Category Archives: Love and Sex
I met Luna, my girlfriend of five years, on the streets of Bangkok. I was walking to a phone booth, looking at all the lights and not really paying attention to where I was going. Luna was sitting with a friend on a small sidewalk restaurant, and I nearly walked into them. I apologized, and her friend asked me to sit down with them. I declined and walked on. I looked back, and saw Luna smiling at me.
This happened in Sukhumvit, a part of town with many sex workers and where inviting smiles are common. At least one or two other women had smiled at me that night. But after my phone call, I was still thinking about Luna’s smile. Both she and her friend looked a bit different than most of the women around Sukhumvit: different fashion sense, a bit darker, a bit heavier, an less bored and mechanical. And Luna’s smile–it was stuck in my mind. I decided to walk back, and take them up on their invitation.
Her friend Minnie invited me to sit down again as soon as she saw me. Minnie was a flirt–and as I learned later also an alcoholic and a freestyle sex worker (i.e. frequent sex with foreigners for free, for drinks, for money, and for long term relationships–whatever seemed appropriate at the moment). She lied to me about being from the Philippines and about having a job. But she was good natured and fun about it, and I am thankful to her for keeping the conversation going. Both Luna and I were a bit shy, and the encounter may have amounted to nothing without Minnie’s lubrication.
Luna shared some fried cakes she had cooked at her home in the country with us. She said that she had just arrived in Bangkok that morning for her job. When I told them I was a professor at CU, Minnie’s eyes opened wide but Luna only looked at me blankly. Minnie tried to explain what a professor was and that CU was a famous school. Luna only smiled at me. I started to focus my attention on Luna.
They were just finishing their meal, and talked about going to a bar that Minnie knew. Luna started to pay, but Minnie told her to put away her money and let me pay. I started to reach for my wallet, but Luna insisted that I hadn’t eaten anything and that she would pay.
They stood up abruptly and walked away quickly. I wasn’t sure if I was invited to come. Then Luna turned around, looked in my eyes, held out her hand and gave me that smile. I took her hand and we walked across the street together. . . .
I’ve often said that Thailand is where bigots learn to be tolerant and the tolerant go to be bigoted.
Thousands of young men and women who think of themselves as open, tolerant and supportive of social justice in the West travel to Thailand every year, where they express disgust and condemnation of Western men with Thai women. And many of those men, who may well have started out as bitter, misogynist pigs have have shown far greater social adaptability and even had their lives transformed by their Thai partners.
Many of the young, tolerant tourists with activist ambitions appreciate the fluid gender identities in Thailand—the transvestites, transsexuals, and enormous range of gender-crossing personas. But they are shocked and contemptuous of the sex tourism. They stereotype it all as trafficking and exploitation, and the men as disgusting, misogynist creeps. Some even become social workers and activists, creating videos and blogs to criticize and try to stop it.
To be sure, many of the male sex tourists are bitter about Western women, or just plain misogynistic. Some treat Thai women with contempt, and believe stereotypes of submissive, horny, materialistic, or manipulative Asian women. But many of them also fall in love. Some deeply in love. Many send money regularly to the women they have met (sometimes one of many men sending money to the same woman). Some maintain long-distance relationships for many years. Others marry their girlfriends and bring them to Europe, Australia or North America. Others quit their jobs and move to Thailand, often building a house, buying a farm and supporting an extended family in a far rural area (read a bit more about sex work in Thailand here).. And once they do that, their stereotypes of Asian women (if they had any) can no longer survive. They’ve gone much farther in challenging their preconceptions than any young tourist or NGO worker coming to ‘help’ the Thais.
The men who relocate to Thailand, both full- and part-time, are impossible to stereotype. Some are jerks. Some are clueless, and some are charming. Some are pale, nerdy losers—men who are just far too socially awkward to find a girlfriend in the West. Others are recently divorced or retired, looking for a new life. Many are overweight. Some think of themselves as outlaws, driving their big Harleys and wearing leaher. Some like to show off by giving money and building big houses. Some are social misfits–both right-wing gun nuts and anarchist hippies–who are a lot more comfortable in some isolated farm with minimal social interaction where everybody expects them to be just another out-of-touch foreigner. I don’t necessarily like many of these men. But I can identify with them. We all share a fundamental sense of alienation, and have done something about it beyond merely getting bitter.
Their choice to have a Thai family is hardly an easy choice. Living in rural Thailand is difficult. It takes enormous cultural adaptation and tolerance. Food, language, religion, dirt, insects, families and infrastructure are all huge challenges. They also have to adapt to a world with fluid sexual identities, where ladyboys, men with make-up and dykes are common. They have to deal with families that have very different attitudes towards money, property and privacy than Western families. Some anthropologists say that families in Northeastern Thailand “a tendency towards matriarchy” in which women often have the most powerful personalities, and men are just expected to contribute resources. I like to think of myself as somebody who is culturally flexible and tolerant. I have lived in several countries, and had a Chinese wife for nearly twenty years. But I still find it very hard to adapt to rural Thailand (humidity, food and extended family are my biggest challenges). I am impressed by the men who have been there for years.
The marriages are difficult. Men often suspect their wives of only wanting their money, and women often suspect the men of sleeping around all the time. Both suspicions are often quite justified, and many marriages have collapsed even on unjustified suspicions. But many marriages also succeed against all odds. This takes enormous tolerance and adaptation from both sides (read about some of my problems here).
Many of these men go on internet discussion boards where some of the most popular threads are those asking for advice about how best to deal with extended family, especially their expectations about money. But the threads with the most responses are on topics such as “Describe a typical day” or “What do you like best about living in rural Thailand?” Men wax rhapsodic about their farms, their families, their easy-going wives, the food, about having found the good life. When somebody calls the women in the bars of Bangkok or Pattaya ‘prostitutes,’ or writes “you can take the girl out of the bar but you can’t take the bar out of the girl” they are sure to receive a barrage of responses that their wives can not be defined by jobs they once worked or income levels into which they had been born. Many participants also indulge in criticisms of Western capitalism and society that are not far from the criticisms that NGO activists and academics also indulge in—with the significant exception that most expats would usually include NGO activists as examples of what makes the West so undesirable, sanctimonious and unwelcome around the world.
Social activists and NGO workers interact with Thais not as equals, but as objects of generosity and assistance. They see Thais, and especially Thai women, through theories about inequality, exploitation and trafficking. Little can be done to dislodge those theories. Some activists and academics have written reports and books that show some awareness of the complexities of sex work, of the many ways Thai women learn to manipulate men just as men use the women, and the relatively good incomes earned by sex workers. Some admit that there is no evidence of trafficking to the tourist-oriented sex industry. A few even mention the successful long-term relationships that can emerge out of the sex industry, and note the extensive resources that are channeled to the countryside through these marriages.
Regardless of what they uncover, these investigations almost always end with a righteous condemnation of the global inequalities that have made sex tourism possible (with little mention of the marriages and long term relationships), and a call to do something to empower these poor exploited women. They investigate and report but they don’t listen, preferring instead their own stereotypes and self-images as people who bring justice to the world. They want to set up sustainable rural industries and give loans and advice about how to be clean and manage money. Are Thai women really more empowered if they have the chance to work 40+ hours a week in some rural workshop for wages about the same as construction work in Bangkok, making ‘local crafts’ to be sold to Western consumers, much of the profits of which will only be used to pay the growing bureaucracies of social workers, nuns and activists back in Bangkok, Europe and America? Or is it the self-esteem of the activists that is most empowered?
Before we start talking about other people and how they should be helped, we should make friends with them, live with them, fuck them, make love to them, and even marry them. We should not only treat them as equals, but also get into situations where we are dependent on them. Then we can develop some understanding what they need. As far as I can tell, academics—and I suspect NGO workers—have very low rates of outmarriage. Although they may marry outside of their ethnicity and nationality, they almost always marry within their class, occupation and educational status. But marriage and friendships outside of our social circles is where a true transfer of understanding and redistribution of resources will begin.
One of my favorite memories from Thailand is from a beach where I saw three English men in their thirties. They had the strong hands of manual laborers, were a bit overweight, somewhat crude in their language, and would have looked more at home watching football in a lower-class pub in England. One was with a young, sexy Thai woman who was likely straight from a Bangkok go-go bar. One was with an plain-looking middle-aged Thai woman. They had the dynamics of a long-married couple. And the third was with a somewhat flamboyant young man. All six of them were getting along great: laughing, eating and swimming. We should be supportive of the social context that makes encounters like this possible.
Pussies are wonderful. This is hardly an original sentiment. But I’ll explain anyways.
Pussies are passages between the raw and the cooked, the moist and the dry, chaos and order, the organic and refined. They are the embodiment of opposites. And even as they are unity themselves, they can still act as a passage, a home that welcomes and embraces penetration and hardness and wetness to create yet another dimension of unity.
Starting from the outside, we move over smooth, soft skin, that outer shell of appearances and order. Perhaps some hair may hint at the turbulence inside. But better hints of the depths can be felt as we move closer to the center, towards the fleshier and spongier skin that adds a third dimension of softness. And and as we move even closer, the quality of the skin itself changes. It becomes redder and rawer, bursting in unpredictable directions yet still maintaining the form of a budding flower. A knob can be found towards the top, an anchor for the folds of tapestry that descend. Like nipples, the clitoris is where the energies from inside push out to meet the world, straining for contact, engorging and swelling when pleased.
The descending folds of flesh frame an opening into the inner world. The gates are moist and reddish—flesh, but not the kind of flesh that usually sees the light of day. It is flesh that is raw and pliable, pulsating and wet. It is flesh made of blood and meat, not skin. It can expand to astonishing dimensions to let objects pass, or close around them to grab them in its sponge-like embrace. It creates juices and blood of multiple textures and colors, Some of those juices help to soothe the passage into the depths. Others spurt, dribble, bubble and overflow from out of the depths and into the air. And when pleased, the passage itself can pulsate and churn, sending waves throughout the entire body.
The depths of the pussy are never completely plumbed; the mystery never completely recedes. Pussies brings pleasure and satisfaction, but never completion. We may be exhausted and satiated for the moment. But there is always more, some ungrasped essence, another promise, an unfulfilled hope.
Some people are repulsed by pussies. Others are obsessed. Pussies attract both anxiety and admiration, fear and love. That’s only what we should expect from a place in which the mystical is made flesh.
I wish I could be so enthusiastic about cocks or assholes, because that’s what I have. Both are all right. But they just aren’t pussies.
Many people in Thailand assume that my girlfriend, Luna, is a sex worker—because she has money to build a house and buy a car, and because of her falang boyfriend. When I stayed in her home, women ranging in age from their late teens to their forties sometimes came for advice on how to find a falang husband, on whether it was better to work in a go-go bar or massage parlor or just freelance, or just hoping she could hook them un with a good sex-related job in Bangkok or Pattaya. Luna usually told them she didn’t know anything about it, and that they should just go to Bangkok or Pattaya to find out for themselves.
One time, however, during a period when Luna and I were not getting along very well, she started telling a girl who wanted a falang husband that it was a bad idea. The communication barrier with falang was just too large, and even when you did understand each other you would only learn that your desires and expectations are too different. There were problems about everything: what to eat, how to spend money, how to clean the house, what kind of decorations, how to treat people, treat family, even how to go to the bathroom. When one person is trying to be polite, the other will think he is lying. When the other person is trying to be honest, the other will think she is being cruel. Even when you do agree with each other, you sometimes don’t understand because of the language barrier and get angry anyways. Luna told the girl she would be better off with a Thai man. He would be easier to understand, with much fewer problems. If she needed the money, she could just work in a bar and sleep with falang. It would be much less difficult in the long run.
But the girl persisted, saying how she saw all the big houses and nice cars that falangs had bought for their wives in the country. Whatever their problems, the falangs still took care of their wives. She could learn to understand her husband, and to make him love her.
Finally Luna told her, “Even if he loves you, he will love only you. He won’t care about your family. He won’t want to help them. He’ll get angry when you want to give money to them and buy things for them.”
“What do you mean?” asked the girl.
“It’s true,” Luna went on. “All falang are the same. They love their children, but don’t care about their parents and brothers and sisters. They care about yours even less. They only treat family like friends. They get angry when you say that you have to take care of them. If your family asks you for something or you want to buy something for them, the falang always yell, ‘Why do you have to give them so much?! They can take care of themselves. It’s not your job to take care of them. They’ll just want more, more all the time. You just want them to be lazy.'”
The girl’s eyes went wide open. I was sitting nearby, and she looked me up and down with a snarl in her lips. “You can’t be serious?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Luna, “They don’t care about family in Europe. They only care about themselves and their own happiness.”
“But . . . how can somebody like that get married? How can he have a wife if he doesn’t care about family?”
“You have to believe what I’m saying,” said Luna. “It’s not easy to marry a falang. They don’t care about anything.”
I don’t know if the girl was persuaded. But she stopped asking questions, scowled at me again and walked off.
Luna reported the conversation to me. I thought it was true and hilarious. We both laughed. It was the best moment we’d had together in several days.
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.
I ate a space cake one night in Amsterdam a while ago. When it kicked in, I walked around the city watching the clock tower wavering in the mist and the bridges stretching and flexing as the struggled to break free of the roads. I sat down next a canal, and watched the water flicker and send sparks into the windows of the houses lining the canal. My body sent out glistening threads of energy to join the sparks, and then invited them to flow inside my body to shimmer and tingle. It was getting very sensual. I imagined myself as a baby nuzzling into my grandmother’s bosom (an image that had come up a few months before during a psilocybin trip). I thought about how wonderful it would be to feel a woman’s touch right now, her hair drifting across my skin, her nipples soft and resisting between my fingers, our stomachs grazing together. The shimmering, tingling energy spread out from my body, engulfing my skin. I went to a sex club.
It was a relatively downscale club, with a small lounge where the patrons and women could meet each other. I first talked to a short, plump, dark-haired girl from Hungary with a beautiful smile. She had an open expression and easy-going manner that made me feel at ease. Foolishly I figured I should look around first (damn that impulse to be a well-informed consumer!) and she soon went off with another guy. So I approached another woman who was blonde, tall and buxom. I suspected it was a mistake from the beginning. Her expression was haughty and her voice a bit angry. But the rounded curve of her hips did not stop, and her breasts were the breasts of my grandmother. I told myself that I was not particularly articulate tonight, and wasn’t looking for conversation.
I wasn’t exactly thinking with my dick, either. I was not looking for a fuck, but to feel the soft, supple flesh. I was not surprised when I could not get an erection. My whole body was pulsating in a way that made my penis feel irrelevant. But she just kept sucking and sucking over the condom. I asked her to slow down, to rub me a bit. She only kept sucking in frustration. I told her that I didn’t need the sucking, that she didn’t need to do anything. She could just lie down and relax, and I was happy to feel her, smell her, bury my face in her body. She lay on the bed for a bit while I ran my arms and face over her legs and buttocks, felt the flesh of her armpits and smelled the crook of her neck. When I put my cheek on her stomach, she squirmed away and complained that it tickled. Then when I then put my face in her bosom and licked her nipples she said I was hurting her, no matter how softly I did it. Finally she told me to stop kissing her, that she wasn’t my girlfriend (It was the first time my mouth had touched her. Everything else was just cuddling). I looked into up her angry eyes.
“What do you want?” she asked with a strong Eastern European accent. “You want to put the whole thing in your mouth?”
“Yes, that would be great,” I said. I saw her puzzled expression, and realized it was meant to be an insult.
She said I was drunk. I told her I had only drunk Red Bull that evening, but she clearly didn’t believe me.
“What do you want?” she demanded again.
“I just want to touch you.” That was clearly insufficient, and I racked my still-foggy brain for a better answer. I was going far to deep, searching a psychological explanation. I finally explained that I couldn’t really explain what I wanted. But then suddenly it became clear to me. I smiled and said, “Maybe it has something to do with not getting touched enough as a baby.”
She scowled at me. “No, you just like women.” She said it as if it were an accusation.
“Well, yeah, of course. That’s why I’m here.” She laughed and I laughed—the only positive connection we had all night. She asked if I wanted her to suck my cock again. I said no. That made her angry again, and she walked out of the room.
It looked like suck and fuck was all I had paid for. Of course, there was no reason that she had to act as receptacle for my fantasy projections, or even just lie there quietly if that’s not what she wanted. But I was still annoyed because I didn’t think I was asking for much.
I had originally paid 5 Euro too much. She had promised to get change, but I figured that was unlikely and it would be part of the tip. Now, as I put on my clothes, I thought about how to demand my change.
She came back in to clean up. Before I said anything she told me that after she finished washing herself, she would get my change. Disarmed by this, my irritation receded and I told her to keep it.
“No, wait for it,” she insisted.
“No, you keep it. I’m sorry I made you angry.”
She looked in my eyes, “Thanks. It’s OK.”
As I walked back to my hotel I decided the encounter was not so bad. It certainly was not the kind of mechanical encounter that could be so disappointing. I did not get what I wanted, but perhaps what I needed. The mix of ethereal sparks, luxurious sensuality and grandmother’s bosom that I brought to the encounter surely set my expectations way too high. All those sensations and images pointed to something beyond sex. Sex always promises to take us to those places. And perhaps it can point the way, and even bring us a bit closer. And if we cultivate ourselves, and learn how to have sex really well and channel those pulsating energies. It may even take us the edge of the ineffable. But my grandmother’s bosom is still only a dream. In the end I’ll still have to surrender and fall into the ineffable hole.