SISTERS, DAUGHTERS, FRIENDS
How to look at the world
I remember like yesterday the first time I went into a brothel that was selling very young girls for sex. It was the summer of 2003, and I was in northern Thailand working as a legal intern for an international NGO, helping with some casework and, after hours, sneaking into brothels with local investigators to help document cases of child prostitution as an undercover sex-tourist. A lot of men who looked just like me — 30-something white guys from the West — were and are sex-tourists around the world, so I fit the part well and had easy access into brothels. What I saw at the aptly-named Pandora nightclub shook me.
The Pandora’s ground floor looked like any other pool hall or bar in the area, with Thai and foreign men lounging around swearing and smoking, haggard bar-girls cajoling customers into buying more drinks, and an aimless, dead-end atmosphere of men just hanging out wasting their time and money. Depressing, but nothing unusual for many aimless, dead-end men. But upstairs was a different story. If the Pandora’s security thugs trusted your intentions — that is, your intention to have sex with minors — they would let you into the elevator up to the upper floors, where it wasn’t beer on the menu. Downstairs men gathered to waste their lives; upstairs they came to destroy the lives of others.
When I first when upstairs at the Pandora, I saw a long line of couches pushed against the far wall. They ushered us into the large, open room, and sat us down with drinks on comfortable chairs facing the sofas. Then in came the girls. For sale that night at the Pandora were a group of 8 or 9 very young, very tiny girls who we later learned were Burmese. As we covertly took pictures with our hidden camera equipment, the girls told us their names. They all had cutesy little girl nicknames, like Boom and Yummy. And these were not women by any stretch of the imagination. Several were so tiny that, when I stood in front of them, there barely came up to my armpit. Several were so young-looking that they looked like they had not even gone through puberty. Through later investigations we learned that the youngest of these girls were 10 or 11 years old. Tiny, beautiful, wide-eyed girls, sitting on the couch 8 feet from me, their bodies on sale for less than $10 a night.
I kept up the act of being a sex-tourist well, acting nonchalant and a bit disinterested, getting a few names and asking a few questions in my broken Thai to feign interest while we tried to case out the joint and get pictures. But when I went back home that night, I wept. I knew these places existed, knew that young girls were being raped for profit around the world, but had never seen it with my eyes. That night I felt angry, perhaps the most righteously angry that I had ever been. Sometimes tears are of sadness, and sometimes of anger or despair. I don’t know exactly what combination of zeal and emotion fueled my tears that night. But those little Burmese girls have never left my mind, and their stories have fueled my anger ever since.
It was a year before that, in Bangkok’s infamous Patpong district, when I first came eye-to-eye with sex for sale. I was spending the summer with a team of InterVarsity students from the Pacific Northwest, learning about the commercial sex industry and human trafficking and seeing how we could be a part of serving or fighting in some way on these important issues. In our eager naiveté, the very first night we were in Bangkok we went out in groups of 2–3 to see what Patpong was all about. With two other men, I went into an upstairs brothel area, sat down and had a drink on a sofa across from an oddly positioned curtain, and after a minute the bar owner casually pulled back the drapes. Sitting behind the curtain were 6 or 8 beautiful Thai women, all in slender red dresses, each with a numbered tag pinned to her dress. The system was simple: buy a drink, call out a number, and for $6 or so go upstairs with the woman of your choice.
Seeing this for the first time, it almost felt like a stereotype. It is something that I may have seen in a movie before, or something that some men like to joke about after visiting Southeast Asia. It’s what made the US military’s R&R sites so notoriously rife with stilted romance and STD’s back in the day: slim, young Asian women for sale, smiling seductively, everyone pretending that everyone is happy while everyone knows that everyone is lying. I don’t remember the name of the place I went to that very first night in Bangkok, but I remember the details. Two young Spanish men were there buying women, and I confronted them in my broken Spanish by asking them what their mothers would think about their choices that night. It was hot and sweaty outside, but inside they had turned up the AC and made everything comfortable for the ex-pat traveler, the perfect place for a needy man to drown his loneliness or frustrations in the mirage of masculine performance. And I remember the women’s eyes, boring a hole straight through me, their eyes trying to do their job to seduce me while also communicating contempt or anger or resignation, the things that weary eyes so clearly show.
I went back to our hotel that night and cried like I had never cried before, distraught at seeing and feeling what we all know to be true but can so easily ignore: that when taken to its ultimate conclusion, the dark desire to control women and use them as bodies without regard for their souls results in men gathering beautiful young women and raping them on demand.
People can go round and round about whether prostitution should be legal, to what degree any form of prostitution is voluntary, whether empowering women to be professional sex-workers is at least better than criminalizing their desperation or driving it further underground into even darker, less-monitored places. I know the issues, and have thought through them a lot, and there are good people arrive at surprisingly different policy conclusions. I don’t have all the answers.
But I do know a few things with crystal clarity: children thrive when they are free to pursue their dreams, and no girl ever dreams of being in prostitution one day; no father or brother or son with an ounce of decency would ever want his daughter or sister or mother to sell her body to survive; and no one should casually accept as the fate of others what they themselves would find horrific and catastrophic. Yet untold millions of girls and women — yes, men and boys, too — toil today as victims of some form or another of the massive global commercial sex industry and we accept this great injustice as just the way things are. Our sisters are being sold and raped, and we mostly go back to our own business, consumed with the NBA draft or the important events in Washington while the greatest human rights issue of our time sits defiantly under our noses, winning by default its defiant challenge to what should be our most basic human instincts. Because actions don’t lie, and by our actions we make known what we honestly believe: that as long as it is someone else’s sister, someone else’s daughter, we tend to not give a damn if girls are raped.
One of the reasons that I cry when I see girls in prostitution is because I know that the brokenness in my own mind and heart has contributed to the suffering of my sisters. I have never paid for sex, never abused a minor, never forced a woman to do something against her will. But like most of my friends and brothers I have used women’s bodies for my own selfish pleasure. And our world is awash with such opportunities, from the vast web of pornography, which controls so many men, to an easy hook-up lifestyle, which hurts both men and women. I’m not here to preach a certain sexual more, or condemn my friends for mutually consensual sexual activity; those are your adult decisions. But I do know that what masquerades as freedom is often a trap, and that even consensual sexual encounters, if we are brutally honest, are often at their core selfish, harmful endeavors.
These are difficult topics indeed. But for the purposes of this essay, what I want to talk about is not our consensual sexual choices but the condition of our hearts. Because I know that we all understandably struggle with some parts of the most basic human desires: to eat, to have sex, to build friendships and a family, to have enough nice things to be happy. And when the dark side of these desires wins out — when our desire for sex or things or food overpowers that part of our character which should keep these desires in a healthy place — we end up hurting other people, often very badly. Lust and greed and gluttony, among the other deadly sins, aren’t just bad for us; they kill others.
And the commercial sex industry is a place of misery and death. The shores of the Banishanta brothel in Bangladesh are littered with both used condoms and the occasional dead woman, condoms casually thrown onto pathways after men get their $3 of pleasure, the occasional dead woman thrown into the river for disposal because in its self-righteous arrogance the local cemetery is too proud to bury a sex-worker on its property next to the hypocritically pious men whose lust gave her the job in the first place. The streets of India’s Kamatipura and Sonagachi are lined with heavily-made-up girls for sale from Nepal and Bangladesh and India, too poor to be valued in their slums or villages, too untouchable to be cared for by their home country, too female to be of worth much to their family. So they service their customers, raise the children of rape, and face a future of communal shame, death from disease and abuse, or perhaps a future as a madam to abuse the next generation of girls just like they used to be. The streets of Amsterdam’s De Wallen is filled with heartbreak and misery, scantily clad women from three continents enticing their customers from show-room windows and hiding a lie, because this is not the place of dreams but is the place where young girls’ dreams have come to die.
It’s the same around the world, from Bangkok to Tokyo, from Seattle to Tijuana, from Lagos to Pretoria. Wherever we have decided to commercialize sex and keep women in cages or showrooms or bars or brothels for our own selfish sexual pleasure, dreams die along with dignity. And when we do nothing about it, when we don’t raise a finger to help our sisters in such obvious distress, our soul dies along with them. The tragedy of the global sex industry is not just that our sisters and daughters are being raped; it is also that we have lost our courage, that many men have lost their manhood, not only by partaking in the exploitation of others but by meekly standing by and doing nothing about the very great injustice that is right in front of us.
Look at that woman exploited on your computer screen and do nothing but lust; think of that girl molested in a brothel and feel sad but do nothing; look at that woman on the street corner and merely bemoan the crime in your neighborhood; read another story of a rape in India or a brothel in Vietnam and write it off as ‘over there.’ These are all certain ways to lose your humanity, to sink to the lowest common denominator of consumer-of-culture, offender-of-none, a merely nice person in a merely nice world trying to do merely nice things. I’m not behaving badly, I think, so what can I do about my sisters being raped?
And that is the problem. We don’t think of others as our sisters or daughters.
If we thought of the 25,000 girls around the world being forced into abusive child marriage every day as our friends, we would act. If we thought of the 2 million children trapped in sex slavery every year as our sons and daughters, we would act. If we thought of the elderly woman casually thrown into the river for disposal as our mother or grandmother, we would act. And if we saw the women on our computer screens as our sisters and daughters, we would act very differently towards them in the privacy of our own homes.
And though I can think of a thousand things that both men and women can do to take action to serve and empower others who they consider their sister or daughter or friend, I know that if that person were really someone you loved you wouldn’t wait to ask me what to do. You would be filled with fury, with that beautifully unstoppable mix of love and compassion and rage, and you would find a way to keep that girl in school, to keep that man away from her, to keep that entire city from prostituting its daughters. Your righteous fury would change the world, one daughter at a time.
People behaving badly, through apathy or ignorance, or through overt exploitation, are destroying the lives of millions of young girls as I write. In the time it has taken me to write this essay, perhaps another 1000 girls were married as children, the type of statistic I can barely get my mind around. But people behaving with courage, with love for their sisters and daughters and friends around the world, and for their own sense of self-respect, will build the lives of many millions more. I hope that there is a final reckoning one day, where every injustice will be rectified and Reverend King’s long, slow-bending arc of justice will finally reach its end. I hope that one day the commercial sex industry will end, that child marriage will be no more, that my female friends around the world will no longer suffer the indignities of molestation and abuse merely because more powerful men like things that way. I have faith that things will change.
But faith and hope are not enough. What the world needs now — what your own soul needs now — is a dose of courageous love in action. I beg my friends to look at the world around you, to look in particular at the way that the world mistreats poor girls merely because they are poor and female, and do something about it. Look at them, even one, as your sister or daughter, as your friend, and let her suffering make you cry.
Then get up, grab some friends, and go do something about it.