Most discussion about prostitution in South-East Asia of late has been focused upon the issues of human trafficking and sex tourism. However most girls in places like Ancol, Mabini, Clark, Pattaya, Soi Cowboy, Nana, Dannock, Betong, Sungei Golok, Batam, and Labuan who have become masseuses, karaoke, or bargirls have done so ‘relatively’ within their own free will, without direct force or coercion.

This requires another look at the South-East Asian sex trade from the point of view of the participants themselves to come up with a better understanding of why these girls enter and work within this industry and find solutions. To develop an understanding of this issue requires looking at the range of economic and social opportunities open to these girls as individuals.

Most women arrive in South-East Asia’s well known red light districts from the poorer provinces of each country. In Thailand, this is usually the Northern provinces around Chang Mai and North-Eastern provinces of Isan. In Indonesia, many come from the crowded island of Java, where their families have little or no access to land to make any sustainable living, etc. Many red light districts in Thailand also attract women from neighboring countries like Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and China. Most arrive either in their teens or twenties after a short broken village marriage, leaving children behind with their mothers to look after.

Many feel that their only ‘valuable’ resource is their gender and therefore life as a masseuse, karaoke, or bargirl is a viable means of earning an income sufficient to support their parents, children, and other siblings back home.

The alternative of working on a farm, or restaurant would not provide enough income to support those who they feel responsible for. Finding factory work is often difficult, and those that do, are continually tempted by friends who are earning more in the sex trade to follow suit in pursuit of a higher income. They are often encouraged by the few ‘success’ stories of girls who return to their village as glamorous examples of success and have built a new home for their families.

Therefore in the end work in the sex trade from the point of view of rural girls without skills and educational opportunities is seen by many as the best option to earn a sufficient income to support their families.

Underlying this is a deep sense of almost ‘noble’ responsibility towards family to provide income to their families, within the very limited means they have available to them to achieve this desire. This appears to be the prime motivator common to most women who enter the sex trade across the region. This is often supported by the dream that someone will pick them up and ‘look after them’ and the family, something that occurs in many districts around Thailand. The large number of ‘farang’ or western husbands living in Isan with their ‘retired’ karaoke girls is testimony to this.

However very soon the reality of this unglamorous life soon sets in where a woman lucky enough to have an income sufficient to rent a room for her own solitude and rest is the only luxury she has. The routine becomes a boring humdrum of coming to their place of work whether a massage parlor, bar, or karaoke joint early and staying there in most cases for more than twelve hours each and every-day. Most of the time is just hanging around waiting for customers, which in current economic circumstances are few and far between in most places around the region today. Most of their rest time is spent sleeping to gain enough energy for the next shift.

This the girls consider their work. However straight massage or just drinking with customers in a bar will bring only a meager income. They are advised by their coworkers and friends that by doing a ‘short-time’ or being booked by a customer all night will bring a greatly enhanced income, which will enable them to send money back home to their families each month.

This vocation and accompanying lifestyle has many costs associated with it. Many girls are mentally fighting with their sense of self esteem, which often leads to depression. This is often compounded with boredom from the same long routine each day, leading in many cases to excessive drinking and the use of amphetamines like “ice” and “yabba” to cope. Others take on gambling away their incomes. Gambling becomes incredibly addictive where the girls keep using amphetamines to keep awake, with serious health consequences.

Other girls see customers as ‘fairgame’ for ‘love’ scams where they purposely gain affection for the purpose of extracting money. Many of these girls have husbands back in the village and send the proceeds of these scams back to them to live on.

However one of the most tragic aspects is the high incidence of HIV/AIDS of this group. Most contract the virus out of ignorance, or recklessness in pursuit of maximizing their income. Some accept their fate, working until their health allows, then returning to their village to die peacefully. Others become very angry and set out to infect as many others as possible as a means to console themselves about their own fate with death – ‘dying with as many friends as possible’.

Many tackle their low self esteem through dressing as outwardly attractive as possible and acquiring the trinkets that symbolize “success” among their peers like the latest iPhone. However only a very few can afford these ‘luxuries’, with the majority of girls in this trade earning less than US $10 per day. They are confined to a life of exploitation and compliance, in physical, social, psychological, and spiritual poverty. This leads to long term depression and being locked into the cycle of disappear and acceptance of their fate, as forgotten, but convenient victims of society. Tourism development is more important than a few peoples’ personal wellbeing – a convenient sacrifice for development.

Social perception of these girls varies across the region. In the Philippines many girls are highly educated, some even lawyers, but forced to work in the sex trade for lack of other perceived viable opportunities. They are inconvenient but necessary providers of services that middle class Filipinos don’t want to think about too much, although their services are used by many. In Indonesia the activities of these girls are contravene to the strict morals of Islam, so they are pushed out to the fringes of society and conveniently forgotten about – a necessary embarrassment. Its only perhaps in Thailand where the mediating philosophy of Buddhism and poverty that still exists in the North and North-east of the country, provides these girls with more social acceptance. They of course are welcomed as the breadwinner within their families and villages, giving them some status at home.

Unfortunately the masseuses, karaoke, and bargirls of South-East Asia play an inconvenient role in the tourist development of the region. It has been policy wise considered a necessary ‘evil’ where very few resources or high level of intention has been focused on eradicating this social exploitation. This job has primarily been left to NGOs, which of late have been focusing on human trafficking. As a matter of conscience some governments have passed strict anti-sex tourist laws to show concern over the matter, but little if any foreign aid has gone into tackling the source issues of the problem, one of providing social and economic opportunity to these girls back within their village environment.

Perhaps entrepreneurial opportunity should be considered a basic human right and tackled as such. Females within villages tend to mature much quicker than their male counterparts and efforts must be made to assist in creating entrepreneurial opportunities and equipping them with the necessary skills and matching resources to exploit them.

This problem cannot be easily engaged within the red light districts themselves as they are structurally institutionalized through corruption, and enforcement agency people often owning the outlets that employ these girls.

It is time balance be put back into the issue of prostitution within the region by moving back to focusing on the deprivation of entrepreneurial opportunity, rather than the issues of human trafficking and sex tourism. By doing so, maybe better progress can be made on alleviating this problem society is really reluctant to face front on.