Stickman Readers' Submissions January 26th, 2010

Freedom and Responsibility in Thailand: The Decision to Enter the Sex Industry

In the course of email discussion with a fellow Stickman reader I was informed that I was a liberal and that this was a capital offence. I should therefore subtitle this “a liberal's view” just to ensure some more controversy! I am being sarcastic of course, but I am happy to own at the outset of this submission the label “social liberal”, although I maintain and I believe with some knowledge of Asian economics, that I am also an economic conservative.

I am aware that the discussion of no subject is likely to engender both dispute and ill-will as much as religion and politics but these will be intrinsic to my propositions. Lest you feel that venturing on such territory is necessarily illiberal, let me say that while I will certainly dispute my case, I bear no-one ill-will (or if I am tempted, I promise to try and get over it before we meet at the next Stickman writer’s conference).

The proposition I wish to support is one Stickman alluded to in his comment on Farang Dave’s recent submission. Farang Dave discussed what I believe to be a common reality, but which others have dismissed as mere projection on my part, namely that customers of the P4P industry in Thailand often suffer damage in the form of an addictive diversion from real relationships. Personally I regard the fact that many industry supporters seem to have given up completely on a more holistic relationship with members of the other sex as evidence for my case… but I can already hear the howls of indignation…

Anyway, the question Farang Dave posed was based on an analogy with the drug industry: just who is the victim? My proposition is that Thai citizens have less responsibility for all manner of actions, and in particular that Thai girls have less responsibility because they do not enjoy the freedom and liberties of conscience that we take for granted in the West. Indeed, where I have been accused of merely projecting, (I prefer to think of it as empathy for those who have told me their story), I assert that readers who attribute full moral responsibility to the girls who enter the industry are themselves merely projecting their own education, values and freedoms, all of which are almost entirely absent in LOS.

Thailand remains for the most part a feudal society in which the lot of individuals is severely constrained. At the religious level, Thais learn that their relative poverty is predetermined by their karma, by their actions NOT in this life but by the merit they AND their relatives made in previous lives. Not only so but those who are wealthy (regardless of the means by which they have gained such wealth in this life) are considered to be the deserving recipients of such wealth because of the accumulated merit of their previous lives.

Contrast this with the ethos of the land of the free, founded by the Pilgrim Forefathers, raised on what is sometimes caricatured, the Protestant work ethic, which taught that work was a meaningful and God ordained means of progress. In the 19th century welfare meant giving the unfortunate honest work, and it is a shame that well-intentioned but poorer reasoning people substituted this concept, which married compassion with respect for human dignity and responsibility, for the dole.

When Thais go to school, a significant part of their education revolves around maintenance of the mores of Thai culture. The hierachical system of pii and nong is strictly maintained, critical reflection and the asking of questions discouraged, behaviour that is supportive of the group is emphasized. So when it comes to homework the bright student is not distinguished by his or her grasp of the subject or effort, rather his or her work is shared among the class to be copied. The only history that is taught is the expurgated version of Thai history: the lessons of previous civilizations, of global politics and economics are denied to most. As numerous commentators observe, despite Bangkok rhetoric about reform, rote-learning remains the norm.

One of the key foundations of individual responsibility in the West was both theological and educational. The Protestant Reformation contended that man was responsible before God, had no need of any mediator, certainly not a Pope, or saints, or even Mary, only Christ. How could this be so? The Reformers proposed that this knowledge itself needed no intermediary, but each individual could determine for himself by reading the Bible. The first printing presses were devoted to this publication so that “every man could be his own theologian”, in turn spawning the printing of all manner of literature and an education system and a culture that loved books and respected individual decisions.

Writing came more recently to Thailand, and a culture of freedom and individual responsibility has not yet come, hence books are not important. You will seldom see a bookshelf in Thai homes and in many will not find a single book. The library at my school unusually has a significant annual budget for the purchase of Thai books but struggles to spend it because so few books, relatively, are actually published in Thai. Critical social commentators such as Pira Sudham publish in English in order to find readers, and perhaps the best journalism is also found in the English newspapers – which of course the masses cannot read. Reading a book is a solitary exercise, but solitary activity of any kind remains foreign in Thailand. Knowledge is not determined by individual consideration but still mediated by revered authorities.

I have commented previously on the economic situation in Thailand – see here.
There are two extreme arguments in the recent debate that I want to refute: the first proposes that Thai girls enters the sex industry purely from greed and could earn a good living and advance themselves more
than adequately by virtue of hard work. Their decision therefore is indicative solely of a serious character flaw. Anyone who has lived in the poorer areas of Thailand and knows many people there will see that
is nonsense. In my own village a neighbour works from 5am to 7pm each day driving a song teeo and by dint of unusual thrift manages to send his son to the school where I teach. His son will reap the
benefits of more English and a more prestigious school name on his resume but in all other respects he remains trapped within the Thai way of seeing and doing things with no opportunity afforded by his education
to become aware of and consider alternatives. Another neighbour is a solo mother in her mid 30s whose exceptional work ethic would lead to numerous employment offers in a normal market: but her application for
employment has been turned down by several regional employers who will only hire sexy young females, despite that this is at best irrelevant and possibly actually detrimental to actual work performance. In a
normal market with proper competition there is pressure on employers to be more efficient and that includes hiring smarter: in Thailand such pressure is absent.

For the significant portion of Thais who still rely on the land, there are few opportunities for them to get ahead by hard work. Several factors work against them. First of all, most of the farms are just too small to be economically viable – and are increasingly fragmented with each new generation. You may say that it is irresponsible of such people to have more children than their land can support – but even if their landholdings are small they need people around to do the manual labour. It’s a chicken and egg argument but if two thirds of the kids go to Bangkok to work in factories (because the land cannot support them) then by local logic more kids must be born to ensure someone is available to help plant and harvest the rice. So “buy machines” you may retort, yes great idea, except if the farmer does not have a full chanot or similar for the land, the banks will not accept it as collateral for the loan, so the farmer is forced to bear the usurous rates of Thailand HP – where the true cost of interest is hidden by the absence of proper disclosure – indeed it will almost certainly be sold as a monthly “low” rate. There has been little effort by Thai government or judiciary to provide farmers with proper title for the land they have farmed for generations. I could go on but I would merely be repeating arguments I have already made in my submission about the economic future of Thailand.

The other extreme argument is the poverty argument. This reads as if the girls are in such desperate straits as rice farmers that they are forced into prostitution by sheer economic necessity. This too is nonsense. It is a very small proportion of people indeed whose lives are so desperate. Stick once described my village, I think fairly, as “dirt poor”, but this is not the grinding poverty of major parts of Africa where people die for the lack of common necessities. No-one that I know of in this part of Isaan is undernourished, they all have basic housing, piped water, access to schools and health services and most have TVs, mobile phones and transportation. The girls are not driven to the bars to acquire the necessities of life, and despite what you may believe, they are not driven by boredom either. One of the nice characteristics of Thais is they seem able to find sanuk anywhere, (although I wonder if internet / gaming cafes might extinguish some of that in due course).

I don’t know who first proposed that perception is the only reality but I think as a proposal this is worth understanding. My take on what it means is that our viewpoints and our decisions are shaped by the way we perceive reality, regardless of how reality might actually be. A baby elephant learns that its power is constrained by its leg chain, the adult elephant cannot be physically restrained by the chain but it is chained by its juvenile experience. I contend that Thai girls who enter the P4P industry do not do so by unfettered free will in the same way as you or I might choose
to visit a bar. They are constrained by their upbringing, poor education, and social conditioning to have an unrealistic (to our way of thinking) sense of obligation to serve their social superiors
and particularly their mothers on the one hand, and to have a similarly unrealistic set of expectations about what they might achieve in it on the other. This is not to say that they have no choice
or that their choice is pre-determined, but rather that it is heavily influenced to such an extent that their freedom and responsibility is constrained and impaired, in a way that we with our individualistic
mindsets struggle to appreciate.

I don’t have the benefit of a fraction of the conversations that Stick has had with girls in the industry, but I have had more than a few that have gone deeper than the usual girl-customer banter. I don’t recall meeting one girl who believed she had any option other than to do what she was doing (and by the way, every one of those girls also had a very clear desire to get out of it as quickly as possible).

I will leave it to Stick and other more erudite writers to tease out the intricate details of the social patronage system that in Thailand chains people, constrains freedom and limits responsibility – of course not absolutely but to a significant degree. My contention is very simply that the girls who enter the industry are NOT forced to do so, but nevertheless their freedom to choose not to and their responsibility for an informed and appropriate decision in their circumstances are highly constrained.

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Stickman's thoughts:

Brilliant and I agree entirely. This is the sort of insight possible when one has the benefit of living in rural Isaan and not just seeing what happens first hand, but actually conversing with the very people we're writing about, not just the girls, but their families too.

nana plaza