Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Prostitution in Thailand: Representations in Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Prostitution in Thailand: Representations in Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction

Article excerpt

Introduction

This paper explores problematic Western approaches to women working as prostitutes within the 'sex tourism' industry in Thailand through an examination of how their situation is portrayed in the various fiction and non-fiction narratives written by Westerners on this topic. It is all too easy to dismiss prostitution in Thailand as having limited international relevance with arguments that it is simply the product of a poor society and that Thai men are its greatest consumers. However, such an assessment obscures the complex issues relating to power structures and external forces (Truong 190). Given that there has been a lack of academic attention paid to sex tourism and the role it plays in perpetuating prostitution in Thailand as a whole, this paper seeks to shed light on this through exploring both the factual context and Western perceptions through popular and literary writing.

The first half of this study focuses on the context, practices and working conditions of the Thai sex tourism industry. This is then used as the lens through which to analyse the approaches to Thai sex tourism in Western mainstream literature. The English-language fiction on the subject of prostitution in Thailand is dominated by male authors who are either existing or former sex tourists, or expatriates who have spent long periods living and working in Thailand. Most focus on the relationship between a prostitute and a farang (foreigner), usually a Westerner from a developed country such as the US, and seem to mainly revolve around whether relationships that arise out of such encounters ever have the potential to end happily--'bargirl-done-me-wrong' novels. A search on WorldCat and Amazon revealed that approximately 61 novels on the topic of prostitution in Thailand are currently in circulation. All of these are written by men (3) and the overwhelming majority of the 61 novels are popular (rather than literary) fiction, (4) which lends itself to stereotypes and oversimplifications due to a commercial imperative to entertain readers as opposed to conveying the harsh realities of sex tourism. This is not to say that literature should be a facsimile of reality; nevertheless, literature does reflect and perpetuate social attitudes, and such Western romanticisation and reductionism can function to enforce damaging imperialistic conceptions (Said). This is all the more concerning given that the abovementioned literature is, as one author, Stephen Leather, admits, "especially welcomed by guys who are planning to visit Thailand for the first time" (Norbert).

The majority of these novels present a one-sided view of Thai prostitutes as the exotic 'other', biased towards a male-oriented, Western agenda--usually that of the Western sex tourist. Two novels were chosen for analysis based on their popularity and common themes they shared with the other fiction on this topic:

1. Private Dancer (2005), an erotic thriller by Stephen Leather, considered a 'cult classic' among Western sex tourists and expatriates.

2. The Pole Dancer (2004), a fast-paced action thriller by R. D. Lawrence (pseudonym) about a Bangkok prostitute and a rich, handsome Western stranger.

Two narrative non-fiction books were also selected to provide a comparison point from which to judge alternative and arguably less reductionist, Orientalised ways of exploring the topic. There is a paucity of English-language narrative non-fiction on the subject of prostitution in Thailand, likely due to the life circumstances of the prostitutes themselves and the shame associated with the profession, as indicated by two out of the existing three narrative non-fiction texts using pseudonyms to protect the identity of their protagonists. Further, socio-economic and legal vulnerability makes it unlikely that any prostitute would want to draw attention to herself publicly by writing about her situation or the sex tourism industry as a whole (Truong 156-7, 177-80). …

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