Archive for February, 2012

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“Most of the time I don’t even pay them; all I need to do is show them my baby blues. Sometimes I just give them bus fare home.”

Bob was the stereotype, the guy we all love to hate: tubby, white-haired, sunburnt, and dressed like a beach-bound slob. The guy you hoped didn’t share your nationality. I’d seen him in fast food restaurants, night clubs, videoke bars, and even aboard airplanes headed to vacation destinations. Always beside him there was a beautiful Asian woman—sometimes two—young enough to be his granddaughter. He was the Sex Tourist.

Prior to leaving for the Philippines, I’d spent over a year reading books and articles on human trafficking, and almost all of them were filled with sad victim stories. I’m glad for every person who picks up Half the Sky, Not for Sale, or Disposable People, and I wish more people were reading them. But if we want to understand the complex, sophisticated human trafficking machine, we need to understand how it works–and what fuels it.

The Low-Flying Dove, the novel that came out of my year in Manila, is my attempt to do that. The narrative follows not just trafficking victims and those trying to help them, but a pimp, a bar owner, a former stripper, and two customers. I knew that writing this kind of book would mean interviewing customers, or Johns, and I dreaded talking to people I was sure I’d hate.

But at last I enlisted the help of an NGO worker who had formerly been a sex tourist himself; I told him my objective (to get a real picture of why these guys did what they did) and within a couple of hours, I had a half a dozen meetings set up with guys of all ages and backgrounds.

But let’s get back to Bob.

I’d secretly hoped that all of the guys I interviewed would be like him: easily villainized and blamed. But the truth was a lot closer to home. Yes, there were some despicable, unrelatable sex tourists, but more frequently the men I talked to were surprisingly . . . normal. Likeable, even.

One middle-aged man from Boston sat with me for almost two hours and told me how heartbroken he was when his wife of forty years left him. He came to the Philippines looking for a wife and a second chance, and found her in the form of a 23-year-old bar girl. He met her by paying her for sex, but was indignant that men like Bob abused the girls. He thought sex trafficking was terrible.

I talked to several twenty- and thirty-something guys who had come to Asia to travel and see the world–not sex. They wouldn’t pay for it back home, so why would they in another country? But then they arrived in Manila/Hong Kong/Bangkok/Singapore/etc. and met another foreigner who took them out to a red light district, had a few drinks, and ended up at a strip club. Or they got a great deal on a massage, where their young, pretty massage therapist abruptly offered them extras.

“Normal becomes a pretty relative term after a while,” one guy told me. He’d been stunned the first few times he’d found himself in some of the situations above. But after a while, the things that had shocked him suddenly began to feel commonplace. “Guys do things here that they would never do at home,” he said. “Back home they might look at porn, but they would never go looking for a prostitute.”

Some of the men I met were traveling for work; they had wives and children whom they loved and missed. Many of them knew about sex trafficking and thought that it was atrocious. Not a single man I talked to believed that he was contributing to it in any way. Many times the girls who had convinced my interviewees that they were having a great time confided in me that they had been trafficked and were deeply ashamed of the life they were living.

It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow, but thanks to our friend Anna Broadway, Valentine’s Day isn’t just for couples this year. Anna understands that sex trafficking and prostitution will continue to exploit growing numbers of women unless we turn our attention to the demand for sex—to the customers, or Johns.

All across the country, churches, groups, and individuals are joining Anna in praying for the Johns. We are too. You can read more about Pray for the Johns Day here, and also read an article where Anna interviewed me.

Would you join us in praying for the Johns tomorrow? You can find specific ways to pray on the PFTJ website. We’d love to hear about your experiences here, so please comment and let us know that you’re joining us!

-Laura