To get whatever you wanted: massage, sex, a better understanding of the menu and a taste of the country? If you hadn’t had sex in months and were used to a fairly steady flow of if? If you had absolutely no desire for the song and dance of flirting, for using your female winsome ways? Suddenly, and for the first time in your life in this way, you’re an economic force. Would you ride the exchange rate astride some paid-for-hips? Given the impossible, or course. Assuming it was safe.
It never occurred to me to ask questions like these until after I had spent a week in Saigon. This was in 1993. I think I had passed the morning sitting around a tourist café—if it wasn’t actually that morning it was one just like it, it was several—talking to some male acquaintances, or listening to them talk, about how they were going to a certain beach town because $5 a whole night was the going rate for a woman there. I think in Saigon the going rate was $10, or $14, or something. In Saigon, it was $5 just for a massage and a quick blow-job, one of the guys was saying. He new because just a handful of hours ago he had finally opened his door to one of the late night knocks and giggled solicitations, “massage, massage.” Those ladies knocked on more door, too. There’d be that 15 minute period at 1 or 2 AM; they worked in pairs and their heels made jingly clicks and it wasn’t as annoying as you might think, although it was a little awkward, listening to the laughter in the corridor, the disgruntled responses, the opening and shutting of doors. I’d lie in bed and wonder if female guest ever said “come in” to the masseuses knocks. I’d picture myself saying it, wanting, legitimately, a massage. I imagined that everyone would be awkward in that circumstance. I couldn’t imagine negotiating a price.
Some of the bar girls would hand around the cafes, too. They were young and would laugh a lot and it didn’t seem to make any difference whether you were a girl or a boy as long as you were a white backpacker, or Eurasian. They would sit on my lap, try on my hat, sling their arms around me and ask, “How do you say? “ and hold up my army knife or a notebook. “That’s a notebook,” I’d say, or someone else would. “Notebook,” they’d parrot, and laugh some more. I didn’t think they were bar girls, at first. I didn’t know what to think about them. But then when I went to the bars I would see them, sitting with foreign men who went to proper restaurants, I presumed, and not backpacker cafes.
I didn’t get the impression that the tourist men at the care were customers of the bar girls there, but I would be wrong. In any case, it was in the morning, when the girls weren’t around, that the men would talk about the price of the women and what they got for their money. The women in question were Vietnamese, or course, or Thai, if the guys were talking about last month’s exploits. And they talked freely to me, which is what stands out. They talked freely and frankly and without the sheepish ironic bravado that men at home might mention commodity babes in mixed company. “where are you headed off too?” “I’m going to Dalat because I want to see some mountains” “I’m’ going to Nha Trang because for five dollars she’ll spend the whole night.”
I supposed the men though on some level that I was simply one of them, a white backpacker from a rich country looking for adventure and bargains in a poor one. I supposed they thought I wasn’t like enough to these other-skinned women to be jealous or angry of offended or disdainful or appalled—whatever anticipated reaction that keeps the subject undiscussed at home. And I wasn’t jealous or angry or disdainful. Generally, I was interested. Occasionally, thinking about the health risks being passed on to the girlfriends back home, whose pictures were passed around the cafe table, I was appalled. But mostly, I was just confused.
It’s confusing to be a white American tourist in Vietnam, and you don’t have to state at your navel to feel it. It’s confusing to tour the Chu Chi tunnels, to walk past a leper writing on the market floor, to have a cyclo driver talk to you about the years he spent in a reeducation camp because he served in the South Vietnamese army. In the Mekong Delta and along the southern coast, when I walked down the street of a small town or rode my bike in the country people would surround me and want to shake my hand and cluck my chin. They’d shout, “America number one,” wherever I went. It’s disorienting to be so rich. The magnet of my moral compass disappeared, and I tried to follow a needle spinning around furiously. I was judging little, reevaluating everything. I probably saw a sweet Vietnamese man outside the bus window when the question of spending money in that way formed in my mind.
But the sex industry wasn’t very developed in Vietnam at that point, and waffling over the decision to spend $5 on sex with a boy was just one hypothetical way of testing out my shifting moral boundaries, like the question of which life would you save if a ship was sinking and you could rescue one person. Traveling alone, far away, for a long time, stripped my identify down to just its most basic elements—the complex weave of who I was as a person, my tastes, interests, habits, theories, socio-economic background went largely unseen, even to myself, and I was mostly either a white female or white and female in very separate quantities. The money-for-sex question stands out to me now as just one of the things affected by the disjointing of these reductive categories.
Certainly I’d thought about sex work before, and my friends had, and it touched our lives. It’s just that at home, the questions had more to do with whether and how to make money with one’s body, not spend money for somebody else’s. The conversations had more to do with the customers—they were assholes, or stupid, or OK, or nice enough fat men or nothing at all, and it’s just, “you got three hundred dollars for doing that?” Buying just generally, in whatever form, seemed largely out of the question—we weren’t market, and who’d want to be, really?
But a few years ago here in Chicago, some girlfriend and I decided to go to a high-falutin’ strip joint instead of t our original destination, a dance club next door. We were curious and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. We were feeling cocky and didn’t believe that were was anyplace that we couldn’t go. WE wanted to see some naked ladies and had our ten dollars in hand. We were rebuffed at the gate. No women without escorts. The assumption was, I suppose, that we were prostitutes. If that wasn’t eh assumption, the powers that were must just not have wanted the ambiance of their club confused by the presence of ladies whose goods weren’t for sale. In either case, I was pissed off. I didn’t like my femaleness being categorically assigned to me in this way.
On the other hand, I spent several months in Thailand before and after traveling in Vietnam for two. When walking down Patpong Road, the headquarters of Bangkok’s notorious sex industry, me and my female companions were solicited at every turn. “Fucka show, fucka show, right this way madam, fucka show, fucka show see live couples fucking.” I didn’t pay to see any live copulation, but I did venture into the no cover go-go bars. Inside them, just as on the street, I felt strangely comfortable. I mean, I didn’t feel comfortable with the big picture of the international sex trade, but I was able to ponder this picture anonymously; there were no men asking me how much for a night or leering how they’d love to see me dancing up there as there were whenever I’d been “unescorted in or even near a strip bar back home. As a tourist woman I wasn’t a woman, in the context of Patpong; or at least I didn’t’ eel like I was the object of pornographic gaze or speculation. Even my political concern seemed voyeuristic. That’s because in Bangkok, if you’re white, no matter what your gender, it’s assumed that you’re certainly not selling and you might well be buying.
It took me awhile to realize the implication of this. When a dancer would come and sit next to me in a bar I thought she just wanted a break from the hustle; I didn’t realize she was trying to hustle me. When dolled up Thai girls flocked around me pre-dawn in the Patpong discos—everybody still wearing clothes—I thought they were just trying exuberantly to make international friends until a more savvy Australian woman set me straight. “It’s the end of the night, “ she said, “and they’re still hoping to get lucky with a low-rent Johnette.” I wasn’t just an anonymous observer of the seedy and exotic, I was a potential, or an implicit, participant.
Outside of decadent Bangkok, the frenzied sex economy calmed down to background noise, but it never disappeared. Although there weren’t whispering about the actual rental price of Thai men, the boys were gorgeous and there were plenty of them in the tourist trade, lovely as anything, friendly, charming, and often as not, available.
I remember lying on an island beach one night with three or four other tourists I had met that evening. One of the women had a Thai boy with her, and he was younger, slimmer, prettier than any of us. The night was nearly silent and pitch black and we all lay tranced out and half stoned staying little until he began to shimmy up a massive palm tree. He moved as quickly and smoothly as if gravity was pulling him in that direction; his bare feet were like two extra hands curving around the trunk. “Wow,” we said. “Yeah, he’s amazing,” his date said. He reached the top and rustled in the palms the threw down three green coconuts, which made soft thuds in the sand. He slid halfway down the trunk and jumped the rest of the way, landing in a pounce. Then he roasted those three coconuts, chopped their tops off with one thwack of a machete and gave us each a milky treat. “Thai boys are the rock stars of Asia,” I thought to myself. His date gloated. I thinking I remember feeling smug.
I think I felt smug because they weren’t really like rock stars; they had the sex appeal and skill but not the untouchable arrogance. It was me (or we whites), not they, who were on the road and on the go, with more money in our pockets than most of them would make in a year. I was me who was moving too fast for charges of slut or scamp or asshole to stick. If I’m going to apply Western models, those certain boys were really more like some first world icon of decorative and useful femininity—a sixties stewardess? A Hooters girl? I don’t know these icons firsthand. I can only imagine the pleasing qualities they possess for their target audience: the smiles exchanged when the tab is paid; the sense of luxurious contentment solicited; the faux respectful homage given—no pinches or slaps, just more or less innuendo in the tone of the thank you. I guess I ‘m projecting from my won cocktail waitress days. I guess that’s why people go on vacation, to be catered to.
Of course, I hadn’t gone to Asia expecting to have poolside cocktails brought to me by island boys; I’d gone for grit and challenge. I had vowed to myself that I’d have a no-romance time, that I’d pursue new knowledge. If anything, I thought I’d be swayed by the famed female beautifies. But the ladies paled next to these delicate men, and one thing I learned was a connoisseurship of the male form. I learned what it was like just to look from a position of privilege.
Sometimes, in provincial town, after dinner I’d go and sit along the main drag and watch boys, their bobbed hair swinging across their cheekbones; their puffy lips the same chic plum of the new MAC line. I’d watch them dip onto their motor bikes, kick a soccer ball, share a Coke. I didn’t want attention or admiration or to be pleasing myself. I didn’t want to pay any person to spend time or have sex with me. But nonetheless, I was the rock star in that video. Me and Mick Jagger sitting on the stoop watching the girl/boys go by.
But I’m still thinking about this stuff. More recent, but more nostalgic, musings here.