Grimy, neon-splashed Walking Street, populated largely by young hookers and pie-eyed Western men, is the main attraction of a Thai beach town called Pattaya. Sex for hire there was most certainly what drew Ben Bartanyi, the 49-year-old American real estate broker recently arrested for allegedly performing a sex act on a 20-year-old dancer in one of Pattaya’s many strip clubs as other patrons cheered him on.
Some people may have been surprised by the outrageousness of it all. I wasn’t. Ten years ago I visited Thailand to do a story on the commercial sex trade there. By all accounts, nothing has changed.
Then and now, lining Pattaya’s red-light strip, open-fronted bars bear suggestive names such as Virgins and SugarBaby (which vows “p - - - y without attitude”); they offer illicit promises that all too often are kept.
Small stages inside teem with nude or bikini-clad women who are there for the taking — so much so that they have numbers pinned to their skimpy tops or G-string bottoms. These numerical designations make it easy for customers to call them and take them out for cheap sex.
Ben Bartanyi (r) admitted to performing a sex act on a Thai bar worker in broad daylight.
I remember my Pattaya hotel selling condoms at the front desk and having signs warning that the age of consent is 15. In a Marriott there, a clutch of men loudly strategized about visiting a brothel where you must have two women at a time. Nobody seems to care.
It was a raunchy scene where women were readily available. Most of them came from the poor northern part of Thailand. They moved to Pattaya or Bangkok to earn money to send back home.
As one girl wearing a skin-tight knock-off T-shirt that read J’Adore Dior, explained to me, “I need to make money for family. They grow rice and raise buffalo, but they are very poor. They need money for tools. You can get very hungry in Isan [the northern, rural region from which she comes].”
Of course, many of the naive family members thought their daughters and sisters were working in the big cities’ department stores. Surely, family members would be horrified to know what comes with making the money they receive. “What’s hardest is when I have a drunk customer who becomes really stupid,” I heard from a girl who called herself Lin.
Young Thai girls stand outside the brothels of Pattaya city.
Sitting on a bench, staring out at the Gulf of Thailand, she continued, “Maybe he refuses to wear condom, tells me that he wants me to have his baby. Or he beats me. That happened once, when a customer was drunk, shouting at me, and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.
He ran toward me, tried to punch me, missed and hit the wall. Then he kicked me. I grabbed my bag and ran.”
These days the girls earn as little as $28 per hour. It’s a pittance for the work involved, but a lot more than the $10 per day that they could make with factory jobs at home. Still, they sacrifice a lot by being in Thailand’s sex trade, where diseases run rampant (according to one 2007 study in the International Journal of STD of AIDS up to 20 percent of Thai working girls are HIV positive) and drugs can be the only thing that gets the girls through shifts.
“I have few friends and no life outside of work,” a Bangkok bar-girl told me, standing on the fringe of Nana Entertainment Plaza, a three-story mall of sorts, where hundreds of prostitutes work out of strip clubs with names such as Play School and Bottoms Up. “It is bad what I do, and I cannot have a Thai man. Now I look for farang [Thai slang for Westerners] to support me.
Someday I will be a good person.”
As the Thai government seems to turn a mostly blind eye to the trade, — it’s not technically legal but it is widely tolerated — the beat goes on. Westerners keep coming for the thrills they can’t afford at home, and Thai women who are caught up in the sex biz grimly endure.
“I miss my family, my baby girl,” a young mother, six months into the trade, told me and started to sob. “This is not the life for me. It’s a bad life.”