Her eyes haunted me. Black mirrors reflecting my horror and guilt back at me. She was expressionless as a woman fixed her jewellery and clothes every now and then. She had the look of someone whose body was in the present but not her mind or spirit. Like a hollow shell. When Carlos told me my trip to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without one last experience, I expected rare, historical jewellery and costumes. I did not expect a girl wearing traditional ethnic clothes in a dingy warehouse. A lotus tucked behind her ear.
Child sex tourism. A bitter truth that lurks against the backdrop of a bustling city. No one actively thinks of being exploited or seeing an act of exploitation and yet that is exactly what happened to me. Child sex tourism is the act of sexual exploitation of children by a person or persons who travel from their home district or home country in order to have sexual relations with children. There is no denying that exploiting children is a problem, however something that is commonly ignored is the racial disparity surrounding it. Individuals of colour are often targeted disproportionately in the sex tourism industry.
Asian countries, specifically South Asian countries, have been in the sex tourism industry for a long time. A report by ECPAT on the exploitation of children revealed that while traditional tourism destinations such as Thailand and the Philippines continue to pose a threat to children, due to cheap travel and accommodation options, other countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam have become popular hotspots for child sex offenders. Countries like Vietnam have also seen child sex tourism on the rise, with the most frequent age of child prostitutes being fourteen or fifteen. In fact, UNICEF has noted that the, “entry age for children in sex tourism in Vietnam has decreased over the last few years.” That was exactly what I witnessed on my own trip to Vietnam.
Carlos leaned towards me, his hot breath hitting my skin. He pointed to the woman next to the little girl and told me that if I was interested, we could buy from her. After all, he chuckled, why else do you come to Vietnam from America?
Research from many human rights organisations has shown that most child sex tourists are white, heterosexual males. The reason for this could be the practice of exoticization. White people often term people of colour as “exotic” as they are different from the white, western beauty standard. The divergence from what is considered standard beauty becomes the factor that defines people of colour, therefore dehumanising them by ignoring every other trait or characteristic that is unique to them.
My mind flashed back to all the times back home where Carlos had joked about the women here. The lewd comments he made on what the women were willing to do to keep “us men” happy. He later jokingly added that the women were nothing like the ones back home and I had to experience it to believe it. I have always remembered Carlos being really attracted to Asian women. Back in America, he would only date Asian women and when his relationships failed, he would always say the women were “too Americanised”. After his maiden trip to Vietnam five years ago, he had come back bragging about how he had hit the jackpot. After that, he went back every year but never came back with clear details of what he did during his stay.
I see now that Carlos’s mentality promotes the idea that people of colour are objects that should be experienced. It is especially harmful to children since they become the easiest way to “experience the exoticness”. An additional factor for people who come to these countries for this purpose is that these children are more easily accessible than in their own countries. A reason for this could be that developing countries have a harder time regulating and persecuting people who take advantage of children as many of them operate on the street or in bars which makes them harder to find. Law enforcement in developing countries is also weaker, which means that exploitation is rampant. This leaves children easily accessible to predatory advances.
The exoticization of children of colour can be attributed to the perpetual use of stereotypes surrounding different races. The stereotype of Asian females as submissive and sexually desirable attracts men with very specific ‘racialized’ sexual fantasies that can be easily projected onto children. Furthermore, showing Asian girls as more “wanton” predisposes them to being objectified. All of this puts children in a vulnerable state as they cannot protect themselves. They become the easiest way to experience these fantasies and this leads to racialised commodification, which defines these children of color as sexual objects with no autonomous self. They need not be consulted before imposing a demand for sex; sex becomes equal to a consumable good.
I was hauled out of memory lane and thrust back into the present. In that warehouse. I had seen and heard too much. I stumbled back, mumbling incoherently. I told Carlos that I just remembered leaving my wallet behind at the hawker centre nearby. Carlos narrowed his eyes at me. He knew I was lying and yet he did not call me out. He just shook his head. His eyes accusing me of being a coward. He turned around and walked towards the lady standing next to the little girl, a smile etched on his face. I turned around and left the brothel, increasing my pace till I reached the busy main street. The aroma wafting from the street hawkers comforted me. I slumped down near one and ordered a drink. And then there I sat, under the night sky, nursing my drink. I tried to fool myself into thinking I had never seen that place. Yet every now and then I closed my eyes and there she would be. Her eyes, in the darkness of the warehouse, searing into mine.