When I say sex trafficking, and especially sex trafficking in Thailand, images like this might pop into your head. That’s understandable.
Research has shown that when we don’t have first-hand experience with an issue, we craft our understandings based on media representations. But this is the Hollywood version; the reality is often very different. By definition, trafficking means forced work. A victim of sex trafficking is someone who is forced to work in the sex industry against his or her will. Sex trafficking happens in every country on earth in both urban and rural areas.
In fact, some people are misled by the word ‘traffic’ to think that it must involve cross-border movement, but that’s smuggling. A person could be trafficked in their home town. It’s also worth noting that boys can be trafficked too, in much the same way that girls can, but oftentimes, they’re left out of the conversation. This is Oi and his younger brother. They grew up in a rural hill-tribe village in Northern Thailand, not far from the Myanmar border.
These hill-tribe communities are ethnic minorities in Thailand, and highly discriminated against. Oi’s mother died of a heroin overdose, and he and his younger siblings were left in the care of their stepfather. It’s culturally common in this part of the world and many others for children to bear the financial obligation of caring for their families. Being the oldest child, Oi felt immense responsibility. There’s also a great deal of migration in this part of the world, particularly people coming from Myanmar to Thailand seeking a better life.
However, just because a baby is born in Thailand, that baby is not guaranteed Thai citizenship. Oftentimes, it’s dependent upon the citizenship of their parents. Oi was born in Thailand, but his parents are from Myanmar. Thus, Oi, as well as many other children and adults, lack citizenship in any country, a term that is called ‘stateless.’ Without citizenship in Thailand, you can’t go to public school, you can’t access healthcare, and you can’t move freely outside of your province.
As a result, Oi’s options for earning money were very limited. When he was 12 years old, he followed an older boy from his village to the Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai seeking work. Oi grew up speaking a language unique to his village. He didn’t know much Thai or English, so when he got to Chiang Mai, he started by trying to sell flowers to tourists in a night market, but he wasn’t making much money. So he followed one of the other boys to a bar in hopes of making more money there.
Just after nightfall, the bar, situated in the heart of Chiang Mai’s red light district, filled with young boys just like Oi. It did not take him long to see what this job entailed. Oi eventually, extremely reluctantly, followed in the footsteps of the other boys. It started with drink orders and massages, but in order to make enough money to care for his younger siblings, it quickly turned into Oi having sex with foreign men. He dreaded every evening that he worked.
He started drinking and taking drugs to numb himself, but he knew that he would never be able to make enough money working in a restaurant or selling souvenirs, so he continued on. He felt as if he had no choice. He still wasn’t making enough money, so during this time, Oi made the decision to steal $80 from one of his customers. He was arrested and received a lengthy jail sentence, likely as a result of discrimination against members of these hill-tribe communities. For stealing that $80, Oi spent four years in jail, and his customer walked completely free.
Oi is a victim of sex trafficking, and his story represents the sober realities of this life. To be clear, though, not all sex work is trafficking. There are consenting prostitutes, and they deserve to have their rights respected. Some people willingly choose to work in the sex industry, but many do not, and that’s where trafficking comes in. While every instance of sex trafficking is different, Oi’s story is much more common in Thailand, among both men and women, than are instances of people being kidnapped and chained to beds.
Most victims of sex trafficking are physically free, but not psychologically free. On one hand, Oi is not chained to a bed. In theory, he can walk away from the situation at any time. However, if he does that, his family will not be able to afford to eat. His younger siblings will have to work, maybe in the sex industry, and because of the financial obligation, he’ll likely bring immense shame to himself and his family.
Is that really a choice that he can make? He has no choice. I’m fortunate to have been born into a middle class family and raised in a nice suburb outside of Boulder. I have a great deal of privilege, and thus, vast choices. When I started researching sex trafficking in 2008, I thought it meant that girls were kidnapped and chained to beds. But since then, my understanding of the issue and how best to stop it has evolved, and I want to take you on that journey with me.
Many western NGOs, staffed with well-intentioned folks like myself, have started working on anti-trafficking efforts around the world. Specifically in Thailand, some of these Western organizations have begun conducting what are called ‘smart raids’. They identify a facility, a bar, a brothel, a massage parlor, and they raid the facility. They remove the people that they believe were trafficked, and oftentimes they remove all of the sex workers in that facility. They then take them to a shelter.