Sex and Exchange / Sex is Exchange
When my Thai girlfriend Luna was working in Italy, she was annoyed by people constantly asking her why so many Thai women worked as prostitutes and sold their bodies to foreigners. Her usual answer was, “Up to them, they can do what they want.” But later, when she reported these conversations to me, she added, “But lady in Europe get laid with many man for FREE! Have many, many boyfriend. Not even boyfriend, only for get laid. Don’t care nothing. Man don’t give money, don’t give nothing. And lady don’t take care of her family. Only take care her own happy. And then she like to speak bad about Thai lady. I want to know who bad, Thai lady or Europe lady?”
I’ve always refrained from answering Luna’s question. But I do know that for many Thais, promiscuity is more of a problem than taking money for sex. In fact, the exchange of money and resources is an indispensable part of romance and marriage. Big dowries are an indispensable part of all weddings. When a man gives money, it is proof of love and commitment. Affection is the appropriate response from the lady. She would be foolish to marry a man who is stingy with his money. This principle extends to casual sex as well. Promiscuity only for the sake of sex just causes emotional and social problems. It is more acceptable if the man gives the woman some money so she can help out her family.
I’ve also seen some of the implications of Luna’s logic in the bar she has recently opened in the small city near her village. It started as a hair and nail salon that Luna set up about two months ago. She was renting two shopfronts for the salon, and her cousin who owns a wholesale liquor shop suggested that she sell some beer, whiskey and simple food in the shop next door. Many of her hair and nail customers were also women who worked at the karaoke bar a few shops down. They persuaded her that the real money was in a more formal bar where women could meet men for sex. They told her the various ways that bars operated, and Luna also talked to local police about what kind of operations would and would not get negative attention from them.
So Luna renovated the second room, putting in some red fluorescent lights, a stereo and a few couches. She did not want a go-go or a karaoke bar, but someplace quieter and more low-key. She did not want to hire women or charge them a bar fine each time they left with a man. In part because the police would also start expecting a monthly fee from her, but mostly because she wanted to provide a space for independent women. Instead, she just charges a small ‘tip’ each time a man buys a drink for a lady, and splits the tip 60-40 with the woman. Some of the women who come frequently also do a bit of work in the bar like cleaning tables or serving drinks when Luna has to step out. These work arrangements are still informal so far as I can tell.
It is not turning out quite the way she expected. The bar is frequented almost entirely by the local falang (foreigners), with a few Thai soldiers on the weekends. The falang like it because the music is not loud and the women not so pushy as in the karaoke bars—although I suspect Luna’s charisma is also part of the attraction. It also turns out that the falang prefer to drink beer and talk with each other than to spend much time with the women. Only two to four women hang out there each evening, and they don’t always leave with a customer. Falang like to drink beer more than whiskey and cocktails, which have a better profit margin. The bar is still doing fine, but not quite so profitable as she had hoped (although more profitable than the salon). A woman who goes out with a single customer can still earn more than Luna does all night selling drinks.
She has also found (returning finally to the question that opened this post) that a couple of the women are having sex with the men for very little money and sometimes for free. They are both in their 40s, although still quite attractive. They tell Luna that they like to have sex, and that they are looking for a husband. But their behavior is having the opposite effect. Some of the falang have complained that these women are too pushy, drunken and a little bit crude–always grabbing at their dicks. One even gave a blow job right in the bar. And some falang insist that they would not consider either woman as a girlfriend, unlike the women who still keep their prices high. By all reports, these two women also frequently have sex without condoms. Luna even suspects that one of them has AIDS. Overall, she thinks their behavior gives a bad reputation to her bar. But she also finds it hard to say anything because these women are more like customers than employees.
I don’t want to make any generalization from this. But I think it is an example that extends the significance of Luna’s comment at the beginning of this post. Taking money does not necessarily make a sex act less appropriate or moral. In fact, it can be quite the opposite (although the cultural context of understanding ‘appropriate’ and ‘moral’ will make a big difference). Women who are thoughtfully using their sexuality to earn money and attract husbands might also be more likely to maintain certain standards of selectivity and hygiene than those who are mostly looking to have sex. And–as the many foreign men married to Thai sex workers attests–commercial sex can certainly be a path to marriage and even romance. It takes discipline to deploy sexuality effectively and profitably. And a formal context of regulated payment and work might make that discipline more likely than the less regulated world of freelance hustling that is pervasive everywhere from the world of streetwalking to dating and marriage.
The strong line we draw in the West between legitimate sex and commerce, and the rather formal, clock-watching nature of sex work here, makes it hard for us to imagine sex work as a way to meet husbands. But even for Western women, the Honest Courtesan has also made the argument that the professional standards of sex workers are more honest and ethical than those of the many other women who use sex in a variety of ways to attract wealthy men, luxuries and resources—what she calls ‘halfway whores.’ At least sex workers fulfill our Western ideal of working according to an agreement for exchange; whereas the more informal sex freelancers often hide and deny the fact that money and resources are expected in exchange for sex.