Courtney Dow, Director of NightLight USA, remains rooted in deep faith while combating Bangkok’s notorious sex trade
The smell of garbage mixed with cheap perfume and incense from idol worship invade my nostrils as beads of perspiration run down my back. We dodge people, cars, and motorcycles, avoid a puddle of sewage, and enter the red light district. The sites, sounds, and smells are all familiar. Florescent lights blink and music blares as a group of children run up to talk to us. We all “wai” (the customary greeting in Thailand) and we ask them how their night’s going, how well their flowers or shoe shines are selling, etc. As one little girl slaps away a mosquito, she points to her foot that she caught in a drain. I bend over to look at her bleeding toe just as a rat runs through the drain beneath my feet.
These children, some as young as three years old, were trafficked to Bangkok from Cambodia and sell various sundry items in the red light districts until someone is interested in purchasing them for sex. Looking back into her eyes, I realize that I forgot to bring band-aids; so I give her a hug and tell her to be careful next time. We move farther in and the “touts” pick up their “Welcome, sir! Come in, sir!” They hand us a laminated piece of paper that reads like a menu of sex acts: ping pong balls, bananas, darts, razor blades, cigarettes, girl and boy, girl and girl, boy and boy, transsexuals, young children… Some even provide pictures. We attempt to avoid the “touts” and arrive at our destination.
The girls’ bored expressions turn to smiles as they wai, give us hugs, and talk about the latest news. One girl in this particular bar is excited to be going back to Northeast Thailand next week for a month to see her two year old daughter and help with the rice harvest. Poverty and a lack of education have driven her to sell her body in the bars of Bangkok. Another girl tells us that she’s figured out a way to pay off her family’s debts within a month and that she hopes to leave the bar as soon as she’s paid those debts. For all of these girls, abuse from their childhoods makes them vulnerable to further exploitation as adults. They believe that this is all they are worth—what someone would pay for them and what they can provide for their families.
We decide to move on down the street after a few minutes of visiting with the bar girls. We pass the beggars with drugged babies and stop to talk with some streetwalkers. More children run by and I run to catch up with them. We notice an American man watching the kids and trying to get their attention. “How much do you cost?” he asks as he pokes one of the boys in the stomach. I warn the children in Thai not to go with him, even if he gives them money. I tell them that he is not a good man and that he will do bad things to them. They nod their understanding and wave goodbye as they run to another street to sell flowers. Our group moves on down the street and runs into a handful of Eastern European girls who have been trafficked into Bangkok for prostitution. We shake hands, kiss each other on the cheek, and make small talk. One girl tells us that she was asked to become a mama san (a female version of a pimp) and I encourage her not to take the job. But I can understand why she’d consider it. It’s better to be the exploiter than the exploited. We wrap up the conversation with the Eastern European women and blend back into the crowd as we continue our outreach.
This is a normal night of outreach for NightLight. We walk the streets of the red light districts multiple times a week, building relationships, learning about the issues and patterns, and assisting in any way that we can. We know that these women in prostitution may suffer from many things, including rapes, beatings, sexually transmitted illnesses (as well as other related illnesses), mental breakdowns, acute anxiety, depression, insomnia, flashbacks, emotional numbing, dissociative disorders, and even murder. And we know that they often employ alcohol, drugs, self-mutilation, abortion, and suicide to cope with the horrors of selling their bodies every night.
One night, we ran into our friend, Ying*, who is a 29-year-old who street walks. She told us that she was not feeling well when, suddenly, she collapsed, unconscious, in the street. We picked her up and took her to a hospital where doctors couldn’t diagnose her. So she came home with me and I kept vigil to make sure she didn’t lose consciousness again. The next day she began falling in and out of consciousness, having trouble breathing, and hallucinating. We called an ambulance and the hospital said that she had a terrible infection in her uterus. Since she is HIV positive, her tiny, 80 lb. body couldn’t fight the infection.
She was in the hospital for five days and then had to return for a blood transfusion the day after she was released. Her family refused to visit her in the hospital; so we became her family. We loved on her and visited her in the hospital. We paid the hospital bill, gave her a free place to live where we could take care of her, and offered her a job in our alternative employment program, NightLight Design, where other women who come from similar places make beautiful jewelry while they learn more about who they are and what true worth they have. We sent out emergency bulletins for prayer for Ying’s healing and asked for financial assistance and people responded. We were in awe of how God seemed to have strategically placed us on that corner to catch His daughter, Ying, and to offer her a new life. But as beautiful as this story is Ying still chose to return to the streets.
You may be wondering why I chose to share this particular story instead of others that may appear more successful. Because working with these women has made me more and more aware of my own sin. How many times have I chosen to sell myself to idols and find my identity in things other than God? I believe the reasons that these girls enter prostitution are much more justified than my own lame excuses for not following Christ. There is a hotel in Bangkok that goes by the name of “Grace” and it is well-known for tolerating even the worst parts of the sex industry. It is an evil place and I hate it. It doesn’t deserve to have “Grace” associated with it, but, then, I never deserved to be associated with Grace either. This realization only solidified my believe that Jesus died so that He could be in relationship with all of us, that He pursues us with a wild love stronger than we could ever imagine, that He stepped into our darkness, took our place, and redeemed us.
Let me be clear: Men are not the problem–men are the SOLUTION. It would be too easy to hate the men that we see exploiting the women and children in Bangkok. I believe Jesus died for them too. How could we show the love of Christ to the women without offering it to the men? Many of them may be broken and searching to experience the love of God, too. And sexual sin is not just on the streets of Bangkok; it is in our churches. “More Christian marriages and ministries are destroyed through sexual misconduct than for any other reason” (Finding Freedom in a Sex-Obsessed World, Neil T. Anderson).
Dear Church, it’s time to come out of the darkness, to stop hiding by the computer screen, to address these and to bring them to the foot of the cross.
Fortunately, Ying’s story did not end with her return to the streets. After many painful years and two more run-ins with death, Ying is now working at NightLight Design, healthier than ever and restored to her family.
*Name has been changed
To learn more about about sex trafficking here in Bangkok, including some of NightLight International‘s work to combat, check out this documentary titled “21st Century Sex Slaves” by National Geographic:
–Photo: “Soi Cowboy – Bangkok” adselwood/Flickr