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Review: Only 13

by Derek Sharron

August 3, 2006

“Only 13”

A Young Victim of Thailand’s Prolific Sex Tourist Industry Speaks Out

Only 13 will enlighten the reader to the status of females in rural Esarn, Thailand.

One will learn what it is like:

*To be born female in a land where “Women are pawns in times of need.”
*To sell one’s virginity at the age of 14.
*To be a girl who becomes involved in the sex-tourist trade for seven years to compensate for her father’s death—only to learn that her sacrifice will never win her mother’s love.
*To be only 15 and paid by the man she loves to have an abortion instead of his baby.
*To be only 18 and attempt suicide to escape forever the life of a teenage prostitute.
*To flee the sex-tourist scene of Thailand for prostitution in Germany, and be faced with the consequences of more poor choices, before escaping to Sweden and becoming a stripper.

*One will learn what it is like to be Lon.

Very few of the women and girls who work in Thailand’s sex trade deliberately chose their path, but each one has a story.  This is the story of one incredible little girl.

Lon’s story, made live by the authors Julia Manzanares and Derek Kent, is told in a matter-of-fact, straightforward style about her descent into prostitution and her journey back out again. It’s far more than just a tell-all sex book; it travels deep into the psyche of Thai society and it’s views of women so that the reader can understand why Lon and so many like her got into prostitution, and why it was (and is) so difficult for them to leave.

The first thing Lon makes clear is that she is not Thai. Rather, she is Esarn, from the province of Ubon, located in the northeastern area of Thailand. Esarn supplies at least 80% of the sex workers for the tourist trade in Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket.

The Thais look down on the people of Esarn, as they tend to be coarser in appearance and less educated. They live in crude rural villages and their lives are defined by superstition, poverty, and hopelessness, as well as obedience to the Asian concept of “saving face,” which is to keep up appearances, no matter how difficult or costly. Lon endured those costs while her family reaped the benefits.

In Esarn society, the gender roles are clear: the women work, the men do not. The women support the family and raise the children, while the men drink and gamble. A quality education is unheard of. Most female children rarely get past the sixth grade. There is very little work that pays well, and proper medical care is near non-existent. The Esarn villagers are always being victimized by criminals and crooked government officials.

It is in this environment that sex trafficking flourishes.

Sex Trafficking

As there is such a wide gap between the rich and the rest, and so very few opportunities to cross it, sex trafficking of women and children has become quite profitable. Every year, thousands of rural children and women are lured into Bangkok with the promise of normal jobs, only to be forced into prostitution. Research indicates that nearly two-thirds of 16- to 19-year olds working as prostitutes do so against their will.

In a society where a newly-minted doctor can expect to earn less than $2,500 per year, sex trafficking is an easy way to earn a lot of money in a short time. People from all areas of Thai society have become part of the industry, including many of the authorities who are supposed to be fighting against it. This includes police, politicians, monks and even the occasional Catholic and Mormon missionary.

Lon is “The One”

The eldest daughter in every poor Esarn family is supposed to be “the one.” That means, she is expected to support the family by whatever means available.  All too often, the means is found by working the Bangkok and Pattaya sex tourist trade as soon as she shows signs of physical maturity. Many Esarn mothers even sell their daughters to the sex traffickers themselves.

By age 13, Lon had run away from home three times due to mistreatment from her elder family members. Lon knew how her life would be if she stayed in her village, but upon returning from her third “runaway,” she learned that her father--the only one who loved her, had died while searching for her. Her mother gave her a little money to leave the house and never to return. She took a train to Bangkok, where after sleeping at the bus station and begging, she found a job working as a barmaid in one of Bangkok’s many go-go bars. For her efforts, she worked 28 days per month and earned $100 in salary and tips, of which she sent home as much as possible.

Guile, Cunning and Charm

Soon after starting work at the bar, at the age of 14, Lon sold her virginity to a Swiss pedophile for $1,200. The experience was so horrible that she blanked it out, but the money was more than she would earn in one full year of mopping floors. Besides the commission earned by the mamasan, nearly all of this made its way back to her mother.  From this, Lon realized that prostitution could be the key to her survival. It would allow her to live comfortably. It would also support her family and give her sisters a good education so that they too would never have to work in the bars as she did. It would help her family to gain face, and make up for the death of her father.

When Lon became a prostitute, at the age of only 14, she stood 4 feet 7 inches tall, and weighed 70 pounds. She was the perfect sexual fantasy for those men who were after that stereotypical, innocent-looking Asian girl.

Lon found most of her customers to be very unattractive, both physically and emotionally. She believed that they were in Thailand only because they could not find any women back home, and also because they could treat the Thai women in ways that women in their home countries would not tolerate. Although Lon hated being with these men, her desperation drove her to be successful at her job. She soon learned that deception was the name of the game.

Money is Number One

Lon soon became skilled at flirting with her customers, stroking their egos, and appealing to their fantasies. She also learned to speak English, because it gave her an advantage over the other girls and helped her get more money from each and every customer.

She and her friends practiced pick-up lines on customers just as men practice them on women. She and her friends always approached the older or more unattractive men first, because it was easier to get them to spend the most money possible. They tended to avoid the rare, attractive men, as they were not so easily fooled or relieved of their cash. Soon, Lon became the main attraction wherever she worked. She made a good side income by asking many of her more naïve customers to send her money after they returned home, in return for her promises to leave the bars and wait for their return.

Most of Lon’s career as a prostitute took place between the ages of 14 and 18, when most Western girls are just beginning to discover boys. Sex with prostitutes under 18 is illegal in Thailand. However, this is not often enforced due to corruption. Police and politicians can be bribed. Sex workers can also make enforcement difficult by carrying fake ID cards that overstate their ages.

A Vicious Cycle

By age 18, Lon was living a comfortable life in Thailand, based on her income alone. She had a nice apartment and motorbike in Pattaya and still supported her mother and siblings, but her job was making her mentally and physically sick. She could no longer tolerate it, but she was trapped. She could live with seeing her mother lose face with the other villagers. The only way out, she finally decided, was suicide. She survived her attempt, but knew that she would soon have to look for another way out.

Leaving the Bars

Lon met a very young and naïve Swiss man whom she decided would become a worthwhile financier. After fleecing him for a year, they wed. Both Lon and her new husband could not form a normal relationship. Her husband had little if any experience with women outside of prostitution, and Lon now saw men as walking ATMs. He believed that his support for her family would end upon her arrival in Switzerland, she begged and bit to differ.  The marriage was very brief, and ended with him in the hospital and in her deportation.

Lon returned to Pattaya, planning to stay out of the bars. She briefly worked as a nude model, and then traveled to a number of foreign countries, where she went from one disappointing relationship to another.  She worked as a strip-dancer at Swedish strip-clubs and in a massage parlor in Germany.

A New Chance at Life

Lon ends her story by telling us about her escape from yet another bad relationship and her plans to work with organizations that help girls like herself avoid becoming involved in the sex industry, and how to get out if it.

She speaks with the powerful and determined voice of an activist bringing to light the injustice that she and many other girls from her background have suffered.

A survivor’s story, sociology lecture, cross-cultural lesson, humanities discussion, the story’s impact will make you think, and re-examine your own views regardless of where you stand on many issues concerning poverty, prostitution and women in SE Asia.

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