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*Bitter Harvest* Thailand's sex industry went big time with help from the U.S. military and the World Bank. The insatiable demand fuels a sex traffic that consumes the lives of ever-younger girls.>> A special report by Betty Rogers
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The photograph displayed a tiny gold Buddha lodged in the vagina of a 12-year-old. The image appeared in a roll of film dropped off at a photo shop in Bangkok. Outraged to see a holy object desecrated, the shop owner sent the picture to Sanphasit Koompraphant, director of the Center to Protect Children's Rights, an advocacy group for abused children. "The owner did not anger because a child was treated so cruelly," Koompraphant says, "but because his Buddhist religion had been insulted. He probably would not notice another object used that way."

Koompraphant, a wiry man with a missionary intensity, tells the story as he climbs a wobbly ladder to reach for one of the many cardboard boxes that line his office. The Buddha incident began in Bangkok's Patpong district, famous for its tourist bars and sex clubs. A Thai man approached an Australian and offered him sex with two girls--the 12-year-old and her 6-year-old sister--who had been sold into prostitution by their relatives. The agent delivered the girls to the tourist's hotel room, where he abused and photographed them for months. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to jail--one of the few foreigners ever to be convicted in Thailand of sexually abusing children. The case involved all the classic players in the sex trade of young girls: family members, a recruiting agent, a male in pursuit of cut-rate pleasure, girls expected to trade sex for family income, and social workers struggling against government indifference.

Sanphasit Koompraphant has helped to free children as young as six from forced sex work. "Some are in brothels sealed up so tight, they never has fresh air."
Koompraphant opens a box and flips through bundles of photographs that document physical abuse suffered by young girls in Thailand's sex trade. He hands me a series of a Burmese girl covered with swollen bruises and slash marks formed into oozing scabs. Next he offers me a picture of a wasting young AIDS victim, reduced to a canvas of skin stretched across her skeletal frame. "This AIDS disease makes everything more crisis," he says. Finally he locates the pictures taken by the Australian. The children, tears streaming down their cheeks, perform oral sex on the foreigner as he photographs them. In another photo, he has stuck a banknote in the younger girl's vagina. And then there's one where her sister is face down with her arms handcuffed behind her back and her legs forced open.
I see the delicate beauty of the two moon-shaped faces with translucent skin. I see fear in their eyes. The 12-year-old has her hair pulled into a ponytail and wears a gingham dress with puffed sleeves. The 6-year-old stares out from underneath long bangs and straight black hair that curves below her chin. Her head reaches only as high as her older sister's thin shoulder.

Koompraphant's speech is rapid and determined as he describes the exploitation he has witnessed. I ask whether he has children. His face relaxes and he almost smiles, "I have one boy. I feel bad when I think that my child, with a young beautiful body could be destroyed like this. I look at my son and think, yes, the family makes the first decision. The family can protect or abuse or destroy a child." But the family unit, the only social security in place for this nation of more than 60 million people, is pitted against the forces of a modern global economy that is consuming the lives of young females at an alarming rate. The economic policies embraced by the government, the military, business leaders, and international lenders have all played a major role in escalating this costly business.

Koompraphant's photos document the shadow side of a well-organized and profitable sex trade that, according to calculations by the Chulalongkorn University Political Economy Centre in Bangkok, generates annual revenues of around U.S.$4 billion. Several million people earn their living either directly or indirectly from the activities of the prostitution industry. In fact, a 1998 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), entitled The Sex Sector, says Thai prostitution has grown so rapidly in recent decades that it has become a "commercial sector," one that contributes significant employment and national income. Yet the government's budget, statistics, and development plans do not recognize the trade, putting this lucrative business in an economic and legal twilight zone. In addition, Thai commerce laws sanction prostitution as a "personal service," even though it is illegal under the penal code. The law thus recognizes the investment privileges of the sex trade while technically making its workers criminals.
The simple truth is that prostitution is a big business, well entrenched in Thailand's economy, and it is having a devastating effect on countless young girls--at least a third of all Thai sex workers are under the age of 18, the international legal standard for child labor. Teenagers are the most in demand with clients, and the majority of adult prostitutes entered the trade as children themselves. The ILO report concludes that children "are clearly more helpless against established structures and vested interests than adults" and much more likely to be "victims of debt bondage, trafficking, physical violence, or torture." As the industry has grown, so has the problem of trafficking, defined as the illegal movement of people into sex work through deceit, coercion, or force. Although it's primarily girls who are trafficked in Thailand, in recent years boys have also been forced into the tourist sex trade.

Thailand's sex industry is organized along two parallel tracks, with one market for Thai and immigrant workers who pay in local currency and a second for foreign tourists who bring with them badly needed foreign cash. Most researchers agree that Thailand's local sex trade employs far more people than the tourist trade. For centuries, Thai men have viewed visiting brothels as almost a national pastime. Prostitution is an accepted form of entertainment that men introduce their sons to and expect their wives to tolerate. A recent Ministry of Public Health study says that roughly three quarters of all Thai males regularly visit prostitutes and that prostitutes initiate almost half of all teenage boys into sexual activity.

The international sex market, however, is a more prestigious and intoxicating lure for families who expect to earn money through their daughters and for young girls desperately seeking a way out of poverty. Male tourists and business travelers from around the globe come to Thailand to indulge themselves at bargain prices in a freewheeling atmosphere, unconfined by taboos against sex with minors or the threat of arrest. The money they spend on sex, hotels, meals, gifts, transportation, and tourist extras is a major source of Thailand's foreign currency exchange.

The following is an excerpt from an article in this month's Ms. Magazine.

Mobilize support for antitrafficking campaigns:
The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) works with Thai service providers, has a resource center with information on the subject, conducts studies on trafficking, trains activists, and has published a handbook for trafficked women. P.O. Box 1281, Bangrak Post Office, Bangkok 10500, Thailand;
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) networks with groups worldwide to provide information on trafficking. P.O. Box 9338, North Amherst, Mass. 01059;
Lobby Congress:
There are three antitrafficking bills in Congress. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D.-Minn) and Rep. Louise N. Slaughter (D.-NY) have companion bills in the Senate and House, and Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R.-NJ) has also proposed legislation. Contact the bills' sponsors, urge them to combine forces, and insist that any bill on trafficking include the following:
  • That the illlegal transport of those under the age of 18, regardless of whether they give their consent, be considered trafficking.
  • That anyone trafficked into the US be granted permanent residency.
  • That all aid be withdrawn from governments that fail to comply.
Sen. Paul Wellstone: 136 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510, (202)224-5641;
Rep. Louise N. Slaughter: 2347 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington DC 20515, (202) 225-3615;
Rep. Christopher H. Smith: 2370 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington DC 20515, (202) 225-3765

Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009