If you can’t tell your best friends about paying for sex in Bangkok, who can you tell?
According to “Zack,” who works for a nonprofit and has lived in the city for a few years, you can’t tell anyone. The 28-year-old American cops to paying for blowjobs at a massage parlor, something he’s never talked about until now.
“The first time I went, I wasn’t just like ‘I need a blowjob right now,’ it was also cause I was curious. I had been thinking about it for a few weeks and I obviously didn’t tell anybody that I was going. I mean, I didn’t really know anyone here yet anyway.”
He chose a place in Nana Plaza. He went in, and they lined the girls up. They were wearing numbers and he chose one. It cost THB1,000 and he tipped her THB200 afterward.
“She took me upstairs. On the way up the stairs she was chatting with me, like, ‘What’s your name? Why did you come to Bangkok?’ The instinct is just to lie. I don’t know why, but I did. There’s definitely shame that comes along with this, and you don’t want the people there knowing a whole lot about you,” Zack said.
Still, he said, it remains a taboo subject that’s more “don’t ask, don’t tell” than “don’t do.”
“I know so many sleazy people, but they don’t admit that they do stuff like see prostitutes. It’s like, ‘You’ve lived here for eight years, you’re always drunk and all you talk about is sex. The access is everywhere and really cheap. How can I believe that you don’t do that shit? Just be honest. I’d respect you more.’ But it’s still taboo,” he said.
He’s tried to bring it up with friends but never feels he can talk about it without being judged. “I’ll strategically mention it like, ‘Oh yeah my friend went to this place…’ and see how they react. I’m very careful about what I say. If one of my friends seemed open to talking about it I would love to, it’s such a complicated subject.
“I think a lot of guys I know must contribute to the sex trade somehow. Happy-ending massages, blowjobs, prostitutes. They aren’t getting laid otherwise. All those drunken nights where everyone splits off and goes home. People are high as fuck, I know they aren’t hooking up with our female friends, or I’d hear about it. But guys don’t talk about this even when they’re alone,” he said.
In a city where bribes, drugs and other forbidden activities are commonplace; paid sex is still one thrill few admit to trying.
When it’s brought up in the context of a first-person experience, a shocked silence often descends on a group. Zack said he often thinks in these situations, “Yeah, right. You’ve never done it. It’s never even crossed your mind, right?” He doesn’t believe it.
The sex industry in Bangkok pulls in billions annually yet you’d be hard pressed to find anyone among the city’s young, expat professionals who will admit they’ve contributed a single baht into it.
This isn’t the Soi Cowboy retiree crowd or Pattaya sexpats. These is the newer expat generation of young, artsy semi-professionals who call the city home – at least for a few years. Those can be long, dry years for relationships of any kind in a city that seems to offer sexual release around every corner.
Expats know relationships are difficult, people are nomadic and cultural divides are huge, as Zack confirms. That’s why he started paying to play.
“The first time was when I had just gotten to Bangkok a few years ago. I didn’t know anyone here. I hate clubs and one-night-stands because I don’t want to have to get piss drunk or high as hell to have sex. It’s just a shitty feeling. But it got to the point where it had been six months since I’d gotten anything.
That’s when he had his fateful first encounter at Nana Plaza. As then, he remains wary of running into someone he knows.
“That wasn’t a problem at the beginning because I knew literally no one in Bangkok,” he said. “Since then, I definitely keep my head down, but all the customers are in little rooms anyway, it’s not like there are lots of people hanging around,” he said.
The rooms are not that different from the foot-massage joints that line every street in the city except there are walls and doors between the chairs. You have a big comfy reclining chair and she sits on a stool. Except she’s next to you instead of at your feet.
“That first time, when I got into the room, my heart was racing. I was like, ‘What have I done? I don’t want to do this, but I’m already here so I might as well just go through with it. Part of me wanted to just leave. I was having doubts about everything. Was I a scumbag? Would I get a disease? Could I perform? Did I want to?”
He took off his pants and the girl got down to business. “I was sweating,” said Zack, “I was actually kinda upset. It was like, ‘Okay just calm down, you might as well enjoy this – you paid 1,000 baht for it.”
He said that once she started, her skills were next level from anything he’d experienced before. “She used all different techniques with her hand and mouth and responded when I was into it. I was in the zone.”
Over time though, it’s been hard for him to distract himself from less pleasant thoughts that creep in.
There is one girl that he has seen repeatedly. “She’s hot, and I get a good vibe from her even though she gets paid to do this. But you just think about these girls and how maybe it’s not what they want to do. The places are so quiet and dimly lit. It’s not really a party atmosphere, there’s no foreplay and you can’t help but realize, ‘This is her job. You are just another nameless face and dick.’
“I wonder about how the girls got their jobs. If it was semi-voluntary, maybe to support their families, or something more sinister. I don’t think the girl I see seems like that, like depressed or forced or anything. Hopefully she kinda enjoys it, at least for my sake. Yes, I know that sounds stupid and selfish,” he admitted.
In the days following the first time, Zack reflected on the experience, thinking, “Yeah, it felt good, but how does doing that reflect me and my decisions? Does it make me a different person?”
He still doesn’t know the answer but that doesn’t stop him from – hesitantly – returning.
“I’m disenchanted with the dating scene for foreigners in Bangkok. I’ve just about given up on it. People are so transient and closed off to anything but one-night-stands. No one wants to get close because no one is here for the long term. People want to hang out in a superficial way: to party and drink and meet up if there is an event, but there is a coldness underneath. They don’t ever want to, say, just get food or come over and watch a movie.
“If you ever do find someone and get close to them, it’s always uncertain. People lose their jobs, miss their families and it’s like [he snaps his fingers]. One day they’re here and one of your best friends and then they’re gone.
“Maybe for some guys this sort of paid sex is a thrill but for me, I get a pit in my stomach when I go or when I know I am going to go. It can be lonely here. I’m resigned to this,” he said, shaking his head.
Illustrations: Chris Coles