Strip Bars, Sex Workers, Here and Then and There

My novel CURRENCY is about a Thai man and American woman who have a hard time unraveling their genuine connection from sticky assumptions about money, gender, sex, and nationality. The book is set in Thailand, where the sex industry informs the way foreign and local men and women look at each other, but the protagonist is affected, too, by her dating experiences in the States.

The exchange of money and gender performance in all its various guises has fascinated me since I was a kid, and I can’t remember now if my interest was ignited or just fueled by one of my first jobs: As a teenager, I worked in a diner for a guy who also owned the only strip bar in town, which was located in an alley a couple blocks away from the restaurant. (This will be an entry in a future post that will be called something like: Were My Parents Smart or Crazy?) Most of the bar’s dancers were imported to our small, rust-belt town; they came in on the Greyhound for week or two stints, and when things were slow at the diner, as they often were, I’d sometimes be asked to use my parent’s Ford Fairmont station wagon to ferry them between the restaurant and the seedy hotel where they stayed. Some of them were nice, confiding or conspiratorial with me. Some of them were drugged and scuzzy. What stands out now is how pale most of them were; this was before tanning booths were ubiquitous, but just.

Of course, I was wide-eyed. Once I was invited into the hotel room to wait while the woman finished feathering and spraying her hair. She was chatty and plaintive: “I’m not going to meet a nice guy doing this,” she said. One of the dancers got pregnant, and Rob hired her at the diner once she began to show. She had thin, dishwater hair and dishwater skin and blue veins on her eyelids. She was tiny, even as her belly grew, and other denizens of the scene whispered to me that she was still doing drugs. Cocaine, supposedly, but I sure didn’t signs of any uppers. She was often listless and miserable. I remember nights when we were holding down the fort together, filling ketchup bottles and doing other prep work, and she’d perk up as she recounted nights of dancing in Jamestown or wherever, described the feeling of walking into the dawn with three hundred dollars in her purse. She had to watch out for patrons who’d linger outside and try to mug her, she said, then told of a particularly dramatic attempted purse-snatching. I didn’t say much, but I couldn’t get enough. I was fascinated.

It wasn’t hard to get grist for the mill. Were cities and towns just seedier then? While in college, I spent some time hanging out in Philadelphia, where some friends and acquaintances starting go-go dancing at the cheapy little bars in Center City. I felt comfortable enough to go hang out there for the afternoon shifts, and even though I was under 21, no one questioned me. Again, I was wide-eyed, drinking in the dynamics and the gossip along with the occasional beer a patron might buy me. And a few years later, there was another group of friends, middle-class grad students this time, almost a trend, doing stripping and lap dances and escorting, and another bunch of stories and impressions to process.

And then, of course, there was Southeast Asia. I landed first in Thailand, where the sex industry is hard to avoid. In Bangkok, I stayed with my friend Jillana, who was volunteering at Empower, an NGO that helped sex workers, well, empower themselves. Empower’s stated mission wasn’t necessarily to take women out of sex work, it was to give them the tools to make their lives better–English, skills, health advice. Their office was in Patpong, heart of the tourist-oriented red-light district, and I went there with Jillana a couple times and remember a cheerful scene: cute, bright offices; cute, bright, giggling young women. More than a couple of them came up to me and to whisper that they weren’t bar girls, that their friends were. Jillana contradicted this later, but it added to my discombobulation: What was I supposed to say when they denied this of themselves? I had thought we were in a no-judgment zone. The thing you sometimes hear about Thai culture is that prostitution plays a different role there, that it doesn’t have the same stigma, that Westerners can’t quite understand. No argument from me. Even more than at home, buying and selling sex, the influence of cash and other factors in the power dynamic, confused me. I wrote about it in Maxine (posted here), and I thought about it all the time in terms of my own feminism, sex positivity, and desire to see social justice.

And perhaps diffidence and confusion are not the worst lens through which to look at the sex industry. Recently, The Nation published a deeply-researched two-part series by Noy Thrupkaew on the crusade against sex trafficking. The first part focuses on the efforts by Western Christians to rescue sex workers in South and Southeast Asia, and some of the complexities involved.

The second part focuses on the stories of some prostitutes themselves. It’s wonderfully written. I find the last few paragraphs especially insightful and brilliant. The girl described there is 15, a year younger than I was when I started working at the diner. She seems so vulnerable and so brave. Now that my own teenage years are part of an historical era, now that I’m the mother of a daughter myself, the mother of friends whose daughters are getting breasts and boyfriends and dubious T-shirt from Abercombie, I don’t see the issue of sex work, of sexuality, getting any less fascinating, complicated, and confusing, but I guess it troubles me more.

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Acknowledging

I just sent the copyedited manuscript of CURRENCY to Gina, my editor. The next time I see the novel, it will be in galleys, manuscript no more.

It’s been twelve years since I workshopped the experiment in voice that became the first chapter of the novel. I was 28 years old then, and I smoked cigarettes blithely in the apartment where Mark and I had just moved in together. Up to that point, I’d written only a handful or two of short stories, each page wrung out of me slowly, and writing a novel seemed an impossible thing. But Piv’s voice was a wind at my back, and the few years it took me to complete the first “finished” version were great ones; they’ll probably go down as some of the best in my life. The story unfolded inexorably in my mind, and I had the time and attention to give to writing. Then came kids, mortgages, money worries and increasingly demanding day-jobs; rejections and not-quite-rejections and agents who sent me back through the pages. I revised in the cracks of time I could find. And received more rejections. And then, after I’d abandoned all hope, eventual acceptance. (Thanks, OV Books!) And now here I am, writing acknowledgments.

Writing acknowledgments is making me nervous. I fear I’m not always gracious in thanking people, being myself sometimes off-put by gratitude that seems too gushingly produced to be sincere but also knowing, first-hand and through observation, how much a heartfelt thanks or the lack of one can mean. I’m feeling twin urges to be brutally honest and very thorough. To make sure I don’t leave out any key players, I’ve tried narrating to myself the story of my writing this novel, and what I’ve found is that the most important people and turning points happened before the characters even materialized for me, long ago as that was. There’s one person in particular I’ve realized I need to thank—Tuk, a Thai man—whose last name I don’t remember. It’s been driving me crazy. I know I had it somewhere! So the other night I unearthed the plastic bin in the basement where I’ve been storing all the books I used to research the novel and the journals I kept when I was backpacking.

journals

I meant to be efficient, because like many people at my stage of life, I always have more things to do than hours to them in, and I was already stealing time. But as soon as I opened the box, the smell of old smoke discombobulated me. The burnt musk has been synonymous with my memories of youth ever since 1995, when a bad apartment fire singed all my possessions it didn’t destroy. Like a genie going back into a bottle—whoosh—I was back in the past, and nevermind the sleep that I really needed to get that night. When I came upstairs hours later, my fingertips were black with soot from paging through the journals. It became almost beside that point that I found names and addresses of people I had completely forgotten, but not Tuk’s.