Disclaimer: This post contains adult themes. Please use discretion. Locations and other details have been changed.
I’m walking into a street in SE Asia where girls are sold. It’s late, but everything is lit up and loud and neon. Our group splits up into pairs, and I’m partnered with Andrew, a tall undercover investigator with a Scottish accent, sandy hair, and years of experience. This street is brighter, busier, and certainly more commercial than the rural brothel I had watched him and two other investigators walk into the night before. During that op, I had huddled in the backseat of a dark SUV, engine off, sweating while we watched them talk to some girls that had been hard-trafficked over the border.
This is different. This is a party scene. “Despite what you see, you have to look like you’re having fun.” I nod. I have become many things this week. I’m an American friend who has never experienced the bright lights of Svay Pak. I’m a recent college grad. I’m a girlfriend. I’m a lesbian. I’m on vacation. I’m not a thirty-something writer from the suburbs who’s been invited to fly across the world to play a part in the fight against human trafficking and exploitation.
I walk in and my go-to response is to smile. The big, bright-lipsticked sort of smile that reads a little tipsy and a lot friendly. We stop in front of a dark doorway, and I’m greeted by a young woman with fake eyelashes and a maxi dress. She takes my hand and starts to pull me inside. I look at Andrew for approval. He gives a slight nod, and I follow her.
We’re led to a velvet bench, and I ask her name. It’s May. I repeat it back to make sure I heard her over the noise correctly. She asks mine and I’m wedged between the two of them, looking up at a stage where a dozen girls – half of them topless, some completely nude – are step touching to some Top 40 hit. I don’t know where they all come from, but I can guess. I’ve heard enough stories and met enough people where I can tick off the possibilities on my fingertips.
The girl with the tall white boots may be here because she wants to, I recognize. Because the money’s good. Or maybe because her boyfriend knows he can remain jobless and carefree as long as she’s turning at least a few tricks a night. The bored-looking girl with the heavy bangs may be from a small village where a man promised her parents a good job working at a restaurant, making enough to support herself, her parents, her brothers and sister, but she ends up being enslaved. “Raped and beaten for a week to break her spirit,” Matt had told me. He mentioned the words “professional rapists” and I’ve still not wrapped my head around that concept. After the breaking week she may have been told that she’ll still get to send money to her family, but if she runs? Doesn’t cooperate? They’ll go after her little sister next. Another might have been taken across country borders at the age of 14, passport taken away, now in debt bondage to her pimp. Her virginity’s been auctioned off for $300. They call her a “fresh girl.” She can’t run for help. She can’t speak the language.
I can only guess. I don’t really know. We’ve attracted the attention of the mamasan, a 50 year old with tightly pulled back hair and severe eyeliner. She shakes our hands, tells Andrew how handsome he is, points to me, and does an okay sign with her thumb and index finger. I laugh out loud.
I’m not sure if she thinks I’m here to pick up a girl for my boyfriend or for myself or if we’re here to run up a long bar tab. My first step into a brothel days before was met with a breast grab and an offer for oral sex, so I don’t know what to expect. We order the mamasan and May drinks, and in between conversation and under the dull roar of the music, we share snippets of notes.
“Stage, third girl from the right,” Andrew says quietly. I scan the girls and see her. She isn’t a day over 16.
“On your left,” I whisper, identifying a girl with braces and a butterfly sticker on her face, leaned up against an Australian man with a tight t-shirt and forty years on her. She’s painfully young. I smile like we’re discussing our evening plans.
The drinks arrive as the girls leave the stage and a new batch climbs up. The four of us toast and clink glasses and as I place my glass back on the table, I look up to see a row of girls wearing tiny plaid miniskirts and knee socks and nothing else. A few of them – with not yet fully developed breasts and round, young faces – are still in the throes of puberty. A wave of nausea hits me. I smile at all of them.
May is delightful. These sex workers have not been what I had expected. My brushes with the sex trade were simply limited to the actor portrayal of an angry 50 year old meth addict on NCIS. These girls are sweet. Endearing. Ridiculous. Charming. They’ve all liked guessing my age, examining my makeup, asking me if I have a boyfriend, scrunching up their faces at the taste of cheap tequila.
I ask May about her siblings, about working in Svay Pak. She pushes her sideswept bangs across her eyes and she asks about us, where we’re from and what we do. There’s a language barrier. We both do our best. I tell her I love her dress. I examine her bracelets and she finds a few small braids in my hair – a feeble attempt in taming the havoc wreaked by the heat and humidity. She points back to herself as if to ask for one. I nod and smile and flip a segment of her hair in front of her shoulder and she laughs. In that short span of time we connect on a level that I cannot explain.
Andrew spots a young girl and we call her over to sit with all of us. Her name is Cam, and she’s 18 (no, she’s not) and the girl with the long curly hair is her older sister (no, she’s not). We ask her if she’s happy working here. She smiles and does a noncommittal shake of the head. No, she’s not.
To Andrew’s left, a man is slouched down in his seat with a plaid miniskirt grinding against his lap. He had – as part of the procedure – slipped some money to a bar maid, identified the dancer by the number pinned to her clothing, and she had pulled a bikini top on as she stepped off the stage to join him. He instructs her to face him. I look away. I look back. His hands are all over her and he’s yanking her top down to put his mouth on her chest. She pulls her top back up. He paws at her again, tugging it down, getting increasingly aggressive. I look at the expression on his face.
Rage fills me. My chest is pounding and my face is getting hot. Every ounce of me wants to stop this from happening. I lean towards Andrew. “Your left — ” I don’t finish my sentence, but I could – would – desperately want to leap over the table and throw punches.
But instead I smile. Because I’m supposed to smile. Because while I’m having a visceral reaction to what I’m seeing, this is just another Saturday night in Svay Pak.
“Roo. Don’t look at him.” Andrew’s voice is even and calm, like he’s done this a thousand times, because he has. Like he’s wanted to strangle the necks of a thousand men who treat women as property, because he has. Like he’s dreamed about walking into brothels, cowboy-style to rescue every single girl who is here because she’s bound by indentured servitude or threats or hopelessness, because he has.
I’m five days in with an itchy trigger finger. There’s a process that – despite my emotion – I cannot ignore. A process that prosecutes traffickers and pedophiles so they cannot continue to treat humans as commodities.
I feel a hand on my wrist. May has taken her bracelet off hers and is wrapping it around mine. I protest. She shakes her head and fastens it, pointing to a bead. “Blue, Roo.” She is giddy over the rhyme. I try to protest again, but I also don’t want to offend her. When she insists, I thank her with a hug, and she excuses herself to man the front door.
“She gave it to me,” I say.
“That doesn’t happen. Feel special,” Andrew responds, eyes scanning the room, constantly observing.
We sip our drinks and the mamasan hands us cool cloths to combat the heat before ushering a couple of men to another velvet bench. I press the cloth up against my collarbone. Shop talk starts. We find out that Cam charges for short time or long time.
“What’s short time?” I had asked my first day here.
“One hour or one shot.”
“Shot?” I ask. “Wait … alcohol?”
“No,” the investigator laughs a little. “This is Svay Pak. One shot, as in…” Ejaculation. Cam charges $30 for one hour or one shot, whatever happens first. More if you’d like her to stay a few hours. I can’t help but think that she should be spending her time listening to One Direction and using bleach pens to decorate her jeans, but instead she’s adjusting her underwear and negotiating with old men who all look like they could be my dentist.
Andrew takes notes in his phone and asks if I’m ready to go. I nod, but I’m not. We slip money into Cam’s hand to thank her for her time, hug her, and walk towards the door. May spots me, runs over and holds me in a long embrace. I squeeze tight. I want good things for her. I really want good things for her.
The next day I’m in a wretched mood and I can’t shake it.
“What’s the next step for that brothel?” I ask during the debrief, irritated at everything.
“We do some surveillance, gather evidence, and partner with the authorities to prosecute the traffickers.” It’s all matter-of-fact, too matter-of-fact, and my bleeding insides find no comfort in it.
“I want to go back.”
I hold up my wrist as if the bracelet says enough.
“I don’t recommend it,” one investigator says slowly. I blink. “You’re attached. You’re too attached and it’ll just continue to wreck you emotionally if you go see her again.”
Andrew agrees. “I don’t think you should.” The words feel harsh, but they’re not harsh. This is a hard reality for the investigators. There’s a process that makes sense on paper, but they’re human. And this hurts.
I am a petulant child. I tell them I’m okay. I tell them I’ll be fine. I tell them I’d like to go if only to give her money for the bracelet. “Men come in and out and take from her. I don’t want to be another person that just takes from her.”
“We’ll be in the area tonight anyway. I’ll bring you. You’ll just go by yourself if I don’t.”
Night falls and the group of us approach that same strip. We partner up again and Andrew and I are back inside, ordering shitty tequila, scanning girls’ faces for signs of May. I have money folded into my back pocket so I can give it to her and thank her again.
“She might give you her phone number and she could be an unaware informant,” Andrew suggests. I like this idea. I can help in this way. I download an international app that assigns me a throwaway phone number. I crane my neck to see if May is sitting with a customer. The mamasan greets us, remembers us, and seats us at a corner table. Andrew asks where May is. She pauses, looks up at the ceiling and thinks, then calls another mamasan over.
“Do you mean number 26?”
I seethe. They know their girls by their numbers, not their names. The identifying numbers that makes ordering a girl for the evening as casual and aloof as ordering the double cheeseburger meal at a drive-thru.
May’s not here. Neither is Cam. It’s my last night in Svay Pak and my disappointment is palpable.
“I’m sorry,” Andrew says, and I feel a little foolish. He and Matt and all of the other investigators deal with this sort of heartache every day, and I’m flitting in and out of their city, with my questions and emotions and petty demands. But every girl I meet has a story. Every girl takes up space in my heart and my mind. Every girl makes me want to break down doors and give them better.
A bracelet on my wall reminds me we can do better.
[photos by Heather Armstrong]