By: Michelle Gunnin
Walking down the narrow street, far, far away from my middle-class American comfort zone, my eyes are wide, my mouth hangs open. Girls for sale to the highest bidder. I have heard of these places. Red light districts. Bars among bars among bars. I have known about them intellectually, but at this moment in Chang Mai, Thailand, my heart gets involved as my stomach rolls with nausea. Reality slaps me hard in the face. This is not a show on TV or a movie. This is real life.
The streets shimmer with neon lights reflecting in puddles. Men gawk as they enter the bars in anticipation. Their hawk eyes scour the room, picking their prey within seconds. The bar mom pours drinks freely, to entice them to stay awhile. She sends invisible messages to the girls with her eyes. They sit up straighter and smile through gritted teeth and ruby red lips. Their make-up is perfection. Their clothes make suggestions to the imaginations of their predators. It is a sickening dance between those with the power and those without.
Behind all the eyes, I see loneliness. I see hopelessness. I feel the fear, thick and sticky. It is palpable. The atmosphere is one of heaviness masquerading as “fun.” Forced laughter floats out of each bar, sounding hollow in my ears. My heartbeat races in indecision…to run away and put my head back in the sand, or to fly into the faces of the men with fists and harsh words. To race to the rescue and pull girls into my protective embrace, or to wrestle the bar moms to the ground. I do none of those things. Instead, I keeping walking, wishing I could close my eyes to the sights and my heart to the pain, but knowing that it is necessary to SEE these things in order to comprehend them. However, I find it is impossible to understand. I came here with a team to make a difference; instead, I am overwhelmed with the enormity of what I see. I feel helpless because I am.
During the daytime, I return with my team to pray, because it is all I know to do. My heart gets heavier as I see the girls from the night before preparing for the night ahead. They are literally children. In the light of day, with make-up removed and comfortable clothing, most of them are between 12 and 16 years old. They sit with their friends chatting like all girls do, only they are under the watchful eyes of the bar moms. They see the girl who is guiding our group whom they know. They run to her for hugs and to tell her the latest. It is obvious they are friends, and we are introduced to them. We buy a coke to appease the bar mom, and then we sit and play games with them. We stay only a few minutes, asking them only one question, ‘How are you?’ rather than the one they are used to hearing which is, “How much are you?” There is a stark difference between the two, and it causes them to pause. Their eyes light up when they figure out that we really want to know. After a short conversation, we move along to the next bar and the next group of girls, and they move back to the tables where they begin the process of aging themselves, with paint on their faces. They are extraordinary make-up artists.
We turn down an alleyway and my breathing changes. My pulse quickens and I find myself so heavy I can hardly inhale. My eyes tear up, and my throat is restricted. My feet will hardly move forward, and everything in me wants to run in the opposite direction. I battle to keep moving, and I ask our leader, “What just happened? Where are we going?” She informs me that we are going to the fight club so she can check on a girl she knows from one of the bars that walks alluringly around the ring between rounds. All I know is that it is a dark dark place, even in the full light of the Thai sun.
A man with crazy eyes is in the ring practicing for the night’s fight. He is strong, and obviously under the influence of some substance or another. His motions are intense and forceful. The hair on my neck goes up, and I keep moving. My strong physical reaction to the spirit of the place continues as a 5-year-old boy runs to us with a puppy. It is a common practice to send the children of the girls out to draw in the customers with flowers or, in this case, a puppy that is listless and barely moving. The trick works, and we enter the bar where the bar mom brings the mother dog to nurse her puppy. As we converse, I realize that the girls in this bar are not girls, but lady boys, as is the bar mom. I wonder how long before the boy with the puppy goes to work here. In this culture, they are trained very young and once again the realization of what they experience here breaks my heart.
Later that night, I stay back with half the team to pray, rather than go back into the bars. I do not think, after my day of making connections, that I can go and watch the girls be bought and sold. I do not think my heart can take it, and so I pray more fervently than usual. I cry out for freedom and for hope. I recognize that those things cannot come from my hand because the problem is enormous. It is more than one person, or one team, can fix. It is a God-sized problem. So instead of trying to “fix” it, the team builds connections with one girl at a time. The ones braver than me, go out and take flowers to give the girls they talk to. They are met with tearful smiles of thanks. They return with stories of hope and heartbreak — in the Red Light district, the two are intertwined.
The issue of sex trafficking is not one that can be swept under the rug. It is not enough for me to say I am against it and give a few dollars. When I went and saw it for myself, my viewpoint changed from one who looks from a distance to one who has walked on the street and in the alleyways.