The question I was most asked by my Brit friends when I first announced I was moving here, was " But how, as a feminist, can you go to live in a country that is a byword for prostitution and the exploitation of women?" I'll try and answer.
First, the prostitution that is most famous - ie that involving foreign customers - is actually quite small, and confined to fairly defined areas. Bangkok, in certain districts only, and the major tourist towns, especially Pattaya. I live in a small tourist town, and it is found in only a small area in the centre of town, and one other street of bars. So it is not always in my face. And I don't really know the culture of the floorshows and sex cabarets which you find in Bangkok and Pattaya.
But that doesn't mean I shouldn't be aware, and informed, about it. So it's a subject I've talked about a lot with my Thai friends. This is what they have told me.
Most of those involved in falang (Foreign) prostitution - they are known as bargirls - are from Eesan - the extremely poor north east, where education tends to end at about 12 to 14 years of age. Many girls marry young; those that don't, go away to work and send money home. Many of those who marry are deserted by their husbands, and there is no system of enforcing child support - so any children are left with their grandparents, and the mother goes away to find work to provide for them.
With very little education, what jobs can they get?
1.A minimum wage factory job in Bangkok or one of the industrial cities. This carries a wage of around 8,000 baht a month. By the time they pay for their accommodation, food and transportation, they can send home maybe 3,000 - 4000 a month, by living on the breadline.
2.A live in job as a maid, usually in Bangkok. They would earn about 4,000 - 5,000 baht a month all found, if they are lucky, as illegal Burmese workers will work for considerably less.
3.A live in job all found at a hotel, resort or guest house in a tourist area. This pays around 6,000 - 7,000 baht a month, with tips if they are lucky. Considered a good job.
4.Bargirl. In high season, she can earn 30,000 - 35,000 a month, and many meet a man who is willing to pay them a monthly allowance to stay out of the bar when he is not there - I am afraid most take the money, sometimes from more than one man, and still work the bar. She can send a lot of money home. In low season they can earn almost nothing.
But she does need to speak at least a minimum - and I mean a minimum - of English.
There is no shame in the family in working as a bargirl - you are supporting them financially.
5.Golf Caddy. Thailand is a major golfing destination - my relatively small town has over a dozen golf courses within 15 miles. Caddies are all women, and their use is compulsory on most courses.
They are paid 8,000 - 9,000 a month, and can expect to at least double that on tips. But they do have to speak some English, and be able to learn the intricacies of the course where they work, and advise accordingly. It is also a year round job.
To make sense of the earnings I am mentioning here, I don't know any foreigner living on less than 30,000 a month. I spend between 30,000 and 40,000, and I own my house outright, and don't lead an extragavant lifestyle.
There are , of course, other jobs. Masseuse, noodle stall, retail work in a Thai environment - but 1 to 5 above are the main employers for those Eesan people working away from home. Golf caddy is the most coveted job, but I can certainly understand an uneducated girl with a family to support becoming a bargirl.
The only answer I can see to this cycle is education, and thus access to a greater range of employment. In the short term, better access to education in Eesan isn't happening.
So - how do I live here?
I don't judge. I have friends who are or have been bargirls. I respect them, and the choices they have made- or have had to make. I don't go to bars where it's in your face - the bars with the floorshows involving ping pong balls and the like are mainly in Bangkok and Pattaya, and in our town, there are none. The girls are usually wearing T shirts and shorts or jeans, and the occasional short skirt/dress - but they all have the most incredible shoes! You only know it's a 'girly' bar because there are obviously too many staff for the size of the bar....I have even played pool against bargirl teams - and had a great time!
You often see May and September - or even December - pairings. But just as many are more age appropriate. Often - more often than you would imagine - their falang boyfriends buy them land or property. A surprisingly high number marry a customer. Many go to the home country of their husband.
Some of these girls are very bright indeed, and see 10 years of being with a much older man, whose every need they cater to, and whom they spoil to death, as worth it for financial security for life.* In these cases, I believe both parties benefit - I think most men would rather spend their declining years being fussed over in Thailand than in a nursing home in their home country.** Often they will have a child - and at least that child will be properly educated. Often the Thai girlfriend's children from a former relationship will join them - and usually, they too are given a proper education
Don't get me wrong - I'm not condoning a culture of prostitution. I'd rather - much rather - they had the education to have a much wider range of choices. But those girls that I know, in my town, where it is very low key, are making the best they can of a bad hand - and I admire many of them.
* The value of a falang style house in a tourist area will translate to a village house and land to farm or a small income , even if they are not left with a lot of cash/pension/life insurance.
** My neighbour is 92, and his Thai wife treats him like a king. She's in her 40s, and they have been together 12 years. He is very happy, and she seems content - she's a very nice lady.