Greg Bearup’s article in last Saturday’s Good Weekend magazine, Knights of the twilight zone about controversial Australian charity The Grey Man that rescues underage sex workers from Thai brothels, brought back vivid memories of my time in Southeast Asia in the early 1990s.
Bearup follows The Grey Man operatives around Pattaya — described as ‘the sex capital of Thailand’ — as they scope out brothels and plan raids to rescue underage girls. Most operatives appear to have military backgrounds, failed marriages and Thai girlfriends. Though rescue remains its main role, The Grey Man has learned that rescuing girls from brothels has limited impact. The organisation also supports education and employment programs for high tribe children, and run operations — sometimes in collaboration with Thai police — to ‘track predators’. Rival brothel raiders, especially those with a Christian evangelical bent, dismiss them as cowboys; and their focus on individuals is criticised by organisations like UNICEF that take a systemic approach to the problem of child sexual exploitation.
The same debates raged 15 years ago as today about whose approach to child sexual trafficking and exploitation was superior. Some argued that rescuing girls from brothels did nothing to address the factors that allow child sexual exploitation to exist — including widespread poverty, police corruption, disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities, gender discrimination, drug use — and might even worsen the situation by pushing it deeper underground. Brothel raiders argued then as they do now, “We are not looking for moral ambiguity. We are looking for bad shit.”
Brothel raiders I met in Thailand and Cambodia in the 1990s inspired the character of Australian Federal Police office Mark d’Angelo in my first novel Behind the Night Bazaar, set in 1996. There’s a scene in the book that taps into the ongoing debate about responses to child prostitution, where the main character, Australian expat detective Jayne Keeney, reflects on the difference between Mark’s individualistic approach and the more systemic approach of her AIDS activist friend Didier.
[Mark] insisted there was a straight line between the problem and its solution. Paedophilia was a crime and those who perpetrated it were criminals. Solution: arrest those responsible and put them on trial. In this, he had both the letter of the law and common sense behind him…
Didier would say such responses failed to take account of the complexity of the problem. ‘They’re missing the point,’ he’d told her… ‘For every paedophile put behind bars, there’s at least one other to take his place. For every child rescued from a brothel, the ratio is much higher. In the poorer areas, they’ll be five, maybe ten others. And those in power will keep turning a blind eye, because they benefit the most from maintaining the status quo. It’s not about individuals. It’s about the whole, rotten system.’
‘So what’s the solution?’
Didier shrugged. ‘We must find a way to eradicate poverty.’
I do not claim to have any sort of solution to the problem of child sexual exploitation in Thailand, although I believe legalising prostitution would go a long way towards stamping out the corruption that allows the sex industry to flourish (for an excellent analysis of this, see Guns Girls Gambling Ganja – Thailand’s Illegal Economy and Public Policy by Pasuk Phonpaichit et al).
But the problem I have with vigilante-style organisations like The Grey Man is the licence they take with the sovereignty of other countries. They admit to a degree of “moral imposition”. But I wonder how they would feel if the tables were turned.
What if bored ex-Thai military operatives motivated by “a desire to put something back” formed an organisation with a mission to rescue children from sexual abuse in Australia? Given that most sexual abuse of children in Australia takes place at the hand of someone known to the child, how would we feel about Thai commandos raiding private homes? Wouldn’t we be outraged if the local police were not always involved?
I couldn’t agree more with The Grey Man’s mission and its mandate to protect all children from all forms of exploitation and sexual abuse including the exploitative use of children in prostitution, pornography and trafficking (derived from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Articles 34 and 35).
But I find it ironic that The Grey man takes its name from a military term for someone who works unnoticed in the background, when its operatives are all white men raiding brothels in foreign lands.
Surely a true Grey Man would be fighting the good fight in his own backyard.