner, rice farmer or factory worker, in which she faces long, boring hours of work that will never provide enough money to make her children’s/parent’s lives any better than their current situation.
Essentially it's stay dirt poor or take a risk.
So, girl migrates to the city/island to start her covert initiation into the world of prostitution; most likely with very little idea what it entails and what she's letting herself in for.
*At this point it should be noted that some (not all) girls arrive at bars in debt to middlemen who arrange travel and accommodation from their province. So even if the girl wants to leave after arrival, she will have to work off that debt first.
This is a devious way to keep the recruitment numbers high and the deserters low. I mean, once you've sold your body a few times the deed is done; it's pointless returning to disappoint your parents with the news that you didn't make it in the “big city” after all. Once you've crossed the line, you might as well try and make it work, right?
Cultural & Social Obligations
Having travelled to the North and North East of Thailand many times and seen the lack of opportunity and pressures of money (debt) and “keeping face” that young girls grow up with, when I see a girl standing outside a bar on the street, no matter how sexy she is trying to act, I find it impossible to see her as anything other than a victim of circumstance, of a system that in many ways socially engineers and steers women towards prostitution.
What I see in the bar is not a piece of meat to be exploited, but a girl that grew up believing that one day, when she finishes school, she will find a respectable job (or start a business) and be able to make her parents proud. If you live in Thailand you'll know that this is very much the Thai dream.
I don’t see a girl who grew up aspiring to be a dirty old man’s fantasy, or a girl who aspired to regularly sleep with men she doesn't find attractive.
I see a girl who naively bought into the idea that her teenage husband would stay faithful and do his best to always support her and their kids, and was victim of the antiquated cultural requirement that a girl must marry the first seemingly decent boy her parents catch her flirting with.
I see a girl who felt that she had to sell her soul for the bigger picture, to go against the morals she was brought up in an attempt to better the future of her family.
I see a girl who has sacrificed her own happiness, and potentially her mental stability, for the benefit of her family. No one should ever have to do that.
And then I see a plethora or foreign men coming to exploit, not help, as they may proclaim, the unfortunate situation of a woman failed by a society that does not provide social welfare or adult education programs for single mothers, and does not hold men in the slightest bit accountable for their offspring.
Is it Really a True “Choice”?
No doubt someone will surf on through here and tell me that many bar girls do the job by choice, making that self-serving observation that “she doesn't have to do it if she doesn't want to”.
But as I have covered, the cultural pressures and limited choice of economic progression force the hand into the fire. So the word “choice” becomes an ambiguous one at best.
When you debate this issue and use the word “choice” as your key defense, do you mean the same “choices” (quote on quote) that you would accept for your kids or close friends? I very much doubt it.
If the alternative career paths wouldn't provide an acceptable level of living for our children, then how can we so flippantly use the word “choice” as a justification for what these girls do?
Of course, there will always be a handful of women in Thailand who left a decent career to make more money in the sex industry; every one seems to have an anecdotal story in this regard. But we know this isn't the norm; it's not a common occurence.
The Reality Behind The Heels & Smiles
I won’t lie. My eyes danced when I first saw the bright lights, high heels, elegance and youthful beauty of the girls in the go-go bars.
It really didn’t compute that the hostesses in the bars were actually no different to the hookers lurking in the back streets of Soho, London. I couldn't see any hollow-eyed druggies with greasy hair, and there were no bad attitudes looking for the quickest transaction possible.
This all looked so friendly and welcoming.
And it's this sugar-coated version of prostitution that makes it easier to ignore the truth.
However, the more I learnt about the industry behind the scenes – the social-economic structure of the country, the systematic oppression of the lower classes, and rural prejudice – the easier it became to see the emptiness behind the smiles and gracious gestures.
Strangely, men seem to get so caught up in the ego trip of being a “handsome man” that they neglect to notice that these bar girls are young Thai women, and by preference probably don't actually fancy western men.
In fact, the majority of young Thai women are into teenage Korean pop stars and Channel 7/Channel 3 Thai movie stars.
Yet being from the social underclass, divorced/separated (more often than not with kids) prior to the bar, the only Thai men they have access to on a serious relationship level are also from that social underclass.
These are low-income earning men that will (generally) resemble similar characteristics to the inadequate man they were once married to. As we know, gambling, alcoholism and domestic abuse is rife in such economic settings.
Again, consider that word “choice”.
Moreover, once a Thai girl has been in the bar, she will struggle to get a Thai boyfriend at all. Therefore, once in the bar, a westerner/foreigner isn’t a choice, he is the only option.
If you know an iota about Thai culture, you'll know that a girl who works, or has worked, in a farang-style beer bar will struggle to earn the respect of other Thais going forward. Thais, unfortunately, tend to be able to tell working girls / ex-working girls simply by their mannerisms and by asking a few strategic questions.
Of course, few will refer to her as a prostitute. In fact, the word prostitute is seldom used, out of politeness.Two of the more preferred terms are “Poo ying gaan koon” (lady working at night) or “Poo ying haa gin” (lady looking/finding (something) to eat).
A girl who has worked in the bar, regardless of whether she bags a rich farang or not, will suffer a lifetime of gossip and stares from the village folk, not to mention the standard whispers and looks most Thai women endure when they have a foreign boyfriend.
What's strange is that Thailand has an abundance of what one might refer to as average, middle-class single women – university educated and hardworking. Yet many foreign men choose to hang around in the bar scene paying for sex, and end up with a partner from that scene. They then wonder why it all goes belly up.
Not so long ago a friend of mine was in town and he wanted to walk down the infamous bar-laden Soi Nana in Bangkok.
We paced the cesspit of hawkers, child and amputee beggars, ladyboy and female street hookers and plethora of foreign men.
Rather than thinking, “Wow look at all these hot women”, I thought, “Man, this must be one of the most soulless places on the planet, one that exists for one reason only: for the desperate to feed off the desperate”.
Maybe it's just me.
Bar Girls Want the Same Things We Do
A Thai bar girl isn’t a nymphomaniac seeking a life of endless sexual encounters (though I'm sure someone will anecdotally comment that “I met this girl once….”) as many expats and forum lemmings would have you believe.
No, she is seeking a guy to take her off the lowest run of the ladder and elevate her and her family’s status to heights that simply wouldn’t be possible trying to run the capitalist gauntlet from her current standpoint.
She, like every other human being, wants to be loved, respected and valued.
And this is the one thing guys that frequently pursue encounters with bar girls can’t face up to: That underneath all the makeup and forced sexual suggestion is a girl who wants to be loved. Yet she acts like a woman who can’t be broken.
I think Bob Dylan put it best when he sung:
“She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl”
And before someone comes at me with a “you're victimizing women by treating them like children” comment, the above lyrics can be applied to anyone in a vulnerable place in life.
The reason guys hate to be reminded of the human side of a bar girl is because it would take the “She loves it!” shine off of the conquest.
Imagining that one of those girls could be your own sister or daughter brings the conscience into play. It makes guys realize that these girls have feelings and emotions beyond the fantasy of the delirious male ego that believes these girls are more than happy to be commodified for sex.
Becoming a full-time bargirl takes conditioning.
Just look at the face of a new addition to a bar, and then return two months later to see her stripped of all that might have been sacred. I have seen it with my own eyes….
I will never forget one very timid girl, who looked like a rabbit in headlights on arriving at her new place of work. Her “cousin” had invited her to take up a position as a “waitress”.
It took her weeks to be conditioned to “go with a customer”. I know this because the bar boss was an acquaintance of mine for a while.
Three months later my travels took me away from the island, and as my taxi passed the bar on the way to Samui airport, she was swinging on the dance pole, hair extensions, knee high boots and calling out to men walking by. The transformation was quite something, but sad all the same.
The way men generally discuss these girls is as if they were “born to do it”. Again, this is a self-preserving attempt to separate their actions from the cause.
Perhaps some do take to it like a duck to water, but the majority have to be broken in, so to speak, and are helped along by the Mama Sang and other working girls.
The Irony of Similarity Between Bargirl & Customer
Ironically, the average sex-tourist isn’t so far removed from his subject.
He may talk a good conquest to his pals, but secretly he longs to be admired as a man, to be loved, to be held, to be respected and noticed by women; things life may have failed to ever present amicably, or in a way that would be considered “normal” to other guys.
So he chooses to pay, which may be the only avenue he has to getting close to what he really wants from a woman. There's nothing wrong with that, if the transaction is consensual, right?
Yet all too often in this transactional realm, the man falls foul to the strategic lies of a seasoned player.
He gets too involved. The lines get blurred. He forgets it is a financial agreement and not a real romance and ends up losing not just his integrity but a considerable financial investment.
His bitterness at being “played” then results in misogynistic behavior, and the need for revenge through the physical and verbal degradation of Thai women.
Psychological Impact, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse
Can a bar girl have a normal relationship after the bar?
Of course it's possible, and I am sure there are many happy relationships that have lasted the distance between bar girls and westerners.
The amount of foreigners maintaining contact with bargirls and sending money to them once they return home is testament to the fact that in many cases the needy find the needy on common ground.
She admires and he complies, she “takes care of him” and he “takes care” (financially) of her beyond the bar. The success rate, however, comes into question when reading all the negative stories foreigners post online.
On the other hand, it should be considered that sleeping with men twice/thrice their age, and men they generally have no physical attraction to, week in week out, will take its toll on the majority of girls.
No doubt that in some cases there is psychological damage, similar to that experienced by victims of sexual abuse, albeit the bargirl act is consensual and transactional.
Therefore, it isn’t surprising that so many girls experience breakdowns and turn to drugs and alcoholism and end up in refuges. The reality is that post the bar, most struggle to ever have a normal, loving relationship.
The lucky few are able to settle for a retired expat who is prepared to pay the bills in return for regular thrills. True love really isn’t an option for most bargirls, period. But then what is true love, anyway?
When you hit the bars on a Saturday night, I wouldn't blame you for thinking the last paragraph regarding drug and alcohol abuse and refuges is a little far fetched. I would have thought so many years ago.
Until I taught martial arts at a women’s refuge in Bangkok, that is.
I met well over 50 women there who were victims of bars. Those that had broken down psychologically, those who experienced family abandonment when their parents found out (or rather when the friends and other villagers found out what they already knew), and perhaps most disturbingly, those who got pregnant after having been raped by pimps/facilitators, bar owners or customers.
I was shocked by the stories.
When I tell the “It’s a choice” guys about the refuge, they simple can’t believe it, either.
Neither can they believe that many girls are bought and pimped, and in fact can’t leave the bar until the debt is paid in full. Admittedly this is getting rarer, but it still happens in the very poorest of rural areas.
For these girls, the fewer customers you go with the more your rent accumulates on top of the money that was paid for you to secure the job in the first place.
Of course, not every case fits this template, and there are many variations in circumstance. But the point is that the majority of bar migrations aren't fully transparent, and the majority of girls, however they may seem now, would have been largely ignorant to the life that would become them.
Three thousand words in and I hope you may now understand why I do not glamorize the bar scene on my blog.
My blog isn’t a platform to speak about these girls as toys to be played with and treated with contempt.
My blog is not a corner of the web that will degrade, marginalize, or spread hatred.
A Thai bar girl is a woman, just like your mother, sister, daughter, girlfriend or wife.
The key difference between the dearly loved women in your life and a bar girl is an education and a level playing field of opportunity, which amounts to nothing more than the lottery that is birth.
I want to end by playing you Mae Sai by the group Carabou.
The song is about a girl from the North who goes away to become a prostitute to make money for her parents. She gets hooked on drugs and by the time she returns her mother is dead.
The video has English subs, so don't worry if you don't speak Thai.
Makes you think, huh?