If you know anything about SE Asia, you know that sex industry is big here. So surprisingly it did not take me long to have my first encounter with this industry which taught me some valuable life lessons.
In Phnom Penh Cambodia there is a street called street 51 which is a place where a lot of tourists hang out. It is full of bars and restaurants, and a lot of western faces. One night my friend and I decided that we wanted to head out to take advantage of some happy hour specials after school and not knowing much about the city we decided that street 51 should be the place to do that. We sat down in this open air mall sort of area with lots of different bars. As we sat there and had a few drinks and some food we noticed that this particular area was full of prostitutes and old western men. Seeing this was not all that surprising however we did not realize that the place we were in was known for that sort commerce; we were pretty much in the center of the main area for this business. Seeing these interactions between these very young women and quite old men was just not something that we were used to seeing every day.
As we sat there we noticed a couple across from us which was made up of an older British man and a younger Korean woman. They were looking at us with very strange expressions on their faces and we’d noticed it a few times but did not think much of it. A little bit later the man walked up to us with his wife and asked if she could sit with us and talk. He said “this is my wife Jay, is it alright if she sits and talks with you for a little bit, she doesn’t have any friends. She was sitting with a group of girls over there before but maybe she can sit with you girls now.” I knew that something was off about this situation but at first I did not know what exactly. Not wanting to be rude, we let Jay sit with us and we spoke to her for about 5 minutes. She looked very scared and nervous and kept saying how stressed she was about her new job. We were so confused but after a few minutes we kind of concluded that she was working as a prostitute. Her husband was clearly facilitating this and he thought that we might show her the “business.”
As one can probably imagine, I was not happy about many parts of this situation. I decided to ask her husband exactly what was going on. He said to me “Well this is my wife’s first night on her new job and she just needs some help. We are looking for safe places to go.” I asked him what business exactly he thought we could help her with and he looked at me and said “she is in the ‘hospitality’ business,” and then winked. We made it clear that he had made a huge mistake thinking that we knew anything about this and politely made our exit.
I walked away just feeling scared and horrible. I felt awful for Jay knowing that her husband was doing that to her, and I just couldn’t shake the feeling of disgust. The whole next day I couldn’t get the situation, or Jay off my mind and it really upset me. I actually took some time to sit and reflect upon the whole thing that happened and was able to kind of come to terms with it. I realize that people around the world live different lifestyles and I cannot be the person to judge someone for doing things that I would not. I felt bad for Jay and at the time I felt hatred towards her husband but I realize now that it is the way of the world. All I can do is hope for the best for people.
Since this encounter during my first week in SE Asia I’ve seen countless other incidents involving the sex industry and I am completely desensitized to it now. In some places in Thailand it is practically thrown in your face and it just becomes a normal part of life. I’ve befriended people working in this industry and doing so has helped me to become a lot less judgmental and suspicious of other people. In America it seems like we are meant to think people who are involved in this industry are bad in some way but I know now that they’re not. People are people are people are people and we are all the same in a sense no matter what sort of line of work we decide to go into.