“They think that I am a prostitute. Does that bother you?”
“No, of course not. Does it bother you?”
“I don’t know.”
We are walking hand-in-hand along the moat of the Old City and have been for quite some time. It’s two in the morning—what few lights there are flicker in the periphery, as do the people who scurry into dark corners. He is a young Filipino teacher working in Sukothai. He speaks with a slight British accent, acquired from devouring Monty Python movies as a child. We met through a mutual friend who’d brought him along for a birthday dinner we were having for another friend of ours. I liked his laugh and he said he liked the messy way I ate my order of Butter Chicken and garlic naan. He is as foreign to this country as I am, but speaks English and Thai with the fluidity of a native. As we walk, he picks me blossoms from an overhanging tree.
As the group of men he heard talk about us fades into a small, shadowy lump, he asks again if what they said bothers me. I assure him it doesn’t but now the gulf between us is so large it seems that no amount of assurance will bring us back to the fluttery handholding of the round three shots we took at Warm-Up earlier that evening. But we continue to walk and the gulf eventually shrinks with a few bad jokes slung back and forth and we wind up in my guesthouse in the Old City.
He left in the morning with a smile. All in all, a fun evening spent with a fun guy who would be going back to his home in Sawanalok later that afternoon. After he left, I went to grab coffee at a small café on my soi, feeling as bubbly as I ever do after a night of kissing a cute fella. But even as the night was “successful,” in terms of two consenting adults being able to participate in sexual activities in a safe and honest way, I couldn’t help but find myself focusing on the awkward encounter we’d experienced while walking around the moat. Because even more than him being called a prostitute by a group of Thai men who knew nothing of our relationship (two same-aged, same-job-having, same-language-speaking strangers), what has left me unsettled was his concern with my perception of the encounter, as if him being labeled a money boy or a male prostitute by these men would depreciate his “value” in my (read: American) mind.
Which of course is ridiculous, as ridiculous as him needing to be worried that being called a kangaroo by a group of strangers would make me want to kiss or spend time with him less. We were together in that moment because we thought the other one was cute and wanted to see how the night would unfold. That he was Filipino and I was white had seemed inconsequential until someone else had pointed it out and suddenly it was this large glaring thing. On his own, he would not have been considered a prostitute, but because he could’ve been Thai and I was a westerner, he became one, simply because a group of Thai men spoke it into being.
The word prostitute in the Thai context is a loaded one because it doesn’t just seem to refer to the profession of sex worker. With it come a slew of unspoken connotations, that of the horny old white man snagging some young, slinky Thai boy or girl, connotations of sleaziness and slime. Its use vilifies both partners, casting one as the sinister abuser and the other as the powerless abused. Though those harmful relationships do exist and do deserve criticism, to paint all pairings of white foreigners and Thai citizens as such does little to further any constructive dialogue of either scenario. It seems as though any mixed racial pairing becomes one automatically open for comment by any public bystander, and for those bystanders less brave, at least a loaded side-eye that could rip through flesh. The physical cues of skin color and age seem all that is necessary to make a judgment about the validity or health of a relationship.
Is this unique to Thailand? Certainly not. But it feels much louder and much more personal here, and something that a lot of us longer-term residents of the country have experienced at one point or another. There are any number of reasons why this is the case (Thailand’s place in western pop culture as a hedonistic playground, the country’s history of sex-trafficking, sex-tourism that promises old white guys young playthings for romps through southern beaches, etc.), but none seem to justly explore or interrogate the much larger repercussions of language and its affects on the individual.
We would love to hear your opinions on the matter. If you have any thoughts, comments or personal anecdotes, please leave them below.