You can’t be a police officer in any major city in the United States without having to deal with the problems and issues related to human trafficking and the sex industry. After 30 years on the job, you see a lot.
Girls working the boulevards, shady massage parlors, and online prostitution are part of every big city landscape. It’s horrible anywhere, but what I saw in Pattaya, Thailand far exceeded anything you would ever see in the United States. I spent a week there last month with an outreach team.
Pattaya has a reputation for being one of the key “sex tourism” destinations in the world. As part of a team from Crossroads Christian Church, I spent a week there last month working with Shear Love International, an organization committed to providing alternatives for men and women involved in the sex industry.
Pattaya is a beautiful coastal city with a spectacular beach area. Millions of tourists visit it every year. But it also has a dark side that is evident day or night in every corner of the city. A large percentage of those millions who visit are men from throughout the world who come for sex tourism.
At night, the streets are filled with thousands of women outside clubs and bars along “Walking Street.” Dressed provocatively in short skirts and high heels, the women aggressively seek out customers as they walk bay. Many dress in school-girl outfits, nurses outfits and every manner of themed costumes.
The women come from all over the world — Africa, Russia, Vietnam, Laos and just about any country you can think of. According to outreach workers. many are being trafficked by organized crime groups and gangs.
In the midst of all this depravity, if you pay attention, there’s a lot of unhappiness. The looks of boredom, disinterest and melancholy. Young men and women staring off into the distance or scrolling through their phones. Potential customers approach and the forced smiles and amorous overtures ensue. It’s all a facade.
My first morning, I got a first-hand look at this. Walking along the street outside our hotel was an overweight man in his 60s. Attached to his arm was a young lady who could be his granddaughter. Her short skirt, high heels and excessive makeup are dead giveaways. The same sight is repeated hundreds of times in restaurants, hotel lobbies and on the beaches around the city. Some of the men will rent a girl for the entire time they are in town.
Pattaya is a city where shame seems to be non-existent. A big part of me wants to rescue every single woman I see. The realist in me knows that just isn’t possible. But there is hope.
Shear Love was founded several years ago by California resident Dianna Bautista. Leaving behind a successful career as a hair dresser, she felt a calling from God to help women overcome their circumstances by teaching them a trade.
After opening up beauty schools in Kenya, Brazil and Mexico, she found herself drawn to Thailand. “The exploitation of people was worse than anyplace else I had ever been,” she said. Bautista opened a beauty school, and after seeing how under-resourced opportunities were for men trapped in the sex industry, she started a barber school.
Our first day at Shear Love we learned one of the students didn’t want to come to school. The night before, her boyfriend had assaulted her. She felt embarrassed because of her facial injuries. After reassurance from an outreach worker, she relented.
She arrived at school with a gauze bandage over one side of her face. Taking the patch off we could see the entire side of her face was badly bruised and an eye was swollen shut. There was hemorrhaging in her eye and her head still hurt.
After a medical exam, she attended class that day. Class was a personal self-defense workshop my partner Felipe Villalobos, a retired sheriff’s sergeant, and I were instructing. She sat quietly in the back of the room and just watched. We had arrived maybe a day too late.
At the end of the day, after speaking with the staff, she made a big decision. She would take advantage of emergency housing offered by Shear Love. But that meant having to go back home to pick up her daughter and get her things.
Along with an interpreter and staff member, we went to her home and stood by while she gathered her things. We were accompanied by Joshua, a former marine and Shear Love volunteer. Home was a corrugated aluminum shack in the middle of a swamp. The boyfriend arrived while we were there but said little as she gathered her meager belongings. All he offered was a, “Don’t come back” comment as she left.
I felt like I was back on the job fulfilling by peacekeeper role. I have to admit it felt good.
On the drive over to their new place, her teenage daughter was overjoyed to be leaving. For the first time in a long time, things were looking up.
“We want these women and men to feel loved and respected,” Bautista said. “I want them to feel they are not just a commodity to be exploited and most of all to feel God has bigger plans for them.”
At night, outreach groups canvass the beach area and pass out condoms to the sex workers. Inside is a note encouraging them to call if they are in danger or want a way out. Julianne, one of the outreach workers, knows many of them, and is greeted warmly with hugs. It’s not easy to leave when it’s the only thing you’ve ever known.
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She sees a young man she met a month ago. Three of them, including my wife, take him to a Burger King, where they spend nearly an hour conversing. “No, I hate what I do,” he confides to them. They tell him about the program and his eyes light up. He wants to sign up.
The next day, he comes in for an interview. He brings along two friends. He joins the barber program and is overjoyed. I hear he is thriving. Another glimmer of hope in what can seem like an oftentimes lopsided battle.
The sex industry around the world, whether in Thailand or the United States, is heartbreaking, filled with broken men and women who feel their only recourse is to sell their bodies to satisfy the carnal needs of men. It dehumanizes and objectifies people in the most demeaning way possible.
Shear Love is providing hope and a way out for men and women who for many reasons have been drawn into the sex industry. They work with local NGOs and even with the Thai sex trafficking police, providing housing and services for women rescued during investigations.
The staff of Shear Love does not receive a salary. They are all volunteers who depend on churches, family members and others who see the need and want to do their part. If you would like to see how you can support their efforts or even volunteer, you can reach them through their website http://www.shearloveinternational.org/
This is the story of Rain. She was the first student taken in by Shear Love.
Video produced by Dorthea Shultz
Joe is a retired police captain. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org