Are SE Asia’s Karaoke Girls Deprived of Opportunity?

Most discussion about prostitution in Southeast Asia of late has been focused upon the issues of human trafficking and sex tourism across the region.

However, with the exception of those fraudulently lured into the sex trade, a surprising number of women in places like Ancol, Mabini, Clark, Pattaya, Soi Cowboy, Nana, Dannock, Betong, Sungei Golok, Batam, Wan Chai and Labuan—are there of their own free will, without force or direct coercion – except, sadly, for the economic imperatives of their poverty-stricken lives.

This requires another look at the Southeast Asian sex trade from the point of view of the participants themselves to come up with a better understanding of why they enter and work within this industry as masseuses, karaoke girls, bar girls and prostitutes. Developing an understanding of this issue requires looking at the range of economic and social opportunities open to these women as individuals.

Most arrive in Southeast Asia’s well-known red light districts from the poorer provinces of their countries. In Thailand, this is usually the northern provinces around Chang Mai and the northeastern provinces of Isan. In Indonesia, many come from the crowded island of Java, where their families have little or no access to land to make any sustainable living, etc.

Many red-light districts in Thailand also attract women from neighboring countries like Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and China. Most arrive either in their teens or 20s, often after a short broken village marriage, leaving children behind with their mothers to look after.

Many feel that their only valuable resource is their gender and therefore life as a masseuse, karaoke, or bar girl is a viable means of earning an income sufficient to support their parents, children, and other siblings back home.

The alternative of working on a farm or restaurant doesn’t provide enough income to support those they feel responsible for. Finding factory work is often difficult, and those that do, are continually tempted by friends who are earning more in the sex trade to follow suit in pursuit of a higher income. They are often encouraged by the few “success” stories of women who return to their village as glamorous examples to build new homes for their families. Therefore in the end work in the sex trade from the point of view of rural women without skills or educational opportunities is seen by many as the best option.

Underlying this is a deep sense of almost noble responsibility to provide income to their families, within the very limited means they have available to them to achieve this desire. This appears to be the prime motivator common to most women who enter the sex trade across the region. It is often supported by the dream that someone will pick them up and look after them and the family, something that occurs in many districts around Thailand. The large number of farang or western husbands living in Isan with their “retired” karaoke women is testimony.

Very soon the reality of what turns out to be an unglamorous life in the city soon sets in where a woman lucky enough to have an income sufficient to rent a room for her own solitude and rest is the only luxury she has. The routine becomes a boring humdrum of coming to work, whether a massage parlor, bar, or karaoke joint early and staying there in most cases for more than 12 hours each and every-day. Most of the time is just hanging around waiting for customers, who in the current economic circumstances are few and far between in most places around the region. Most of their rest time is spent sleeping to gain enough energy for the next shift.

This the women consider their work. However, straight massage or just drinking with customers in a bar brings only a meager income. They are advised by their coworkers and friends that by doing a short-time or being booked by a customer all night will greatly enhance income, which will enable them to send money back home to their families each month. So they hold their noses and give in.

This vocation and accompanying lifestyle has many costs associated with it. Many women are mentally fighting with their sense of self esteem, which often leads to depression. This is often compounded with boredom from the same long routine each day, leading in many cases to excessive drinking and the use of amphetamines like ice and ya ba to cope. Others take to gambling away their incomes. Gambling becomes incredibly addictive with the women using amphetamines to keep awake, with serious health consequences.

Other women see customers as fair game for love scams where they purposely gain affection for the purpose of extracting money. Many of these women have husbands back in the village and send the proceeds back to them to live on.

However one of the most tragic aspects is the high incidence of HIV/AIDS. Most contract the virus out of ignorance, or recklessness in pursuit of maximizing their income. Some accept their fate, working as long as their health allows, then returning to their villages to die peacefully. If one spends time around these people, stories can be heard about those who become very angry and set out to infect as many others as possible as a means to console themselves about their own fate with death – “dying with as many friends as possible.”

Many tackle their low self esteem through dressing as outwardly attractively as possible and acquiring the trinkets that symbolize “success” among their peers, like the latest iPhone. However only a very few can afford these relative luxuries, with the majority earning less than US$10 per day. They are confined to a life of exploitation and compliance, in physical, social, psychological, and spiritual poverty. This leads to long=term depression and being locked into the cycle of disappearance and acceptance of their fate, as forgotten but convenient victims of society.

The social perception of these women varies across the region. In the Philippines many are highly educated, some even lawyers, but are forced to work in the sex trade for lack of other perceived viable opportunities. They are inconvenient but necessary providers of services that middle-class Filipinos don’t want to think about too much, although their services are used by many.

In Indonesia the activities of these women contravene the strict morals of Islam, so they are pushed out to the fringes of society and conveniently forgotten about – a necessary embarrassment. It is only perhaps in Thailand where the mediating philosophy of Buddhism and poverty that still exist in the north and north-east of the country provides these women with more social acceptance. They of course are welcomed as the breadwinners within their families and villages, giving them some status at home.

Unfortunately the masseuses, karaoke and bar girls of Southeast Asia play an inconvenient role tourist development. It has been policy-wise considered a necessary evil where very few resources or high levels of intention have been focused on eradicating social exploitation. This job has primarily been left to NGOs, which of late have been focusing on human trafficking.

As a matter of conscience some governments have passed strict anti-sex tourist laws to show concern over the matter, but little if any foreign aid has gone into tackling the source issues of the problem, one of providing social and economic opportunity to these women back within their village environments.

Perhaps entrepreneurial opportunity should be considered a basic human right and tackled as such. Females within villages tend to mature much faster than their male counterparts and efforts must be made to assist in creating entrepreneurial opportunities and equipping them with the necessary skills and matching resources to exploit them.

This problem cannot be easily engaged within the red light districts themselves as they are structurally institutionalized through corruption, with enforcement agency people often owning the outlets that employ these women.

It is time balance be put back into the issue of prostitution within the region by moving back to focusing on the deprivation of entrepreneurial opportunity, rather than the issues of human trafficking and sex tourism. By doing so, maybe better progress can be made on alleviating this problem society is really reluctant to face front on.

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. As well, he is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship and development. Read other articles by Murray.