Bangkok has several red light districts. During our night of outreach, each of our team members was assigned to a certain district where they were to enter as a group, then break into smaller groups and set out with the simple goal of loving the women encountered. Our goal wasn’t to raid and rescue or anything like that, but to establish gateways of relationship that our partners in Bangkok could follow up on later. I’ll leave it vague like that on purpose, since this is a dangerous business.
Anyway, I was assigned to go to Nana, the red-light district known to be the most vicious of those in Bangkok. There were three of us on the team and we were to meet up with a fourth person once we got there, then walk in together. Now, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to make a proposal. Instead of just recounting my experience, I’d like you to place your hand in mine and allow me to lead you into that red-light district with me. I promise I’ll keep you safe, but it’s so easy to think this issue is far off and that it happens to people far different from you…that I need you just to step in and see things from a new perspective.
So imagine that you are there with me in a little sanctuary of a coffee shop, waiting. Waiting for the full team to assemble. Waiting for the night to unfold. Waiting to have your expectations demolished by reality….
Finally, the door is opened and you are beckoned to head out into the night and leave the station at the window from where you had been standing and watching the passersby. Now you join them, heading to your right, down the sidewalk towards the entrance to the Nana cul-de-sac of hell. The crumbled sidewalk causes you to watch your step as you pass vendors of all types of street food and other goods, taxis and streetcars whiz by and the air is full of the sounds of traffic and sizzling food, chatter, and shouting. A proper city street. You breathe in a putrid scent, heavy and drug-like. A strange mixture of incense, fried food, and something rancid and humid, like body odor, but not quite.
All these observations are registered quickly, but you have not gone more than a few paces before noticing the faces. The majority of the buildings along the street are bars with outdoor terraces open to the street and, lining the rows of thin bar-tables flush to the railings, are rows and rows of men. Most of them late middle-aged to elderly. Almost all of them white and appearing as tourists. What strikes you is that they converse very little with one another, as if not one knows any of the others, but there they sit, separate and together, staring out into the night en masse, like jackals waiting to feast on another beasts’ kill. And then you look and see what their eyes have already been consuming, the faces of young women appearing on the terraces too, but across the street. Their dresses are short and their heels high, their faces chock full of make-up and bright lip stick. Vibrant. Glitzy. Sparkly. And dead. The night has only just begun and while some wear a gaudy grin, most stare off into the distance with void eyes. The sun is almost down and they aren’t required to put on their mask just yet.
You keep walking, anger brimming up inside you. You suddenly have a new appreciation for wrath, and some choice words come to mind for the “consumers” lining the bar edges. But then you remember that hatred will only temper your ability to love well so you focus on the faces of the forsaken instead, trying to catch their eyes and communicate in one brief interaction, “I see you and I see your suffering.” You pray that 3 seconds in enough to pass on the taste of hope.
And you continue on, finally turning into Nana, the district known for making sport out of torturing women. You utter the word “Jesus” under your breath over and over and over and over and over, realizing you are far beyond your depth and powerless to intervene in the exploitation taking place on every side of you.
You travel up an escalator to the second story of the district and make your way past snoozing cooks and trash cans out to the balcony that extends around the whole second story. You’ve heard stories of what happens up here and your stomach tightens, wondering what you will have to behold at your final destination and at last, you step into that bar, dark and dirty and take a seat a few feet in front of the dance floor, full of poles and bikini-clad women, each with a pin attached to her bottoms with a number…so you may easily “order” who you’d like.
Above and behind you there are cages that expand to cover all four sides of the large room you now sit in. One larger cage rises up from between two dance floors and sits suspended in the center of the room. You order a coke and quickly realize your best bet is not to look around. You were encouraged to look straight into the eyes of the dancers, the most, and only, dignifying thing you can do, so you do. You look into their eyes and hold their gaze. Some act more seductive at that, thinking you’re a customer. Others look away. Some stand at the back of the dance floor half-hiding, looking beyond frightened. You decide they must be new.
Finally the DJ yells something into the microphone and the women come down from the stage to find customers. One nearly runs up next to you, pointing to one of the team members you’re with, asking if you came with her. Her eyes sparkle when you nod and her stiff posture instantly relaxes. She knows she’s safe. You order her a coke and try to converse, although neither of you speak the other’s language hardly at all. Even so, she speaks to you rapidly, pointing here and there and when the DJ makes another call and the girls remaining on the stage simultaneously lose an article of clothing, she looks at you and scowls. “I hate that,” she says. You keep sipping your coke and teach her tic-tac-toe. She giggles loud and innocently, like a little girl, every time a game ends and gasps at every cat’s game. Between games, she tells you her dream, simply that her daughter will have more opportunity than she has had and not need to be a dancer. The DJ makes yet another call and she sighs and stands hesitantly, frowning. “I have to go dance again…but I’m coming back,” she promises, then disappears into the other side of the bar…
You watch the other faces and you meet other women and your expectations are confirmed–they are not enjoying themselves. The girl next to you giggles flirtatiously as her customer gropes her body, but when she’s unaware that she’s being watched and her mask is down, you see in her eyes a blank, numbing stare. No smile. No sparkle. Just nothing. Her job is to get him to buy as many drinks as possible, so she does what she must to ring up the bill.
On the ride home, you struggle to comprehend your feelings. Heavy is not the right word. Glad, maybe, for the chance to meet the girls behind the masks. Glad to build relationships that can be followed up with. But you feel loss too. Powerlessness. And at the same time, hope. You could do nothing to relieve them from that hellish place and that bar was better than most, but there must be something you can offer. You think real hard and then it occurs to you, you can offer what you do have: a voice. You can share their stories. You can lift them up in prayer. You can help change mindsets. And you can empower others to do the same.
Now it’s your turn. You didn’t go all the way Bangkok to see it firsthand, but you don’t have to. The truth is, the sex industry in America is really not that different from Bangkok. We may not have red light districts you can walk to filled with 40,000 women, but we do have red light districts–in America they are just online. I’m told that 90% of Thai men visit a prostitute with some regularity; it’s ingrained in that culture, but it’s denied that prostitution exists there. And in America, we have learned that 68% of young men and 18% of young women visit porn websites at least once a week. But no one wants to talk about it. Pornography is sex trafficking. It is exploitation in every sense and fuels and catalogs the trafficking that would be considered “more traditional” by nature. And by our silence, we will sacrifice a generation to the neurological, physical, emotional, and relational devastation that are the implications of this consumption. Not to mention that we will victimize millions of adults and children in the process, with horrors that you can scarcely imagine. This is the Siren’s island.
You maybe can’t rescue the sweet girls in Nana, but let your voice be loud on this because one voice is enough to change a life and many voices together can change a culture. Don’t be fooled, people don’t consume pornography. Pornography consumes people. If you want to know what you can do to stop sex trafficking, this is it.