Cover image: Manufacturing Freedom: Sex Work, Anti-Trafficking Rehab, and the Racial Wages of Rescue by Elena Shih (University of California Press, 2023).
”It’s happy hour! Come have a drink.”
A woman in a bright-purple triangle bikini top, matching miniskirt, and black patent leather stilettos motioned to our group of eight American women, who had paused outside the Honey Money Bar. It was just after 8 p.m., and the pulse of the Soi Cowboy red-light district on Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road was beginning to intensify. As the night progressed, the street would swell and become saturated with noise, food vendors, alcohol, and sex, as people spilled out of the bars that dotted the narrow alley. Men and women from around the world are drawn to this infamous location every night of the week—a prime tourist destination in central Bangkok, given its name by an American GI who started one of the first bars here in the late 1970s during US military involvement in the Indochina Wars.
On this particular Tuesday night in 2008, during my first summer in Bangkok, I moved through Soi Cowboy with a group of eight Cowboy Rescue volunteers. Every Tuesday and Friday evening, this group of American missionaries embarks on what they call “human trafficking outreach ministry,” setting out to identify victims of sex trafficking working in Bangkok’s several red-light districts. The group of women includes short-term tourists, longer-term expatriates, and full-time missionaries from the global North drawn together by their shared passion to end sex trafficking.
This evening, outreach teams met for dinner and mapped out the night’s approach, which varied weekly, from talking with street-based sex workers on certain blocks or corners to patronizing go-go bars, beer bars, and “fishbowl”-style commercial sex businesses. Outreach was scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m., during the “quiet hours” each night, before customers began pouring in around 10. Colleen, Cowboy Rescue’s executive director, led the weekly outreach and began each evening’s outing with group prayer, asking for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and for Jesus to “lift the darkness” over Bangkok. The “darkness” she referred to was the undeniable presence of commercial sex in Bangkok’s streets, which Colleen claimed intimate familiarity with as a resident of Bangkok for more than two decades. American in nationality, Colleen nevertheless professed to have almost no attachment to the United States, having been raised in a family that did missionary work around the world and having established her own family in Bangkok.
Sex has a front-and-center, highly visible presence in Bangkok, home to one of the largest mass-tourist and sex-tourist industries in the world. Tourist guides harp on this point. The Berlitz Bangkok Pocket Guide (2015) describes a district “notorious for its go-go bars and sex shows,” while Lonely Planet’s 2016 guidebook on Bangkok dedicates several pages to helping travelers understand “the sex industry in Thailand” and pinpointing for its readers the locations of some of the largest commercial red-light districts in the world. Commercial sex in Bangkok, broadcast through tourist networks, now links the city in many minds with human trafficking—following the global tendency to conflate all sex commerce with sex trafficking.
Inside the Honey Money go-go bar, chosen for this evening’s outreach, stadium-style seating envelops a stage where Thai women dance on a maze of platforms, adorned in everything from bondage gear to frilly lingerie. The dancers are identifiable to the audience primarily by numbers taped to different parts of their body. Abiding by the outreach manual, I pursue our mandate to purchase one drink for a dancer in order to “buy her time,” before engaging her in casual conversations about her work, personal life, and migration history. Each drink buys outreach volunteers fifteen to twenty minutes to converse with workers to gauge their interest in leaving sex work to pursue alternative jobs in jewelry making. For the worker, each purchased drink helps her fill a monthly quota: anywhere from two hundred to three hundred mandatory purchased drinks a month to cover her base salary for working at the bar. In Bangkok, that can range between 6,000 and 10,000 baht (200–300 USD), which grows if the worker is able to transform drinks into outcalls, in which clients pay a bar fee of about 20 USD for the privilege of taking the worker off-site where they independently negotiate sex services.
The first time I participated in outreach, I felt—and presumably looked—awkward and uncomfortable. My legs were covered in sweat from the Bangkok heat, and even in the chilly air-conditioned bar, my bare flesh still stuck to the exposed vinyl seats. I watched this scene of a group of foreigners—all white North American women except for me, an Asian American—calling Thai women offstage with great familiarity and gusto. What was immediately puzzling to me during outreach was how, though our intentions were different, we were asked to interact with women through the exact commercial sex interface that male clients around us were using. Weren’t we supposed to somehow be distinguishable in approach, I wondered? If the male clients around us were calling women offstage based on their appearance or dress or the way they danced to certain songs, which characteristics were supposed to inform whom I should call off stage? Seeking advice, I turned to Allison, a recent college graduate from Seattle who was spending her summer as a missionary volunteer with Cowboy Rescue. Ally nonchalantly replied that I should “trust the Holy Spirit to connect with anyone who compels you.”
Responding to the pregnant pause that must have evinced my unfamiliarity with the Holy Spirit, Ally offered a bit more specificity. She pointed to a tattoo on the back left shoulder of a worker who was facing away from us. Explaining the symbolism of what appeared to be Thai characters arranged in four straight vertical lines of black text, she remarked: “That tattoo is very popular in these bars, and it’s a symbol of demonic possession by satanic forces. We like to engage girls with that tattoo because we find that those girls need us the most.” I recognized the tattoo as one that had been made fashionable in the United States a few years earlier by Angelina Jolie, who publicly shared with celebrity gossip magazines that the Buddhist Pali incantation her skin bore represented a religious chant and symbol to dispel bad luck. The deeper meaning behind Ally’s explanation of the tattoo would not become evident to me until weeks later when I understood that Christian missionary activists justified their evangelizing objectives by claiming that sex trafficking stems from Buddhist values that subordinate women throughout Thailand.
Against the chorus of Britney Spears’s hit song “Toxic,” I made eye contact with a dancer with a large, round number 24 pinned to the top of her string bikini. She flashed a smile while swaying her hips to the music, shifting her body to grind against the shiny dance pole. Grateful for the eye contact, I waved my hand to call her over to sit with me in the snug two-person vinyl booth. She hopped off stage and approached with the wai gesture, the conventional Thai greeting used to confer respect used throughout the country, a bowed head into two hands pressed together in prayer-like fashion. “Sawasdee Ka,” she smiled. “Sawasdee Ka,” I uttered and clumsily bowed back, recalling my first-year elementary Thai classes at UCLA. We quickly exchanged our names, and she instructed me to call her by her nickname, “Lek,” which she told me means “small.”
Lek then subtly signaled to a cocktail waitress to come take our drink order. As the waitress approached, I asked Lek what she would like. She quickly replied to the waitress, “Jack and Coke.” I echoed that I would take the same and paid 500 baht (15 USD), for the two drinks, plus a tip for the cocktail waitress.
In the heat of the moment, I had forgotten a key shared principal of outreach and would later be reprimanded by an outreach coordinator for not following the training manual closely enough. Outreach volunteers were to refuse the request of alcoholic drinks from dancers, so as not to contribute to a practice outreach workers felt already led to excessive drinking and drug use. This was an awkward rule to follow in a space where alcoholic drinks were the literal and figurative currencies of exchange, but volunteers were adamant that we stick to the outreach script: “I’m sorry, I’m not able to buy you alcohol, but I can pay for any kind of juice or soda you like, . . . and I will pay the full price of an alcoholic beverage.”
Conversations between outreach volunteers and bar workers always followed a similar pattern, negotiating the limited English proficiency of Thai workers and the near nonexistent Thai language skills of volunteers. These exchanges were set against the backdrop of pop music blaring from speakers and dim lighting punctuated by the occasional rogue strobe light flashed on the patrons. It was not unlike trying to strike up an intimate conversation with someone you just met in a nightclub. The dialogue always included the requisite demographic pleasantries one learns in any foreign language: name, age, birthplace, where are you from, when did you come to Bangkok, and how long have you worked here? Synergistically, as most expat volunteers were also migrants to Bangkok, these exchanges could often resemble a conversation despite their masked objectives as preliminary job interviews. Dancers also were well trained in this script because these were the same questions their male clients would frequently pose to them to initiate conversation. Gauging opportunities within each response, outreach workers aimed to identify points of entry to steer the conversation toward workers expressing a desire to leave sex work or job dissatisfaction, critical data points for presenting jewelry making as a better alternative.
While most of Cowboy Rescue’s sites of intervention in Bangkok are in the organization’s namesake, the Soi Cowboy district, expatriate missionaries in China have identified other venues to initiate encounters with potential “rescues.” At Freedom Unchained in Beijing, Chinese and American volunteers visit massage parlors and hair salons in two commercial sex districts and befriend Chinese massage parlor and salon workers through promises of English lessons, health education, and friendship. Using the same methods as in Thailand, sex workers are recruited to become jewelry makers with the offer of a monthly salary in exchange for their manual labor, as well as mandatory shelter housing and spiritual rehabilitation.
In both cities, if a sex worker indicates interest in leaving her job, outreach workers exchange contact information and follow up with text messages or phone calls inviting her to submit a job application. At the time of recruitment, the worker is told the very basics about the job: you work approximately forty hours a week; receive weekends and Chinese, Thai, and some Christian holidays off; and are paid a salary of 250 to 300 USD a month, just above the minimum wage in Beijing and Bangkok.
As I argue throughout this book, American anti-trafficking rehabilitation organizations in both sites obfuscate the fact that these are minimum-wage jobs that rely on extensive manual labor, thereby generating a transnational moral economy of low-wage women’s work. This moral economy is shaped by transnational ethical consumption and anchored in racialized redemptive labor arrangements in production sites in Asia.
Excerpted from Manufacturing Freedom: Sex Work, Anti-Trafficking Rehab, and the Racial Wages of Rescue by Elena Shih (University of California Press, 2023). Used with permission.
Elena Shih is Manning Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University and directs a Human Trafficking Research Cluster through Brown’s Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. She is co-editor of White Supremacy, Racism, and the Coloniality of Anti-Trafficking, published with Routledge in 2022.