KB didn’t say how many men she takes a month. I would not have guessed she was taking so many. Though already 19, KB looked younger and her gentle spirit gave the impression that she was not yet aware of the harsh world of prostitution. Women change as they work in prostitution. The more clients they take the more they lose themselves and personify the expectations of men. As women give themselves over to prostitution they usually begin drinking heavily to cope and then eventually start taking drugs. When KB was offered a ladydrink, she asked for a diet coke and said her mother taught her not to drink or smoke. (It probably didn’t occur to her mother to teach her daughter that prostitution is also something to stay away from.) But KB hid the truth from her mother for some time. Her father still doesn’t know what she is doing. KB has an air of innocence about her but her experiences in prostitution have already stripped away any possibility of naiveté.
Although KB couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say how many men she takes a month, she did say she sometimes takes 3 a night. On average, KB makes between 90-100,000 baht a month. (30 baht to the dollar) Combining tips and salary most women settle for between 20-30,000 baht a month. The usual quota for customers in KB’s bar is 9 men per month for a salary of 13,000 baht. KB is probably taking 30-45 men a month minimum. She hates it and I am amazed that after 5 months she hasn’t given in to alcohol or become hard just to cope with it. Maybe she was just so happy to have someone other than a lusting man, listen to her story that she let her guard down.
KB was brought to the bar by a relative. Her parents owe over 1 million baht to the bank and if they do not pay it back they will lose the family land. There are 7 siblings in the family but the older ones all have families of their own and are not able to help much. At 19, KB is a middle child. She made it through 9th grade before dropping out. When I asked her if she wants to finish high school she looked like she wanted to cry. That dream seems crushed and out of reach at this point. KB has no family of her own so the debt falls to her. It’s a heavy burden for a 19 year old. Impossible really. Prostitution seems to be the only thing she can do to save her family’s land. KB has already been working for 5 months. I did the math – that’s easily over 150 men with an income of around 500,000 baht. That’s more than most Thais make in 5 years. I asked her how much longer she thought she would be here. KB looked really sad and the look of innocence left her face. She thought it would probably take her two more years. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that families get used to the daughter being a living credit card and the debt only seems to grow with time.
Daughters sacrificing themselves in prostitution for family debts, family needs, family dreams – a story far too common. The daughter’s commitment to her parents is admirable. Given the choice between losing the family’s home and prostitution, she chooses prostitution. I can’t say that given a choice I would be willing to sacrifice myself on that altar. The cultural obligation of daughters in Thailand is something I have a hard time reconciling. In my culture parents carry the burden for children even into adulthood. Something seems unjust about a family’s burden falling entirely on a young daughter before she even has a chance to grow up.
Thailand’s once beautiful tradition of honoring parents has now become a tradition that justifies exploitation. What will it cost the daughters of Thailand to uphold these cultural values? What will it cost Thailand? It’s time to question the motivations behind the demands for a daughter to sacrifice her dreams, her future, and her identity to care for her parents. I’m tired of seeing daughters sacrificed on the altars of parental dreams and expectations.
There is another question that also begs to be asked – where are the men in these stories? What sacrifices are required of men to provide for their parents or even their own families? When I do meet men who are making these same sacrifices they are usually ladyboys (men who dress and act as women). That is telling. In Thailand providing for the family at great sacrifice is apparently mostly women’s work. Women are given less value in society but they bear the greater burden.
I wonder what will happen to KB in 2 years if she continues at this pace? How long before I visit and find her hardened and resigned? How long before her identity is damaged and she no longer sees a way out? I’ve seen the patterns and I’m guessing at this rate, it won’t be two years. I will offer her another job but I know that 9000 baht (minimum wage) a month isn’t enough to save the family land. Parents come first here and experience tells me that even presented a great opportunity, KB will choose her parents’ happiness over her own dreams and future. I honor her for her sacrifice but I grieve her loss.
KB’s turn to dance comes around again. She gets up from the seat, turns to wai us, and says thank you before removing her top and going back up on the floor. We pay the bill. She will get 50 baht of the 170 baht lady drink we purchased for her. It will take a lot of these to save her family land. We will return and visit her again. We will buy more lady drinks. We will listen; we will love. It won’t save her land and it won’t protect her from the destruction of prostitution. Sometimes all we can do for a season is to listen, love, and pray. It isn’t much but to a young woman who hates her job and is at risk of becoming a commodity, it is an opportunity to feel real again and to feel valued for who she really is. Remembering that truth separates the woman from the prostitute – who she is from what she does. It’s a significant distinction to a woman who is being bought and sold night after night as a sex object.