There, on the corner of a grimy street dotted with cigarette butts, stood a woman of my mother’s age. The five-year-old me peered at her face with interest, for there existed a sense of disharmony in her; red lipstick framed her mouth that tightened around a cigarette, while the eyes so elaborately adorned with pastels held a blackness to it. The discontent beauty of her being was a question mark in my child’s mind. In a sphere where beauty equated to the serene contentment of Disney princesses, the disparity between her decorated exterior and the blankness that appeared to exist within was one beyond comprehension.
I found out later that this childhood street was one known for its alleyway prostitution. The woman was probably a sex worker, as quantified by my memory of a man screaming at her to come back in from a building near by. What gripped me was the change in my perception of the woman once I learnt this fact: the memory took on a darker quality now, lurking with condescending apprehension. There exists a sharp contrast between the modern day’s casualization of sexuality and it under the context of prostitution. Shame and judgment clouds the portrayal of sex workers — there’s no denying that the business is an area of moral ambiguity, but the dehumanization that often occurs with these workers is unacceptable. There they stand, stripped of personality or characteristics in the eye of the society once identified with that contemptuous label; they become objectified by society as a whole, a group of anonymous to be judged and avoided.
I vowed to view her the way I did as a child: devoid of stigmas or judgments, instead filled with curiosity and genuine interest for who she was beyond what I could see. Because there exists millions of fragments that gather to define a person, complete with philosophies and stories of how they came to the place they stand at. Especially as I came to interact first-hand with the sex workers and the ladyboys at Bangkok while on a school missions trip, it became hard to deny the delicate complexity that exists within each individual. Hidden behind the casual omnipresence of the sex industry in Bangkok were intricate tangles of social customs — as I spoke to the ladyboys, so vibrant and warm in their aspirations and personalities, my mind could not help but wander back to the lady that stood on the street corner. Every story is multifaceted, each face portraying a different perspective of a seemingly simple tale. My vow continues on — I hope to give voice to the underrepresented stories, to drag onto the spotlight what is guarded within the shadows of societal perspective. To be defined by more than one aspect of oneself is a right that should be granted to all.
I am hoping to launch a two-part investigative journalism series, the first explaining and reporting the situation behind the Thai sex industry and the second regarding the red light districts in South Korea, our homeland. Find my first article in this series here.