Travel and sexual industries in Thailand and Philippines

When I was in junior high school, I heard the story of a girl called Rosario on TV. She was one of the so-called `street children,` abandoned by her parents and by society, a drug-addict spending the nights on a heap of garbage. She lived in Olongapo, one of the cities in the Philippines with a thriving sex industry. She worked as a prostitute to survive and had continually been subjected to violations by sex tourists. She died after suffering for three months with a vibrator stuck inside her body. Her case certainly revealed the sordid side of the sex industry. This one incident triggered my interest in issues concerning the commercial and sexual exploitation of children. It is a very complex problem, involving political, economic, social and cultural factors. My senior thesis traces the development of the "Sex and Travel Industries" in Asia and suggests possible solutions to the situation. As this is a problem which I would like to devote the rest of my life to, I did not think that I should leave my research hanging as a mere armchair theory. Thus, after submitting my thesis, I travelled to Thailand and the Philippines for three weeks to have a look at the real state of affairs.

One distinctive feature of the sex industry in the Philippines and Thailand is that the majority of the shops have foreign customers. In the Philippines I stayed in Angeles city. The area known as Baribago has a large concentration of go-go bars, where girls in bikinis dance to music. In Angeles I saw many long-stay Western tourists, and the go-go bars themselves seemed to be modelled on the pomp and splendour of Las Vegas. There were also quite a few Japanese, many of whom had procured retirement visas and had chosen Angeles as the place to spend their retirement years. As for Thailand, its capital Bangkok is known for the biggest red-light district not only in Asia but also in the world. Streets such as Patpon and Thaniya are representative of the industry. Thaniya Road could have been taken straight out of Tokyo`s Ginza or Kabukich?. Clearly designed to make Japanese visitors feel at home, the street is full of izakaya-style pubs and the skyline is dominated by billboards, many of them in Japanese. There are none of the go-go bars preferred by Westerners; instead, there are many Japanese-style sex shops such as izakayas, night clubs, massage parlors and pubs. One of the most obvious indications that these shops targeted Japanese customers was the fact that most of them accepted JCB credit cards. In contrast, the adjoining Patpon Road had a completely different atmosphere. The street was lined with go-go bars and the billboards advertised Heineken beer rather than Asahi beer or Japanese sake. It reminded me very much of Angeles city.

I also had a look inside the shops. People employed in the sex industry in Thailand and the Philippines are working on commission and have two main sources of income. The first one is the so-called "ladies' drink". Customers in the go-go bars buy a ladies' drink for the dancer or waitress who catches their fancy. A certain percentage of the drink charge goes to the girl. In case the customer wishes to take the girl home he has to pay a "bar fine", a percentage of which also becomes part of the girl's pay. In other words, dancers and waitresses earn their money from "ladies' drinks" and "bar fines". For this reason, dancers eagerly sell themselves, first employing provocative gestures and sexy glances in order to secure a ladies' drink. They then try to deepen the intimacy by conversing with, touching, and leaning against the customer. Customers are free to talk with and touch any girl for whom they have bought a ladies' drink, as much as they want. In the bars I visited, I saw that if a customer is not willing to pay the "bar fine", the girl would usually resort to tears in a desperate effort to sell herself, saying things like: "I'll be so lonely if you leave me." I had to buy five "ladies' drinks" after staying for only 30 minutes in a pub on Patpon Road. Of course, the go-go dancers are not all girls ? there are also "go-go boys" for female customers. Although there are still not many, I did see some "go-go boy" bars in both the Philippines and Thailand.

In Japan, the notion of "adult-entertainment" is associated with a sense of guilt and shame. In contrast, those employed in the sex industry in Thailand and the Philippines all seemed very cheerful and light-hearted. It might be that they have been instructed to be that way by their "Mama", the bar proprietress, in order to attract more customers. Whatever the reason, they are cheerful, and in that cheerfulness there is also warmth. Furthermore, sexual tolerance is stronger than in Japan. Gays and lesbians are accepted in everyday life. The so-called "New Half Show", a musical performance similar to the Japanese Takarazuka theatre, is a common form of entertainment enjoyed by families and children. This sexual tolerance may explain why condoms are displayed for sale next to the cash register in every convenience store. Although these local stores are Japanese-owned companies such as 7 Eleven and Family Mart, such marketing would be unthinkable in Japan. This cheerful and tolerant atmosphere must be extremely attractive for sex tourists, making them feel at ease. The sex industry which targets a foreign clientele is an important source of foreign currency revenue for the country. Thus, it is by no means prohibited, but rather, supported and endorsed, by the political and economic sector. A visit to a go-go bar can often be found included in package tours. One could say that this is the true "sugar daddy" business. In other words, the rich give money to the poor in exchange for sexual services and this has become an industry in its own right. Yet, we must not forget that there is a darker side to this cheerful picture. An ID is required for working in a bar. Issuing such IDs requires regular medical checks and a birth certificate. Both Thailand and the Philippines have laws which set the minimum age for bar workers. However, in the impoverished regions, few people have birth certificates and it is not so difficult to lie about your age. I met several girls who claimed to be the legal age of 18, but all of them seemed much younger. Moreover, medical check-ups are of poor standard and many of the girls suffer from venereal diseases. The impression I received was that child prostitution thrives under the veil of this tacit social understanding regarding the legal age. I feel that the government's hands will inevitably remain tied as long as it continues to reap the benefits from the sex and travel industries.

After witnessing this interrelation between the sex and travel industries with my own eyes, I became aware of another aspect of the problem ? religion. The Philippines is a Christian nation while Thailand is a Buddhist nation. It is interesting that such similar sex industries have developed in countries with two completely different religious backgrounds. The question of whether religion may in fact be beneficial for the sex industry has become a major preoccupation of my research. For example, in the Philippines abortion is forbidden according to Catholic doctrine. For this reason, there are many large families but incomes are very low and so there are increasing numbers of children who have been abandoned by their parents. Rosario, whose story I related above, is just one example of these homeless "street children". In addition, it has long been a custom for the eldest daughter to be the family bread-winner, which is why many girls are working in the sex industry in order to pay the tuition fees of their brothers. In Thailand, governed by a royal dynasty professing Buddhism, polygamy was traditionally practiced. I think that this has provided the foundation for the thriving sex industry. At the entrance to Patpon Road I saw a small statue of Buddha. Religion is said to offer salvation, but does a religion which nurtures the problematic sex industry truly offer salvation? Can it cure venereal disease or help street children?

During my visit I witnessed sexual and economic exploitation first hand. In Angeles city in the Philippines, an apple costs 25 yen, a wristwatch 40 yen, a kilogram of rice 100 yen, a life insurance policy (the price of a life) 100,000 yen, and a girl can be bought with just 3,000 yen. According to one job advertisement, the daily wage of a go-go bar dancer is about 300 yen plus commission ? by no means a well-paying job. Sex itself is a natural part of human behaviour, and I am not so concerned with its being turned into an 'industry'. However, I do feel that there is something seriously wrong with the exploitative nature of a system in which people from rich countries use their wealth in impoverished countries to buy human beings for sex. The tourism industry in such countries as the Philippines and Thailand was originally built up under the guise of "development aid". In their desperation for foreign currency, impoverished nations eagerly cater to the demands of foreign customers. It is ironic that the construction of a subway in Thailand financed by Japanese loans has facilitated easier access to the red-light districts and consequently contributed to the exploitation practiced in the sex industry. Sexual exploitation often involves violence, and it is likely that there will be more victims like Rosario in future. So, what is your opinion of this perfectly structured "sugar daddy" business?

ICU garaduate : Yoshinari, Aiko