How Nat found herself working in a brothel is much more complicated than she told us during our visit with her. Like most people who fall into prostitution in Asia, many have elements of human trafficking in their stories. A family member may have sold them into the sex trade and even if they chose it on their own, they have to contend with corruption and exploitation at every level as prostitutes. We chatted on a busy street where hundreds of women were tugging at Japanese, Russian, Australian and other men from around the world who had come here to pay for sex. Nat, who is 26, is passionate and determined to make a better life for herself, something that I have not seen so far visiting with other women this week who work the streets and brothels of Asia. Loud music blared from behind the pulled curtains of the brothels as Nat became more comfortable with telling the details of her story in well spoken english.
As a child she was given a great opportunity to study in international schools and achieved high grades through high school. After graduating she was able to attend a university studying economics. She was close to achieving her dream of becoming a business woman when it all came to a halt. Her father, she explained, likes to spend too much money on his many girlfriends. Because of this he decided to no longer pay for her school. Like all women throughout Asia, there are few choices to earn a living. She had to drop out before her 3rd year.
Also, like many young women, she chose to turn to the sex industry and became a hostess at a popular street brothel frequented by the many foreigners who travel to her city for sex. (A city that depends on sex tourism for a significant percentage of its economy.) But like all the girls here, these facts are just the surface of a much darker tale. She admitted her mamasan often gets angry with her when she refuses to accept a client for sex. Unlike many of the women here she does not seem to have a broken spirit. “I will only go back to a man’s hotel room if I can see in his eyes that he is not a bad man. Plus he has to pay a lot.” She says, with an air of determination and several fist hits into her other hand for emphasis. We asked if men have been violent with her before. She nodded yes with a frown.
After explaining how much it would cost to start her dream business, she went into a detailed plan that covered a strategy for a successful startup that would eventually spread to four other large cities, focusing on the beach resorts for the maximum profit. Eventually she hopes it will even spread overseas. Her direct and smart entrepreneurial demeanor and sharp business savviness easily matched many I have encountered in the startup culture in the US. She had a plan and it sounded like it could work.
Nat has been working in the brothel for 4 years, and says she has seen girls work the streets that are underage. She says it makes her very sad. Who knows what else she has witnessed. It is common to cater to whatever the client wants. That often includes very young boys and girls.
While she has had a few boyfriends, she is not currently involved with a man, saying she is waiting to find someone who will treat her right. She jokes that her last boyfriend never payed attention, playing Angry Birds instead of spending time with her. She swipes an imaginary screen mimicking him flinging birds at pigs, and then laughs with a shrug.
I asked her if she has saved enough to start her business. She says yes with several nods to indicate she really does. I asked her why she has not quit to start it. She smiles and does not answer and then glances around to see if someone is listening. Throughout our conversation, a man with a radio occasionally comes over and moves stools around in a strange territory establishing effort, and then leaves. Her mamasan also comes in and out of the conversation asking if we want to go inside.
Many prostitutes have to work off a type of indentured debt, one that is often impossible to pay off. Others are able to earn a sizable savings and retire back to their village or like Nat start something completely new. But a grimmer reality is apparent in all the women working in brothels like hers. Scars are common, reminders left over from rough customers. Many of the women show signs of kidney disease and other related illnesses as a result of the hard lifestyle. Many work 7 days a week, with Christmas and New Years off.
Nat never explained why she has not started her dream business yet. Something tells me she will though. As we say goodbye a real connection seemed to have silenced her isolation through our conversation, for a brief time. Maybe it had reminded her of her dream. And maybe she will take that move and choose a different life before it is too late.
I traveled this month with a group called The Exodus Road whose mission it is to rescue children from sex trafficking with a major focus centering in Asia. You can read about my experience on my Huffington Post page as well as stories here on the blog.