You can see it on their young faces. You can watch their hands shake.
fear and trembling.
Tiny frail girls, barely past puberty, trembling half naked on the stage – terror etched into their eyes as they cower before their pimps and mistresses, forced to flout their youth and beauty to the voracious appetite of Western and local sex tourists.
Welcome to Patpong, Bangkok. Welcome to hell.
I think of the movie, Pan’s Labyrinth. The monster feasting on children with a banquet table before it. Why is there such a longing among many to destroy innocence, to devour beauty? Is that not part of the appeal, the Western fetish with wide-eyed Asian women, looking years younger than their age? There were plenty of places to get cheap sex with pretty Asian women, but the more youthful, the more innocent the better, the stronger the draw.
I’m in Phnom Penh. The weekend night market is in full swing. A romantic song floats through the air, and a tiny girl, probably less than 10 years old, takes the stage in scarlet lipstick and make-up, a bikini-style red dress barely covering her un-developed breasts. A shirtless man takes the stage and joins her in song. Romance fills the air.
Most sex tourism, most child rapists in Southeast Asia aren’t Westerners. They’re locals. And it’s easy to see how in the culture. Westerners flee to Southeast Asia to find a haven for their appetites of young, under-aged Asian flesh. Local males can feast upon it at will. It’s part of the culture; it’s common and normal. The night belongs to them.
Here, I’m the freak and outlier.
I think of the Madonna-Whore syndrome. That attraction to the Madonna figure of Virgin Mary, and that lust for the whore and slut. You walk around the bars and clubs of cities of Southeast Asia enough, and you see both blended together – the sweet innocent faces of Cambodian and Thai girls, wrapped in sexy clothing and erotic dances.
I think of myself. Being a white male, you often get attention from the girls. They’d wave, or say hi flirtatiously, or run over to exchange a few words and run back giggling to their girlfriends. The playful flirting is fun. The attention is nice. They’re mostly schoolgirls, probably barely out of highschool.
When does friendliness end and pedophilia begin? When do we cross the line and begin to become the monster we hate? Like Nietzsche wrote, “You gaze into the abyss and the abyss gazes into you. Stare not at monsters, lest ye become a monster.”
Among the backpacker and traveler circles, we rightly voice self-righteous indignation at sex tourism. But most of us are sex tourists as well. We don’t go to rape children, or buy Thai and Cambodian “love” for a night of passionate fucking, but we go as silent witnesses, silent voyeurs into a world of rape and exploitation and brutality. And then we return to our bars and our guesthouses, and voice our indignation to each other, patting ourselves on the back for being better than the sex tourists. But many of us go to see the culture of exploitation; it is a twisted, perverted tourist attraction, another cultural experience to photograph and pocket in our bag of experiences, and move on to the next one. And we become sex tourists as well.
I’m in a bar now. It’s an unlikely place to find myself. Cambodian girls dance around poles and on tables in sexy outfits; girls talk and flirt with you to get you to buy them drinks, which they earn a commission for. A mid-aged American sits down across from me. He tells me about his wife working in Burma for MSF, all the while he wraps his arm around a young Cambodian beauty next to him and slides his hand over her legs. I meet a nice pretty girl. She doesn’t seem to belong here. I suppose she doesn’t belong here. None of them do. People shouldn’t have to sell themselves. People shouldn’t be for sale as objects, even if they consent to it. Anymore than anyone should be willing to buy someone like an accessory at a market. What corrupting, corroding effect does that have on our soul?
I look around and I see people that treat women as nothing more than meat and objects to be exploited and used. I look around and see young girls trapped in a prison of sorts, wanting to study and have careers but forced to sell themselves in order to survive and support their families. I look around and see men eating it up, devouring youth and real beauty.
I look around and I see my enemy. And it is myself.
I left in the morning. Paid for my drinks. My entrance fee. My contribution to a culture of selling youth and beauty to the eager appetites of elderly and young men. They offer love, marriage to some of the women. Seeing love as another commodity to be bought. Offering another form of prostitution decorated in the veneer of respectability.
I started this trip reading Thomas Merton’s classic work, Seven Storey Mountain. Similar to Saint Augustine’s confessions, it’s a story of being lost and finding one’s way through the fog, a story of intellectual and physical debauchery before returning to a simpler, more spiritual path.
I haven’t crossed any line that most would find wrong. But me.
I went for a night to witness and experience. I forgot that my silence has a voice, and a price.