PHUKET, Thailand (WOMENSENEWS)–Kusuma sat on the deck of the speedboat, watching the man who had bought her for three days splash in the water of a tropical paradise.
One of the first women I befriended during a recent trip to Southern Thailand, Kusuma was slight and quiet, but caused quite a stir on our tour boat as it wove its way through the islands off the coast of Phuket. As the other passengers slipped on their snorkeling gear, none of them offered her fins or a mask. No one asked if she wanted another glass of tea or another slice of pineapple. Everyone seemed to write her off as one of “them,” the notorious Thai prostitutes who sell themselves to tourists by the hour, by the day and sometimes by the week.
“I’m not into those kinds of women,” said Nick, a college student from Greece. “It’s not safe because so many of them have diseases.”
“These Thai women know how to work a man,” said David, an Australian businessman. “But you can never trust them or believe their lies.”
Thailand is full of contradictions. Street vendors sell roasted crickets along with Diet Cokes. Buddhist monks wear saffron robes and designer watches. And Western tourists who have just arrived think they speak with authority when they judge the local people.
Nowhere are Thailand’s paradoxes more obvious than in its prostitution industry. Illegal but omnipresent, it carries stiff penalties for breaking the laws that police don’t seem to enforce. Cheap by Western standards, prostitution nevertheless generates billions of dollars in revenue and attracts an estimated 500,000 sex tourists to the country each year.
Hidden Meanings Made Obvious
To me, the ironies of prostitution in Thailand were nowhere more obvious than in the person of shy, doe-eyed Kusuma, whose name, like the names of the others on the boat, has been changed to protect her privacy.
Though Kusuma’s client George–the 53-year-old Utah engineer who brought her on our tour for the day–thought she was 27 years old, she told me she was 36 and passing as a decade younger to attract as many customers as possible.
While George thought Kusuma was childless and never married, she told me she had been married, had divorced, and had a 13-year-old daughter living 600 miles away.
Though Kusuma smiled and giggled as George dipped his hand in the surf and splashed her lightly, she later confessed she was terrified of the water, having witnessed the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in December 2005 and left 200,000 dead.
Kusuma played the part of a devoted lover, nuzzling up to George as he rhapsodized about the beauty of Thailand, the marvels of our tour and the splendor of his four-star hotel. But I saw only indifference in her eyes. As George slung his sunburned arm around her shoulder, she stared into the middle distance with a blank expression on her delicate face.
Unbeknownst to George, and unbeknownst to the other men on our boat who ogled and ridiculed Kusuma by turns, this quiet Thai native was working as a prostitute to support family members who otherwise could not put food on their table or clothes on their backs.
Kusuma also said that because her father had passed away and because her mother had lost one leg in a moped accident, she was the only able-bodied family member left to support her mother and daughter, who still lived in her rural hometown.
That hometown was in the Northeast, an agricultural region where people live on $1 per day versus the average Thai income of $7 per day.
Landed in Sex Work
Like a growing number of young women from the Northeast, Kusuma came south to earn money. Because she had a pretty face but no formal education, she landed straightaway in sex work.
Because prostitution was the best way she could support her family, Kusuma was willing to thwart the conservative values of Thai society, which deem it improper for a woman to wear a blouse that reveals her upper arms.
As George ducked below deck to grab a beer, she told me she prayed to Buddha every day that she would soon have enough money to leave prostitution behind. Like 90 percent of Thailand’s inhabitants, Kusuma practices Theravada Buddhism.
Given the circumstances of Kusuma’s employment, her departure wouldn’t come soon. She told me that she charged $100 a day for her services, but only saw 15 to 20 percent of this money. The rest went to the pimp who lured her into the trade shortly after she arrived in Phuket five years ago.
Because Kusuma solicited clients not as a freelancer but as a hired “bar girl,” her income–and her family’s security–fluctuated wildly. Everything depended on whether she caught the attention of male customers at the neon-lit karaoke bar where she worked in downtown Phuket. Everything depended on whether her boss offered her clients and whether these clients paid in full, as agreed.
“Sometimes have money and sometimes have no money,” Kusuma sighed, tugging at the sleeves of her blue and white striped shirt. “Never know when money will come and so life very difficult.”
Though I sympathized with Kusuma as she told me her story, I soon realized she wasn’t the only one struggling to make gains against hard odds.
Desperate for Affection
George, awkward and plain-faced like so many of the men I saw paired with prostitutes in Thailand, seemed to need affection as desperately as Kusuma needed cash. He told me he’d had only two romantic relationships, one a “loveless marriage” that dragged on for 31 years. When he met Kusuma at her karaoke bar, he jumped at the chance to spend time with a woman who would not only fulfill his sexual needs, but offer the kindness and generosity he craved. That night, he hired her for the remaining three days and nights of his vacation in Thailand.
“Western women expect that you will take care of every little thing for them,” George told me as our boat circled back to Phuket. “But Thai women, they take care of you. Kusuma is very sweet, gentle and loving.”
As the sun glinted off George’s Rolex watch, a shadow of doubt crossed his face.
“I care for Kusuma and worry about what will happen to her when I leave,” he told me. “But I can’t imagine being with a woman like this long term. Kusuma fills my water glass after I take a single sip. She puts the toothpaste on my toothbrush before I use it. I tell her she’s being too subservient, but she doesn’t listen and continues catering to my every need. As for me, I just want a relationship to be fifty-fifty, for someone to treat me well and to treat someone well in return.”
Fifty-fifty. Share and share alike. A balance of love among equals. I’m sure Kusuma and George, like all of us, hope to attain this dream. But in their case, poverty, exploitation–and emotional desperation–had upset any hope of equilibrium.
Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.
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For more information:
“Tsunami Aid Maroons Thai Sex Workers”: