Kids for Sale
By Bob Herbert
Originally published in the New York Times Op-Ed, Jan. 22, 1996.
"Sometimes you just have to swallow hard and drink another gin," said the teen-aged prostitute in Bangkok, Thailand. "I couldn't get through some nights unless I was drunk."
It is possible but not easy to imagine lives more hideous than those of the generations of children who are fed like cheap fuel into Thailand's flourishing sex industry. In some Thai villages, girls are dragged out of school as early as the sixth grade and taken to the brothels of Bangkok and other centers of the sex trade.
"At 10, you are a woman," according to a popular saying in Bangkok's red-light district. "At 20, you are an old woman. At 30, you are dead."
The demand for the young girls seems limitless. Each year tens of thousands of sex tourists from Germany alone visit Thailand, according to the international children's advocacy group Terre des Hommes. About 10 percent of the German sex tourists engage in sex with minors, the group said.
The traffic in very young girls has been accelerated by the mistaken but widespread belief that they are less likely to be infected with the AIDS virus.
"How would you like to marry a 14-year-old Asian virgin?" asks a brochure put out by Peter Stanton of PVS Publications in Santa Monica, Calif. Mr. Stanton offers a travel guide to the sexual resorts of Southeast Asia and personalized "Sex Tours to Thailand." Mr. Stanton's brochure asks, "Did you know you can actually buy a virgin girl for as little as $200?"
Andrew Vachss is a lawyer and writer from New York whose career is devoted to fighting the exploitation of children. His latest novel is "Batman: The Ultimate Evil," in which the caped crusader goes to war against the child sex industry in the fictional country of Udon Khai. Udon Khai is Thailand.
Mr. Vachss, whose wife, Alice, is a former sex crimes prosecutor for the Queens District Attorney's office, believes that not enough voices have been raised against the enforced prostitution of hundreds of thousands of children in Southeast Asia.
"Certainly Thailand is not the only country," he said, "but it is the international symbol of this problem. It has been a pedophile's paradise at least since Vietnam. It's a place where children are disposable, like Kleenex."
Mr. Vachss has earned the enmity of the Thai Government by insisting that it has condoned the exploitation of its children and by co-founding an organization called Don't! Buy! Thai!, which is calling for a complete boycott of goods made in Thailand.
In a letter denouncing the boycott, Akrasid Amatayakul, the charge d'affaires at the Thai Embassy in Washington, told Mr. Vachss that "a horrendous problem of this magnitude must take time to solve."
In an appendix to Mr. Vachss' novel, the journalist David Hechler homes in on the grim reality of the desperately poor children who are lured, tricked and sometimes kidnapped into the sex trades:
"Many are from small villages far from Bangkok—so many, in fact, that some entire villages are devoid of young girls ... Once they are warehoused in the brothels, the captured children have this in common: Their lives are completely controlled by their 'employers,' who often enforce their will with violence."
Mr. Stanton of PVS Publications indicated in a telephone conversation that increasing attention to the problem of child prostitution in Thailand was having an effect. "It used to be easy to get girls under 18," he said. Now, he said, "You have got to be careful because the Thai police don't want any bad publicity, and they don't want any news media going out there and finding any tourists with young girls."
On the tours he arranges, Mr. Stanton said, the client is hooked up with a "private tour guide" in Bangkok. The tour guide introduces the client to girls, who will be over 18, he said. But if the client wants someone younger, he should tell the guide, he said, and she would likely "take you to some of the local Thai brothels."
As for AIDS, Mr. Stanton blithely insisted there is no need to worry. He said, "There are a lot of researchers now who say H.I.V. is not the cause of AIDS, and H.I.V. is not sexually transmitted."