Culture Guides

Sympathy for the Prostitutes

If prostitution is ugly, the law bears the brunt of the guilt. With no legal protection, sex workers are vulnerable to violence from clients, exploitation from pimps, cultural shame and censure, and more likely to both receive and spread any number of STD’s than if prostitution was legally sanctioned.

As a result of the laws that have zero hope of extinguishing sex for sale but merely drive it underground (perhaps a future American administration will announce the War on Sex?), thousands of women every year, notably from former Soviet states and South East Asia, are coerced into working in brothels, deprived of their passports and barely see a cent of the money they earn.

That said, those kinds of sordid slave camps are unlikely to be on the agenda of most travelers abroad and the girls seen hustling their bodies for bucks are likely to be of another level altogether. While predominantly coming from one of the poorer regions of the country, working as a bar-girl represents the most lucrative opportunity open to a young woman with not much in the way of contacts or experience. In fact, if they hook a naïve Western guy with a well-endowed bank account, they could soon be making more than most professionals with university diplomas.

Trouble is, the bar girl scene is by its very nature deceitful – ooh, handsome, you buy me drink? And in the mercenary atmosphere of alcohol, seduction and manipulation, the girls soon become as cynical and harsh as the business is risky and treacherous. Once their innocence has been sold under cheap disco lights to an unknown sweaty foreigner twice their age, it’s not an easy task to get it back.

In internet cafes in Costa Rica, Thailand and the Philippines, working girls can be seen with three of four Messenger windows open at a time while they chat to previous clients who are working back home to save up money to come back again. Promising fidelity and everlasting romance, until they see a plane ticket and an offer of marriage, they keep their options open, pleading for funds from several ‘true loves’ at a time.

Yet while the bar girls might seem brash, loud and self-confident, it’s often a show to conceal the burning shame they feel at what they do for a living. They dress in clothes that their clientele may find sexy but which are usually completely inappropriate to their culture. Their sense of shame may prohibit them from taking part in religious ceremonies. And though their bank balance may swell, there’s the lingering sense that they’ll never again be able to belong to their own societies. As a result, much of the money they earn is often squandered on frivolous consumer goods or drink and drugs in a self-destructive trajectory that began when they first put their body up for sale.

Again, though, it’s easy and deceptive to generalise, and there are plenty of women across the world who freelance on a part-time basis while maintaining steady jobs, the extra income paying the medical bills of ailing parents or the down payment on a new business venture. Many also finally snag that foreign husband and go to live abroad where they can make a new identity for themselves, provided they can stand the cold and strange food.