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There was recently a TIME magazine article about how hotels train their staff to spot sex trafficking victims at a hotel. I am Asian and I have lived in Asia my whole life. I have traveled throughout the continent extensively, especially throughout Southeast Asia. Reading through the TIME article made me realize that when looking at a situation, what Westerners see and interpret and what we see as Asians may be something entirely different.

Red Flags

The TIME article spoke about teaching their hotel staff to recognize so-called ‘red-flags’:

“One of the key times is at check in. Paying with cash is obviously a cause for concern, especially if the reservation was originally made with a credit card. When an older man or woman checks in with younger women who don’t appear to be his or her children—they speak a different language, they’re distant from him, they look dazed or afraid, or if they’re made up to look older than they really are—that often means the women are not there willingly.”

This might be applicable in Western countries, but in Asia and especially in Southeast Asia, those signs are not necessarily a sign of sex trafficking.

Business as Usual

In Southeast Asia, you may see a male guest invite a special friend back to his hotel for a nightcap (even in the middle of the day). It is not unusual for his ‘special friend’ to be more than a decade or two younger than him and very often they don’t speak a common language.

In an effort to dig deeper into the topic and get a more Asian perspective on this, I set out to onto the streets and interviewed both hotel staff and working girls in Asia to listen to their experiences and opinions on the topic.

In Thailand and Hong Kong at least, when asking front-office staff and management from several hotels, they mentioned that such a scene is extremely normal. Seeing a male guest checking in with a girl that is much younger than him and didn’t speak his language wouldn’t set off any alarm bells. The only thing that they do do, is to follow their hotel’s security procedures and ask for the ID card of the guests’ ‘special friends’ and make a copy of it in case of an emergency which could include theft.

These front-office staff members don’t see it as a sex trafficking. It’s voluntary prostitution. It might come as a surprise to foreigners that prostitution in all forms is actually illegal in Thailand. When the illegality of such acts is mentioned to anyone in Thailand in ‘the business’ however, it’s usually met with a chuckle and the statement ‘T.I.T. – This is Thailand’.

Prostitution’s often takes place in hotels and hotels are well aware of that. How do hotel staff spot and / or react to prostitution?

‘It happens on a daily basis … what our guests do is their business as long as they cooperate with us on registrations and don’t do anything disrespectful. We are generally okay with it’ said one Front Office manager at a five star hotel.

Another hotel front office manager from a boutique hotel said “There’s nothing that you can really do, or would want to do, other than just follow hotel rules and regulations. Even if this lady walks in five times a day with different guests, we will just ask her each time for her ID and make a copy of it. No exceptions.”

Beware – The Unexpected Groom

Meanwhile in some more religious countries in Southeast Asia just south of Thailand, if you, a male hotel guest, walk into (or out of) a hotel with a local woman, you might just find yourself in a spot of trouble. The hotel staff may well report the case to the local religious authorities and you mister could well find yourself very shortly walking down the aisle with a brand spanking new local bride with a change of religion to boot.

From the Red-Light Frontlines

I traveled into some of the most popular red-light districts in Bangkok to see that if I could find out about any evidence of human-trafficking and forced sex working in those areas from the very people who work in the industry. The girls I spoke with candidly were very open about what goes on in their bars and on the streets. There were stories of sex, drugs, violence, police extortion and money laundering. All the girls that I spoke with however made a point of reinforcing the point that all the girls that work in that area are there of their own volition. Many will have day jobs in offices or restaurants and then will make extra money in the evenings dancing in bars and going home with customers or just working as freelance prostitutes.

One girl that I spoke with had just quit her day job as she realized that the income that she made from her dancing and the hours that she worked made for a much more comfortable lifestyle than working as a waitress in a famous food chain restaurant in Thailand.

In many instances, these girls may be seen as heroes back home as the money that they are sending back to their families are putting their brothers, sisters and relatives through school, building them houses and raising their families’ standards of living.

Is this morally ‘correct’? That is a cultural and societal question that needs to be discussed, though won’t be done too openly in societies like ours. Is it forced sex trafficking though? In my opinion as an Asian woman, I would say ‘no, it definitely is not’.

I am not denying that there are cases of sex trafficking in Thailand, and this might occur in some of the more ‘local’ areas of town where non-Thais may be exploited. This will normally be in a local Karaoke bar or brothel situation. Those girls generally wouldn’t make outcalls to hotels in the way that is discussed in the TIME magazine article.

In Asia, there is no rule of thumb as to ‘how to spot a sex trafficking’. Given the ‘norms’ in Asia, if you start to be over-reactive to these so-called ‘red flags’, the hotel staff may well risk calling out genuine guests as prostitutes and doing serious damage to their relationships with important guests.

While I understand that in Western countries that prostitution has many connotations to it, Westerners must understand that when traveling and working in Asia, it is worthwhile to spend some time learning about the local cultures and try and understand the different dynamics and get into the minds of the locals before judging a situation.

As a hotel manager, to apply Western policies across the board to their Asian properties might end up in offending important guests, losing business and putting their local staff in uncomfortable situations with their fellow countrymen. These are often situations that the local staff are already equipped with enough local street knowledge and cultural understanding to handle more aptly than a newly arrived, green Western manager trying to make their mark on their first Asian posting.