Written by: Erica Garza
We met her at one of the quieter bars in Hua Hin, the closest beach city to Bangkok, where women of various ages hung around pool tables in miniskirts and spiky heels, waiting for their next client to choose them. It was Valentine’s Day.
With long, black, shiny hair and dark skin, Dao was older and friendlier than the other women. She was the only one who smiled at me, an American woman out of her element. Like my husband, who stood beside me, every other patron was male.
I ordered a Singha beer and took quick sips, hoping for a buzz to calm my shaky hands. That’s when she approached us.
“Do you want to play?” she asked.
My introduction to sex work as a customer started with strippers when I was in my twenties. Tipsy off dirty martinis, I’d whisper to my boyfriend at the time to hurry up and pay for our drinks so we could head to the nearest strip club before I changed my mind. If he didn’t know where one was, that was no problem. I would have already done my research and most likely chosen our present bar or restaurant based on its proximity to live nude girls. While there, giddy and mesmerized by the parade of naked flesh, I’d hope everyone around me noticed what a cool and open-minded chick I was to bring my boyfriend here. This was my gift to him. Secretly, it was a gift to myself. Once inside, I’d hope my male chaperone would find some excuse to leave me there alone, so I could muster up the courage to pay for a lap dance or, at the very least flirt.
Like strip clubs, pornography was a regular companion to my relationships. I’d started watching when I was 12 years old, and grown dependent on the fast and effective stream of endless novelty and titillation. No new boyfriend ever seemed to mind my casual suggestion to supplement our sex life. And, just like strip clubs, I always managed to convince him that I was bestowing a gift. It made me feel powerful.
“If I’d already been ashamed about the pull these places had on me, I now felt a whole other layer for not being welcome.”
Flash-forward a decade and my husband and I were living in Bangkok, taking advantage of its low cost of living. Suddenly everywhere seemed to be in close proximity to live nude girls. Known for its lively street vendors (which sell everything from dildos and Viagra to fresh coconuts and fried fish), its sacred shrines to Ganesha, its massage parlors, and endless bars, Bangkok can sometimes be too much for the senses. I gravitated toward places like Nana Plaza or Soi Cowboy, the city’s infamous red-light districts— sometimes with my husband, but more often I was alone, when he was busy working gigs as a jazz musician.
Without even entering salacious-looking nightclubs or so-called massage parlors, I could feast on the mere sight of these women spilling out of the bars and keep myself entertained for days on the fantasies they inspired. Sometimes they held signs over their heads advertising free oral sex with a drink purchase. Other times they discreetly whispered to passersby about mythic Ping-Pong shows.
But they never whispered to me. I was just a woman walking down the wrong street. They couldn’t see my hunger, or if they did, they wouldn’t have believed it. If I’d already been feeling shame about the pull these places had on me, I now felt a whole other layer for not being welcome, no matter how much money was in my checking account.
The handful of times I did enter, I usually only had enough courage to glance over price sheets or gaze at the women as they waited behind glass like lobsters in a tank, before heading back out. Once, I asked the madam if any of the women took female clients, and in a room of more than 20, only two stood up. But their confused faces were as intimidating as my desire to explore further.
Although I identify as bisexual, my sexual experience with other women was extremely limited. Growing up in a Mexican American, Catholic family, you were either straight or gay—and it was better to be straight. I quickly learned to shove my attraction to women to the farthest reaches of my brain. But beyond my unexplored sexuality, there was a desire for the direct transactional nature of the client-prostitute relationship—the straightforwardness of it, the ability to ask for just what I wanted without judgment, the feeling of being in control. Am I really the only woman who has felt this way?
Not exactly. Female sex tourism is a growing trend in places like Gambia, the Caribbean, and the Dominican Republic. In these cases, paying customers are typically middle-aged European women looking for a vacation fling with a young, local man, often referred to as a “beach boy” or “bumster.” Acting as romantic partner and tour guide, the men are treated with gifts and money in exchange for their time and service. In a 2013 Daily Mail article on the trend, gigolos explained that there was “little shame or stigma” in selling sex to older, white female tourists, and some of them claimed earning money this way affirmed their masculinity. What’s less talked about is female sex tourism where both the customer and sex worker are women.
On our Valentine’s Day getaway to the beach, I felt free of the inhibitions that usually kept me from taking anything too far with women like Dao. Maybe it was the alcohol making me feel more open to an experience like this. Maybe it was her openness. Or maybe it was openness that I found in my relationship with my husband, which I’d never felt in any previous relationship. Since our early days, he’d been the kind of hyper-observant partner who’d always noticed when I was holding back and encouraged me to get vulnerable instead. He was nonjudgmental of my past, unthreatened by my attraction to women, and supportive of my desire to explore. He made me feel like it was OK to be myself, even if I was still trying to figure out what that meant—sexually and otherwise. Only once had we brought a girl home with us the last time we were in Thailand, years ago. But the girl had seemed disinterested, so the experience was less than positive and I’d been itching to rewrite it. Here was my chance.
“With her hand on my knee, I felt like we were just girlfriends on vacation.”
Dao handed me a cue stick and combed her long, black, shiny hair with her fingers as she nodded toward the empty pool table.
“Do you want to play?”
“No thanks,” I said, and invited her to drink with us instead.
Sitting so close to me that I could smell the sweat and coconut oil on her skin, Dao told us about her life. She got into the business after leaving her husband, the father of her three children. They all lived in another city, and she sent money back to them. Her husband hadn’t been kind to her, not nearly as kind as most of her clients, whom she spoke of fondly.
My husband leaned over and whispered, “Girls in these places all tell the same sad stories.”
I shot him a dirty look. How would he know?
With her hand now on my knee, it almost felt like we were just girlfriends on vacation. She seemed genuinely interested in me and eager to confide in me, and I’d always craved this sort of attention from a woman, but somehow, in this moment, I just wanted to get down to business.
“So, Dao,” I started, unsure of how to phrase a question I’d never asked before. “How much is it for an hour?”
To my surprise, she did not laugh at me or pull away. She moved her hand to my thigh and asked if I wanted a “long time” or “short time,” and I deliberated as she told me the price for each. My mind raced with fantasies of how the night could go. A musty room, our bodies in a mess of damp sheets, the pleasure.
I felt a rush of power suddenly course though me. Whether I decided to pay the price or not, I somehow already felt satisfied. Her face close to mine, I could almost taste her, and I wanted to know what it would feel like to sit with her alone, like I so often wished in those strip clubs long ago. To strap her to the back of my motorbike, the one my husband drove because I was too scared, and whisk her away, just like so many of the white men I envied all over the city—their pretty girlfriends hanging tight to their waists, their masculinity blaring, their egos stoked. This was the fantasy I was eager to buy, and somehow I didn’t feel so bad about it anymore. My money was just as good. My desire was just as valid.
Suddenly, it seemed like there was just the two of us in this bar. So what if I didn’t know how to drive a motorbike? Maybe she did. We could go anywhere.