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Sex, Lies and the Internet

Bangkok-Buckaroo

Up until this week I thought I was pretty familiar with the commercial sex industry in Thailand. But everything changes, and I’ve been gone a long time, so here I am surprised to learn from Stick that these days guys are wandering around the Kingdom’s red light districts with James Bond cameras on their lapels recording the girls and everybody else on the street, without their knowledge or consent, and posting these videos on the Web.

I’ve watched a few of these videos on YouTube, and my first impression is this: Jesus, they sure make Thailand look boring. Endless hours of tourists walking up and down Soi Cowboy, or endless hours of a bar girl’s knees shuffling back and forth over a bar, is not exactly Golden Age TV. I guess if voyeurism is your turn-on the fact that you know the camera was hidden might make it titillating, but for anybody else it’s like watching the tapes from a security camera over a Pizza Hut parking lot. And there’s so much of it. Hour after hour after hour of bored girls picking at their split ends and men stumbling along in dirty beach clothes.

Watching that shit is torture, and I’m honestly surprised there is an audience for it.

As boring as these videos are, however, the debate over the morality of making and distributing them is fascinating. We like to think that morality, the knowledge of right and wrong, is universal and inborn. In fact the only thing more subjective than morality is self-regard. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, and one man’s moral act is another man’s sin.

It seems obvious to me that the morality of making and distributing a covert surveillance of the demimonde lives in whether or not the subjects of the recording know they were being recorded and would give consent for its broadcast. Since these recordings are made surreptitiously, and because none of the cameramen who create these recordings post them under their real names, we know that the cameramen definitely think that what they’re doing is wrong. It is likely the thrill of getting away with it that motivates them.

But is it wrong?

Up to you, as the women used to say. I think this window peeper shit is juvenile, and dull as dirt, but I have not made up my mind about its rightness or wrongness. I’m leaning toward “right,” and once again, I will rely on an anecdote to explain my position.

As I have said here before, many years ago I worked as the public relations manager for The Boathouse, a very swanky little hotel on Phuket’s Kata Beach. (If you are tired of hearing Steve Rosse talk about The Boathouse, feel free to stop reading. I don’t blame you a bit.) In those days a fun part of my job was having lunch with journalists. Getting free lunches and free rooms in return for a positive mention is a big part of a travel writer’s life, and Asia is crawling with travel writers like a soi dog is crawling with fleas. Once or twice every week Reception would ring me up and tell me there was a wandering scribe at the front desk asking to see the PR Manager.

If the guy (it was always guys) looked clean, and if he could prove that he actually wrote for a real publication, I’d invite him to lunch. Over lunch I’d judge how useful he would be to the property. If he was going to be useful I’d offer him a couple of nights in the smallest empty room, with maybe a couple of meals thrown in. If he was something really useful, like an editor or staff writer on a glossy magazine or a big urban newspaper, I’d throw in some wine.

On the other hand, if the guy was a poser I’d sit with him through lunch, hand him a press kit and tell him goodbye. A lot of posers and wannabes travelled the world in the guise of journalists in those days. I suppose now they travel in the guise of bloggers or something.

So one day the front desk called me and I went out to the lobby and there was this little balding American guy with a gold chai around his neck. He said that he wrote and published a book and Web site called “Travel and the Single Male.” He showed me one of his books, and it wasn’t anything I wanted The Boathouse to appear in, but Americans were rare on Phuket in those days and this guy was a real talker, so I invited him to lunch.

We got on like a house afire. He was a retired used car salesman from Los Angeles who sold his business in his fifties and now travelled the world, doing nothing but sampling the commercial sex industry everywhere he went and writing “site reports” to guide other mongers. He was a very, very happy guy. He was also a pretty funny guy, with a car salesman’s gift for making friends. We sat on the terrace on a beautiful Phuket dry season day and we talked and talked and talked and talked. We shared a nationality, an accent, and a sense of humor. We shared a couple of carafes of the house white and made several trips back and forth to the seafood buffet. It was a terrific lunch and I was sorry when he finally said he had to go.

He gave me a copy of his book and even though I knew that his readers were not the market we were looking for (The Boathouse has never allowed “joiners”) I accepted the book to be polite. That night, at home, I began to thumb through “Travel and the Single Male.”

I cannot speak to the sections on Rio or Rome or Romania, but the section on Phuket put my teeth on edge. The writing was awful, and everything he said about my home was wrong. He was a careless observer and lazy note taker. He had the names of hotels wrong, and the names of streets, and phone numbers, and prices, and directions, and he identified a statue of Budai outside a Chinese restaurant as “the laughing Buddha.” I hate it when people do that.

You would think that selling Phuket to the mongers you wouldn’t need to lie, but in his book the Balding Californian said things like, “You won’t see any girls over 20 in the bars, because they just can’t compete with all the new sixteen-year-olds who come on the game every day.”

Let me ask you, have you been to Phuket? Have you ever seen any identifiably underage women or boys working the bars? I never did. That kind of thing is kept out of sight in high profile tourist areas. It’s there, but it’s in miniscule amounts and it’s hidden way. It’s not on display for tourists in the bars.

The more I read the angrier I got. There is nothing I hate more than sloppy writing. The guy was not a journalist, he was just another monger who, while wealthy enough to spend all of his days flying around the globe paying for pussy, still wanted to get a free room out of me by claiming to be something he was not. It pissed me off.

In those days I had a weekly column in The Nation, which used to be a pretty good newspaper. Every week I had to come up with a thousand words and that particular week those words were about the Balding Californian and his crappy travel book.

The editors liked the story so much they asked for three thousand more words. I went to town on the project. There is nothing I like more than a soapbox and an axe to grind. I ridiculed his spelling errors, his disjointed syntax, and his sloppy grammar. I checked every fact he had published about Thailand and pointed out every mistake. I questioned why a man who could do anything and go anywhere chose to spend all his time paying people to pretend they liked him.

My article about “Travel and the Single Male” took up two whole pages in the next Sunday edition of The Nation. I was paid well for it, and all my local journalist friends called me up to congratulate me. I felt like I’d made a gesture toward righting a wrong.

And then, as it will, other shit happened.

The Thai language press stole the story and its accompanying photos, which was not uncommon in those days, and where The Nation had published it next to the comics in the Lifestyle section Thai Rath put it on the front page. Somebody with a na-prefixed surname read the Thai article, took offense at the Balding Californian’s assertion that sixteen-year-old girls were selling themselves on Soi Bangla, and complained directly to the Minister of Culture. The Minister of Culture got on the TV right away and assured the nation that he had spoken already to “the president of the internet” and the offensive words had been removed. Apparently, in 1995 nobody had yet explained to the Minister of Culture what the internet was, and that it did not have a president. He was caught in a lie and so he doubled down, pulling in a favor from his buddy the Foreign Minister.
The Foreign Minister made a public statement that the Balding Californian had been blacklisted for defaming Thailand’s reputation and would never be allowed back into the Kingdom. The Balding Californian called me from California to tell me that he knew a tuk-tuk driver who would kill me for twenty dollars. I told him that the thing about tuk-tuk drivers is that for twenty-one dollars they won’t kill you. I told him that I hadn’t aimed at causing him trouble, if anything I hoped maybe I could goad him into correcting some of his stupid mistakes in his next edition. I told him that I thought the blacklist was about as real a thing as the president of the internet, but there was no calming the guy down and for months afterward he sent me threatening fax messages.

Then my editor at The Nation called me and said the Crime Suppression Division wanted me to come in for an interview. Two hours in a windowless room with three very hard guys who did not read English but had been told that Steve Rosse was writing bad stuff about Thailand in the newspapers.

They finally released me when I promised them all free rooms at The Boathouse.

Then the dust settled and people’s attention wandered and everybody forgot about Steve Rosse and the Balding Californian. No tuk-tuk drivers ever killed me, so I suppose eventually even the Balding Californian forgot about the episode.

I hadn’t thought of it in years, but Stick’s recent post about video cameras in the bars brought it all back to me.

You see, there were photos in “Travel and the Single Male” of a few Patong hookers. Some photos of hookers in bars playing with captive gibbons, and some photos of hookers in hotel rooms playing with other things. I took the book down to Patong and showed the photos around. It took less than half an hour find one of the models.

Her name was Moo and when she saw the photo she flipped out. I mean, she was enraged. She was shouting and causing a scene. She had let a farang take a photo of her in bra and panties in a hotel room and now that photo was in a fucking book? And a guy from a farang newspaper was showing that book around Soi Bangla looking for her?

As unsettling as that was, once I explained to her that the photo was also on something called “The Web,” and once she understood that potentially anybody in the world could see the photo there, she got really, really angry. The man who took the photo had sworn it was only for him, had sworn that nobody else would ever see it, and she swore to kill him if he ever came back to Phuket.

She was serious as a heart attack.

I quit looking for the other girls in the book after that. Didn’t want to ruin anybody else’s day. I quoted Moo in my story, and presented her as the victim of a lying, cheating, selfish prick, which I think she was. I did not name her in my story, or show her face.

So here’s my point, and thanks for waiting. While in 1992 I felt no guilt about outing the Balding Californian as a selfish opportunist, but at the same time I felt complete sympathy for Moo’s feeling that she had been victimized by his outing her as a sex worker, I am ambivalent about the morality of this new kind of exploitation, this tedious secret recording of people going about their tedious business. In 1992 it was self-evident that a tourist would be embarrassed if somebody back home saw him paying for sex on vacation, and a girl would definitely have been embarrassed if somebody on the rice farm saw her, yawning with boredom, running her fingers through her hair outside the Tilac Bar.

But would that be the case in 2017?

Stick himself runs photos on his blog that show girls in the same state of undress as was Moo in her photo in 1992, and the girls on Stick’s blog seem to be alright with it, maybe even a little proud of it.

Everything changes, and everything stays the same. Human coitus is the same thing it was a million years ago, and prostitution is still the world’s oldest profession, but Thai hookers today, at least the ones who flash their braces and tattoos at Stick’s camera, seem to be a lot more casual about letting the world see them at work than they were only 20 years ago. These women and boys all have presences on the Web already, on Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest and Thaicupid and whatever. Some of them appear on escort service sites where not only are there nude photos, but there is a menu that tells you this particular girl will let you come on her face but she draws the line at licking your asshole.

Apparently shame is no longer a cross these women must bear, and that’s probably not a bad development.

As for tourists being embarrassed about what they’re doing, a photo of a guy in dirty shorts and rubber flip-flops groping a Hello Girl outside PlaySkool is probably his Facebook profile pic for a month after he gets home, and it will probably generate more “likes” than anything else he’ll post all year.

Since 1992 celebrities have built careers on the planned “leaks” of sex tapes. Cell phone video has shown us movie stars drunk and shouting racist profanity, politicians snorting cocaine with gang bangers, and Paris Hilton bolting from the doggy style to answer her phone, leaving her stunned boyfriend suddenly unsheathed and waving in the wind. We’ve seen murders committed on live TV, we’ve seen OJ chased down the 405, we’ve seen religious zealots cut off heads in the desert.

By now we’re all numb, and millennials , who watched thousands die in collapsing sky scrapers on live TV when they were toddlers, actually seek out the most outrageous, violent, horrible stuff they can find on the Web and trade it around like kids used to trade baseball cards. They post the most intimate details of their sex lives on the Web, as it happens, across multiple platforms.

So my opinion is that while I don’t understand whatever it is that Bangkok112 and Bangkok69 are doing, it’s apparently okay in 2017. At least nobody is calling the president of the internet.

But I wonder, if they realize that what they are doing is now within the norms of acceptable behavior, will Bangkok112 and Bangkok69 lose interest and go find some other immature pastime that is safe and easy but feels naughty?

She-Kept-the-Bar-Banner

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