When I sat down with a young sex worker named Nam in northern Thailand a few months back, I expected to hear horror stories of abuse and desperation. I braced myself for stories of forced sex, humiliation and long hours working for a pimp who pocketed most, if not all, of her money. And although that IS the reality for many women working in the sex industry in Thailand, it wasn't for Nam, at least not as she told it to me.
Nam sees her line of work as the best choice to bring in enough money to support her parents, grandparents and daughter — which is her cultural responsibility as the eldest daughter in her family. When I asked if her family knows about her work, she said no; that it would break her mother's heart.
When I asked if she would support her baby daughter growing up and entering the sex industry one day like she had, she said no; that she doesn't want her to come anywhere near where she works. And then she said, "If you want to say it's bad for girls, yes it's bad. But as long as we have to make money for our families, I think it's OK for me."
I remember thinking, "Damn. This woman is owning her work as a sex worker, and I totally get it. But how do I reconcile this with my pro-women's-empowerment brain?" I mean, faced with the reality of supporting my entire family on a ninth grade education, would I really turn my back on a job that pays two to three times more than other "legitimate" forms of work?