Travels in the Skin Trade

Norbert Ruebsaat

Thai prostitutes offer love and affection as well as sexual gratification to their Western clients, and it is this combination, I learned while reading Travels in the Skin Trade by Jeremy Seabrook (Pluto Press), that causes the farangs (a Thai word for foreigners) to fall in love with and at times attempt to marry the prostitutes. In testimony that is sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes tender and sometimes disturbing, men report that Western sex workers are cold-hearted, hard-bitten women who remind the men of the women they wish to escape from. Thai women are warm and “know how to love.” In his commentary, Seabrook attributes the difference in perception to racism, which, when crossed with both Thai and Western sexism, produces a kind of blindness that can incite evil but can also, miraculously, produce loving relationships. Invisible racism and sexism, Seabrook writes, make sex tourism a most visible expression of the globalized market economy, since it is one of the few institutions where “privilege confronts poverty face to face.” The prostitutes come from northern Thailand farm villages where the Thai government, pressured by transnational corporations and Western banking and aid organizations, is destroying the local economy by destroying its ecosystem. The young women (and some young men) go to the city, much as European peasants did in the nineteenth century, and they become family breadwinners who are interested also in the life that may lie behind the images they have seen emanating from village TV screens. The love they sell along with the sex is part of the business deal, but also part of Thai village and family tradition. When Western men balk at the request to extend love to the women’s families by supporting these families (by, for example, financing houses for them), the women do not understand these men, who pay more for a plane ticket to Thailand than the family earns in a lifetime, and for whom love is not a matter of survival. The perceptual rift and crisis of meaning, along with the occasional miracle of meaning revealed in these pages, helped me to understand that economic stories are love stories in disguise and that I often read this sequence in the wrong direction.

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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