Having taken a road trip from the U.K. through Eastern Europe in January, I’m now on the road (or the air, more accurately) toward the Love146 Round Home in Asia. I have to move quick while the Icelandic volcano is on lunch break. I found myself in a window seat next to a couple of what my dad would call “hard working lads”: sun-drawn skin from a construction site causing an unnaturally furrowed brow, one in his 50s the other mid-20s.
I’m flying out of the U.K. at a time where the first three pages of most tabloids are still the story of the Cumbria shootings of Derrick Bird which left 12 dead. On the morning I leave, the headline is “Gunman’s Double Life as a Sex Pervert” accompanied by images of a Thailand sex bar with scantily clad girls dancing. My neighbor for the flight introduces himself by showing and tapping his finger on the page, stating, “Now that’s got to be a bar we need to find.” Our destination for this flight is Bangkok, Thailand.
He seemed to assume my travel had similar interests. I commented that I wouldn’t be stopping there, but heading on to the Philippines. “Not been there,” he replied with a grin and a wink, “We’ll have to try that on our next trip.” As though I had superior knowledge as a fellow sex tourist.
As it turned out, this was the older gentleman’s fourth trip to Bangkok. This occasion it was to be a celebration of his divorce. He, followed by some other friends on a later flight, would be spending six weeks in Bangkok to watch England play their world cup matches in tacky English-friendly bars and to have sex with girls. In fact, the five friends’ common denominator was that they all go to the same pub in the U.K. It was clear the guy in front of me had been primary evangelist to the group concerning the draw of sex tourism. He was a true believer, and this, the best possible use of his time and money.
I sat and wondered at how the sexualization of culture and the normalization of sexual exploitation is far from something passive. In fact, it is being assertively pushed along with a nod, a wink and a wry smile. It’s not hidden smoky corners, but around the open public places of life and work. In fact, the U.K. killer in today’s tabloids had often shown his friends video footage of his own sex acts with young girls in Thailand.
I asked the older gent, “Is it true that girls come up to you as soon as you walk into a bar?”
“But doesn’t that just get on your nerves?”
“Only when you have been up all the previous night having sex with them!”
I could tell I was in the presence of a genuine stereotype: a guy who travels for sex because it’s easy, uncomplicated and no longer on his moral compass as even questionable behavior. He was another one of those guys who genuinely feel that the girls he pays for sex want to be there. He believes he is in fact doing them a favor, or worse (such a common statement), that they are there because they enjoy it. He has no comprehension that the smile masking their suffering is to avoid a beating from their pimp for disappointing a client.
I found out later in the flight that these weren’t rough tough co-workers. It was a father and son. Slightly stunned, I sat and pondered our own Western mindset and moral decay where a father would want to share his participation in sexual exploitation as a bonding experience with his own son.
Those who travel for sex tourism undertake a dehumanization of the other, in this instance those who are in the bondage of sexual slavery, either forced by fear of violence or through the oppression of economic poverty. For those of us who live in places where our fellow countrymen are booking sex holidays, we must re-sensitize ourselves to the humanity of these wonderful, beautiful and precious people. We must spread the word that these women and girls are someone’s daughter, sister or mother. Let’s work to abolish myths that tell us they are less than worthy of our high regard and respect. Let’s tell their stories. Let’s honor their lives. Let’s sing and shout about their humanity.
I have been asking myself a lot of questions since I arrived in Manila and will, I am sure, be kicking myself all the way to my next encounter with a sexual predator. The sad answer is no, I didn’t confront their thinking. I have been around pimps, pushers, traffickers and victims in Europe where it is the girls who are crossing borders to a location for sex. Until this moment, I had not had contact with “users,” where it is they who are crossing borders for sex. This was totally new.
Honestly, I was utterly shocked and rattled by the normality of it all for them. My thinking process was dominated not by confronting “them,” or challenging “their worldview,” but by the confrontation taking place within “me,” the challenge to my own worldview. I was very uncomfortable as I realized the stewardess and others on the flight probably thought we were traveling together and may have assumed I was a sex tourist as well. As I looked around the plane, I wondered how many would even care. How many were going for the same reasons. This thought has plagued me since arriving in the Philippines.
Sometimes there are encounters with sexual exploitation where I am an activist; engaging with people and on behalf of people around these issues—where confrontation can be appropriate action. And sometimes there are times, like many this past January driving the trafficking routes of Europe, where I am a painfully silent observer, learning and gathering intelligence for later battles.
Occasionally I walk away wondering if I lost a fight or missed an opportunity. In this instance, I wore the mask of an interested party and gained as much real information as I could. Sometimes I walk away feeling I have failed someone—a victim or a perpetrator. In reality, I have to draw comfort that I did learn and gain understanding and while I may lose some fights, we will ultimately win the war. This helps me sleep at night, on the increasingly rare occasions that I am able. It certainly makes me value those who work covertly on the streets in victim identification and those who work undercover as a primary focus of their contribution to ending child sex slavery.
As I have said above, much of what took place in the interaction with my two traveling companions was about a work going on in me, and trust me, it has and will continue to add fuel to the fire of my own abolition endeavors alongside you.
Gaz Kishere is the Love146 European Operations Director. This post originally appeared on the Love146 blog.