The Can Do Girls
Sian Powell; 13/3/08;
A laugh rings out; one of the young women leans over, grinning, and whacks her neighbour on the arm. There are eight or 10 friends here in the Can Do bar in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai, sitting in easy camaraderie around a big table in an open-air back room. Eating noodles, teasing, gossiping – they are clearly enjoying themselves, at ease with one another, relaxed. These women could be students, or colleagues, or factory workers on a break.
Instead, they are all prostitutes – forced by economic necessity and a lack of opportunity to make a living selling sex to men. Thailand has limited social welfare provisions and life is hard for the poor, especially refugees.
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The choice often comes down to selling sex or seeing a young sister or brother, or a child, go hungry. These women make the tough decision to work in the sex bars and they do the work without complaining. They want the right to ply their trade without being harassed, fined, subjected to ridiculous and restrictive work rules, arrested, demeaned.
Sachumi Mayoe is tall and slim, with long black hair, and she’s wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a colourful scarf wound around her neck. She could easily be mistaken for a student from one of Thailand’s many universities.
But the 25-year-old has been a so-called “bar girl” for six years. “If a young girl sacrifices herself to make a good life for her family, for her brothers and sisters, for her parents, is she a good person?” Mayoe asks, a small smile on her face.
Usually known by her nickname, Wi, she is brutally frank about her choices. She is from the Akha hill tribe, from Burma, and her earnings help support her parents, a nephew, two younger brothers and one younger sister. Another younger sister has recently joined her in the bars.
“I did many, many jobs,” she says. “Working on the land, looking after children, cleaning, selling nail polish and, when I was little, selling noodles. I sold clothes. There were lots of choices. I chose this. Like anyone else in any job, my motivation was to earn. I also really wanted to study. I was from a hill tribe, so I couldn’t study. I really wanted the freedom to do other things. This gives me money and time.”
The Can Do bar is run by the Empower Foundation, an advocacy group for women working in Thailand’s sex trade, so it imposes none of the stringent rules followed elsewhere.
Mayoe has worked in bars where their salaries were docked if they gained weight, if they didn’t smile enough, if too few drinks were bought for them by the patrons, if they slouched, if they put a glass or bottle down too heavily on a counter.
The Thai sex workers were each docked about 50 baht ($1.70) a month as a contribution to paying off the police; the women from Burma and else-where were docked four times as much.
Some of the bar girls in the Thai capital, Bangkok, in the Soi Cowboy strip of neon-lit bars, are required to wear what appears to be a variation on netball uniforms.
Others wear sailor suits or what look like school dresses.
Yet others wear matching high-heeled boots, a frill of a skirt and a bra-type top.
In some sex districts in Bangkok, such as Nana Plaza with its three floors of exotic bars, or the bars in Patpong with their infamous ping-pong ball shows, the dress requirements appear to be anything that’s extremely short and tight. Or, indeed, entirely absent – nude dancing is always popular.
With the uniforms, the employers’ fines and the restrictive rules, it’s little wonder that more and more women in the Thai sex trade prefer to look after themselves and cut out the middleman.
They solicit customers on the footpath along Bangkok’s
Sukhumvit Road, or hook up with men via internet “dating”
sites; or swap contacts via mobile phone. There’s no fear
of their salaries being docked, nor are they told what to wear or how much to smile.
Yet health workers worry that these independent workers are more difficult to target
with health messages, including essential information about HIV and AIDS. There are also
concerns that independent sex workers find it more difficult to refuse customers who want unprotected sex, and are more at risk of assault or rape.
But Liz Hilton, a 48-year-old Australian who is an Empower Foundation advocate and a “member of the sex worker family”, says these women are capable of looking after themselves. They know the risks, and how to weigh up potential customers. They are skilled, too, at telling clients what they want to hear.
Certainly there are any number of older western men who have fallen for the bar girl myths in Thailand. They believe, for instance, that bar girls prefer much older men (thanks to their winning personalities, rather than their bulging wallets), that they naturally like having sex with strangers, and that there is no stigma attached to the sex trade in Thailand.
Hilton says bar girls do like older men, but for pragmatic reasons: they take far less time to satisfy sexually, and they are often financially generous.
And she says it’s wrong to think ordinary Thais don’t frown upon the sex trade; bar girls routinely cope with contempt or outright hostility.
Originally from Sydney, Hilton has lived in Thailand for 17 years, speaks fluent Thai and knows how the industry works.
Sitting in the Can Do bar’s backroom, she says the trade has existed in Thailand for a long time. She has seen an accounts ledger from the Ayutthaya period (the four centuries leading up to the late 17000s),kept by a clerk to record payments in the royal brothels. Back then, prices for sex ranged from a small sack of rice – which today would cost about 1000 baht ($33) – to a large sack of rice that cost three times as much.
Today, bar girl prices, at least in the bars patronised by westerners, still range upwards from about 1000 baht.
The trade flourished during the Vietnam War, when hundreds of thousands of soldiers were flown into Bangkok for “rest and recreation”.
After the war, Hilton says, the IMF and the World Bank encouraged Thailand to replace the lost R&R revenue with tourism earnings; hence today’s famous sex trade.
“It used to be that 70 per cent of the tourists coming to Thailand were men travelling on their own,” she says. “These days the proportion of women is slowly increasing; but nobody comes to Thailand once, twice, three times, to see the temples.”
Bar girls earn a salary of several thousand baht a month from the bar where they work. The fee they charge for sex is decided in a private negotiation with the client, after he has paid the bar a separate charge to escort her from the premises.
“It would be very unusual to offer services for less than 1000 baht,” Hilton says.
Prostitution is vastly more lucrative than working in factories, say, or domestic labour – which in any case often requires a school certificate, which is far more difficult to find for non -Thais, the women who have fled neighbouring Burma, Laos or Cambodia in search of cash.
The Empower Foundation hopes other bars will follow the Can Do’s lead and abolish some of the restrictive rules and fines, but it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.
Meanwhile, the foundation provides language lessons at Can Do, computers for emails, and a different sort of work: hosting regular “Bad Girls” community radio broadcasts, where they answer questions such as: “How do you get a stuck condom out?” These women don’t need to be rescued, the thinking goes; they’re not victims. Like every other worker in every other field, what they need is legislation to protect their rights.
Doing the right thing
Mayoe doesn’t have a boyfriend or a husband husband, but she doesn’t feel cheated. She’s happy, she’s getting on with life; and a year ago she became a Thai citizen. “It gives me freedom of movement, it lets me travel. You have to fight for your rights, for the papers. You need language and everything to push it through. My mum and dad still haven’t got papers.”
Out in the functional Can Do bar, with its tiled floor and wooden bar and stools, Mayoe plays pool with some Thai men, and every now and then looks over and smiles. The night is young and she has hours ahead of her. She has become accustomed to the life that is the lot of many young Akha women in Thailand.
“When you’re from an Akha village, and you leave to work, everyone thinks that’s what’s happened – you have left to become a sex worker,” she says with a shrug.
“For my family, I’m doing the right thing, taking money home. My family has no problem with what I do. The other people in the village might.”
She recently moved from Chiang Mai to Ubon Ratchathani, in Thailand’s east, where her customers are mainly Thai (she is back in Chiang Mai for a quick visit), and where she does some work for the Empower Foundation.
About 50 women are registered for work in the Can Do bar, but they often work in other bars
in Chiang Mai on a freelance basis.
Many of them are not originally from Thailand. Linda U’Para, 22, came to Thailand from Burma when she was five. A Muslim who is one quarter Bangladeshi, one quarter Chinese and half Burmese she has high hopes of becoming a Thai citizen.
“Maybe next year,” she says. “I really hope by next year.” Nam, from Burma, is tall and voluptuous and wears braces on her teeth. “There are many, many, sex workers from Burma in Thailand,” she says.
If they can’t speak Thai, and if they have no papers, they often have no choice but to work in often appalling conditions for derisory pay.
Men and women from Burma often get a hard time from Thais, but Hilton grins and says the women who work in the sex trade are not bigots. “There’s no discrimination,” she says. “They’re all working women together. Eighty per cent have children to support. Mostly they’re supporting between five and eight other adults.”
Bar girl Malee Van Driesten, an Akha from Burma, supports her parents, her sister, two brothers and a niece.
Unusually, she is married to a foreigner – a Dutch man who works as a tour guide in Chiang Mai. She married him, divorced him, and then married him again. At first she insists she is 24, but she finally concedes she is 40 and has a 12-year-old son and a nine-year-old daughter.
A jovial woman who smokes cigarettes and rides a scooter, she can make herself understood in six languages.
She once went to Amsterdam, a city she found cold and unfriendly, especially when she was picked up for shoplifting.
“I didn’t understand the signs in the supermarket – the police came. I said I didn’t understand; they said sorry, I said sorry too.”
Van Driesten works as a de facto “mamasan” – madam – at the Can Do bar, but if there are clients around she will take them on. Liz Hilton says she once came back from the post office with a client in tow. “Sometimes I go with clients,” Van Driesten says with a grin. “If I have some.”
Like all the other women at the bar, Van Driesten is entirely conversant with the risks of unprotected sex (although if a client offered $2 million, she says, she might consider it – but only if she was paid up front). Some research suggests sex workers are less likely to insist on protection if the customer is a regular, and in one disquieting article in a Bangkok newspaper a woman who solicited customers on the street confessed she was HIV positive and didn’t always demand her customers wear a condom.
In the Can Do bar, though, the message is loud and clear. Upstairs, in the Empower drop-in centre, there is a noticeboard covered with packets of various kinds of sexual protection. Hilton opens a female condom to show it is simply a plastic bag arrangement. She is slightly affronted: unlike male condoms, these come in only one colour, and no particular flavour.
Meanwhile, Jan Karnowang is sitting by herself at a table in the bar, nursing a nasty head cold that is hurting her eyes. The 29-year-old, from Lampang in Thailand’s east, has a four- year-old son whom she only manages to see four or five times a year. The boy is in Lampang, in the care of her parents. “I send money to my mum and dad,” she says, one hand over an eye.
“They look after him. I don’t have the time to take care of him.
The father? He was a bad guy. I separated from him three years ago. He was a construction worker; he had a new girl. He doesn’t help with the child. I have to get money from this work, and I send about half the money I make to Lampang. It’s for four adults – my parents and my grandparents.”
Karnowang thinks she needs some paracetamol, but she has no intention of taking the night off and going home.
There’s no sick pay in this trade; if you can walk, you work. Very slim, with the much-favoured long straight hair, she doesn’t want to smile because her head hurts.
“For me, I have to do this. Now my parents are very old. It’s very, very good here; I’ve got friends, everyone is with each other. Now it’s meant to be the high season, but it’s low; it’s dull; it’s not good. There are not many customers. Sometimes there are six women for only one or two customers. I ask for 2500 baht [about $851, but I will accept 2000 if it’s a short time.
Those foreigners, they think, ‘Oh, that’s expensive’,” they say, ‘I’ve paid less before, I have paid just 1000 baht.’ I say, ‘No, cannot.”
Like so many others in the sex industry, Karnowang has a foreign “boyfriend”.
He’s British, and she met him in a bar about three years ago. Isn’t it a bit difficult maintaining a relationship with a man half a world away? Why doesn’t she go and live in Britain? “He says something like that,” she replies. “But I don’t like cold weather.” She shrugs. “It’s up to me. But I don’t want, I don’t like. Sometimes if I don’t have money, I ask him and he helps me.”
Does she want a man in her life, permanently? “For me, if it’s a rich man with a good heart, I want. But if he’s not rich, and a bad person, I don’t want it. I’ve had it already.” Initially happy to have her photo taken, after a fight with her parents and her boyfriend (perhaps not the Englishman) she changes her mind and refuses to budge. Even in Thailand, a country that is liberal about so many sexual matters, working in the sex bars is considered unmentionable by many ordinary people.
UNAIDS, the UN’s agency for dealing with HIV/AIDS, estimates about 70,000 women work in the sex trade in Thailand. Liz Hilton thinks that’s on the low side, but she concedes there are no hard numbers. The important thing, she says, is to have the trade de-criminalised so the women are protected by labour laws and not wholly subject to the whims of rapacious employers.
It’s hard to believe that prostitution is illegal in Thailand, when the bars are so so visible and there are so many of them. But even if they are tolerated, the actual act of selling sex is still a crime, giving the police enormous powers. Although Empower wants the sex -trade de-criminalised (which would cut the police and their kick-backs out of the picture), it doesn’t want it legalised, because that would simply hand other authorities even more power to regulate.
“Most sex workers in Thailand spend most of their time not having sex; they work serving drinks, talking to customers, massaging,” Hilton says. “For the five minutes everyone is having sex, let’s forget about it for a while. They need labour laws to protect them.”