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Asian Studies Review

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The Value of Bodies: Deception, Helping and Profiteering in Human

Trafficking Along the Thai-Lao Border
Sverre Mollanda
Macquarie University,

Online publication date: 13 May 2010

To cite this Article Molland, Sverre(2010) 'The Value of Bodies: Deception, Helping and Profiteering in Human Trafficking
Along the Thai-Lao Border', Asian Studies Review, 34: 2, 211 — 229
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/10357823.2010.481042
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10357823.2010.481042


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Asian Studies Review
June 2010, Vol. 34, pp. 211–229

The Value of Bodies: Deception, Helping

and Profiteering in Human Trafficking
Along the Thai-Lao Border

Macquarie University
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Abstract: Over the last two decades, increasing attention has been given to
trafficking in persons globally. Governments, international organisations and the
media generally assume that trafficking is immensely profitable. This paper
problematises this assumption in light of ethnographic research within the sex
industry along the Thai-Lao border. It argues that the cross-border recruitment
of Lao women into the Thai sex industry constitutes a mixture of capitalist logic
and patron-client relationships. It is therefore not possible, as some anti-
trafficking programs attempt to do, to read probabilities of trafficking out of
mechanical models of profitability and unilateral maximisation of social actors.
Keywords: human trafficking, Thai-Lao border, commercial sex, development aid

The fairer, taller, and prettier they are, the more desirable they are, the higher
the price.
(Sigma Huda, United Nations Special Rapporteur on
trafficking in persons, especially in women and children, 1999)

Sometimes, if she is very poor, I’ll employ her. I feel sorry for them.
(Lao Mamasan,1 Vientiane)

It is early evening. Distant thunderclouds darken the horizon over the Isan plains.
The sound of drumming raindrops fills the air. The local market has just closed
down for the day, and the streets are gradually emptying of people. The mechanical
noise of mopeds and cars is less intense. A barking dog and the squeaky noise of a
tuk-tuk motor taxi interrupt the monotonous rhythm of falling rain. Locals and
visitors are gathering in eateries along the river for supper and evening drinks.

*Correspondence Address: Anthropology Department, Macquarie University, 2019, NSW, Australia.

Email: sverre.molland@mq.edu.au

ISSN 1035-7823 print/ISSN 1467-8403 online/10/020211-19 Ó 2010 Asian Studies Association of Australia
DOI: 10.1080/10357823.2010.481042
212 Sverre Molland

Not too far away is a small house located along a back alley. Young women sit
around a television screen watching soap operas. They wear fashionable jeans and
tops. Some wear slightly more evocative attire, such as high heels and miniskirts.
Their hair is neatly groomed, and their nails are immaculately polished. Some sit
with a trendy handbag and routinely check the text messages on their mobile
phones. The women chat while watching the soap opera. A middle-aged Thai man
enters. The Mamasan, who is half asleep behind a desk, wakes up and approaches
the man. ‘‘Would you like a lady?’’ [Thai: ao phu-ying mai, kha?], she asks. The
chatter stops. Silence. Six more women appear from a back room. They all line up.
He stares. Some women stare back, while others avoid eye contact.2
The silence surrounding this ritual of visual examination does not take long.
‘‘Her!’’ the customer says, pointing at a woman wearing a mini skirt and a black top.
While the customer pays the Mamasan, the young woman goes behind the counter,
gets two towels, a bar of soap and a condom from a box. She escorts the customer to
one of the back rooms. Some of the other sex workers remain sitting watching the
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soap opera. Others disappear into a back room. The monotonous TV watching
continues. Occasional small talk again fills the air, accompanied by the sound of
falling rain.

The Value of Bodies

The above describes a scene from the Bridge Hotel,3 a hotel-cum-brothel in Nong
Khai, a Thai border town located on the Mekong River. Its social script mirrors
highly developed consumer culture (Stratton, 1996): display, surveillance, entice-
ment, and the subsequent choosing of a commodity from a wide selection. This
selection process is found throughout Thailand,4 where the choosing itself creates a
sense of a value hierarchy in terms of sex workers’ popularity with the client base.
This, however, is only part of the story. The Bridge Hotel is not a high-end venue by
Nong Khai standards. Nor is it part of the low end. In Nong Khai, there are cheaper
brothels, such as the Boutique, which have a lower status and provide far cheaper
sex than the Bridge Hotel. Yet the Bridge Hotel and the Boutique are connected in
subtle ways.
Kham is an agent who makes a living by providing customers to several brothels
and escort services in Nong Khai. At times, Kham also takes part in recruiting Lao
women for these venues. Kham sometimes goes to the Boutique, soliciting women
there for employment in one of the venues he collaborates with, such as the Bridge
Hotel. ‘‘Rich clients don’t go to the Boutique,’’ according to Kham. ‘‘They think the
place is dirty and that the girls are not clean. But the women there are no different
from more up-scale places such as the Bridge Hotel,’’ he says. Hence, whereas clients
might project markers of social status onto female bodies in different venue settings
(‘‘dirty girls’’ at the Boutique, more up-market girls at the Bridge Hotel), such
distinctions are in fact transgressed and malleable, as witnessed by the employment
trajectories of Lao sex workers, whereby some move on from the Boutique to work
in the more up-market Bridge Hotel. This raises larger questions of the relationship
between ‘‘client preferences’’ and the marketing of female bodies on the one hand,
and how this intersects with value, profit and the employment trajectories of sex
workers on the other.
Human Trafficking Along the Thai-Lao Border 213

Cross-border migration and recruitment into the commercial sex industry along
the Thai-Lao border has over the last few years received increasing attention from
the development sector, within which the term human trafficking, or trafficking in
persons, is commonly used to describe labour migration and cross-border
movements assumed to be either coercive or deceptive in nature (UNICEF and
Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, 2004; UNIAP and Ministry of Labour and
Social Welfare, 2001; UNIAP et al., 2004; Doussantousse and Bea Keovonghit,
2006; Inthasone, 2001; ILO, 2003; IOM, 2004a). Accordingly, several aid programs
have launched projects, such as awareness raising, income generation and victim
support services, under the rubric of ‘‘combating’’ trafficking in persons.
The concept of human trafficking evokes several assumptions: that labour
migration is non-consensual; that borders are significant in shaping labour
migration flows; and that trafficking is operated by organised crime groups and
its profits exceed those from the drug trade. It is the assertion about profitability that
I wish to problematise in this paper, and the introductory story from the Bridge
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Hotel and the Boutique introduces the argument at hand. This paper will illuminate
how anti-trafficking programs that operate along the Thai-Lao border assume that
trafficking involves specific forms of recruitment of certain kinds of female bodies
that are particularly profitable for recruiters and venue owners in the sex industry. I
argue that this is a mechanical and economistic view of migration and sex commerce
that does not encapsulate social practices that are taking place within the
commercial sex industry along the border. In light of ethnographic data, I show
how recruitment of Lao women into the Thai sex industry constitutes a mixture of
capitalist logic and patron-client relationships. It is therefore not possible to read
probabilities of trafficking out of mechanical models of profitability and unilateral
maximisation of social actors, as some individuals and organisations that seek to
combat trafficking attempt to do. I will further argue that an understanding of social
relationships in themselves is crucial in order to grasp both deception and
recruitment trajectories within the Thai-Lao sex industry. In contrast to calculated
deceit – which is assumed within anti-trafficking discourses – it will be shown that
social actors act in an economy of bad faith.
In this paper I will first draw attention to the way in which anti-trafficking
programs assume correlations between bodily value, profit and recruitment.
Secondly, I will problematise this view in light of my ethnographic research in the
Nong Khai sex industry, by drawing attention to price differentiation, profit
amongst venue owners, and commission levels for recruiters. Thirdly, I will shed
light on how cross-border migration needs to be understood in reference to the
actual social practice of the recruiters and migrants themselves by focusing on socio-
cultural aspects of local business practices as well as how social actors engage in an
act of self-deception regarding their own conduct.

Human Trafficking: Bodily Value, Profit and Recruitment

Governments, UN agencies and the media repeatedly claim that human trafficking is
profitable, often by juxtaposing it with the drug trade. For example, the US State
Department’s annual trafficking in persons report for 2006 claims that human
trafficking globally now generates an annual revenue of US$9.5 billion (US State
214 Sverre Molland

Department, 2006). Indeed, although most literature on human trafficking to date

tends to examine how agency should be understood with reference to migratory
practices and sex work,5 the claim that trafficking is profitable is rarely questioned.
For example, Donna Hughes, who argues that the abolition of prostitution amounts
to a reduction of trafficking, gives considerable importance to how trafficking results
in huge profits:

The value of the global trade in women as commodities for sex industries is
estimated to be between seven and twelve billion dollars annually. This trade in
women is a highly profitable enterprise with relatively low risk compared to
trades in drugs or arms (Hughes, 2000, p. 1).

By contrast, an edited volume by Kamala Kempadoo (2005) contains several

well-argued papers that in part critique the claim that the abolition of prostitution
will reduce trafficking. Yet, like the individuals, organisations and institutions
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they seek to criticise, the assumption that human trafficking is underpinned by

immense profiteering remains a central premise, as demonstrated by two of the

. . . trafficking is a business, with the activities of traffickers motivated primarily

by profit. Law enforcement therefore has a key role to play in changing the
economics of this business by increasing the risks, in particular removing the
impunity currently enjoyed by those at the end of the trafficking chain, and
reducing the benefits (Marshall and Thatun, 2005, p. 57).

Nation states, international organisations and academics alike – whether they

advocate the legalisation or abolition of prostitution; or advocate border control or
regulation of migrant labour – tacitly agree that ‘‘[t]he common denominator of
trafficking scenarios is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit a person for
profit’’ (US State Department, 2008, p. 7; emphasis added). As such, trafficking and
its assumed profitability can be considered doxic, ‘‘in the twofold sense of what goes
without saying and what cannot be said for lack of available dispute’’ (Bourdieu,
1977[1972], p. 170). In other words, the notion that trafficking is profitable seems so
obvious that it requires no explanation or justification.
But what does it mean to say that trafficking is profitable? Although human
trafficking meshes with related terms, such as illegal migration and people
smuggling, it has since the late 1990s taken on a more specific legal meaning. In
2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Transnational Organised
Crime Convention, with underlying protocols on trafficking in persons, people
smuggling and the trade in firearms (United Nations, 2000; United Nations, 2001).
The trafficking protocol is unique, as it provides the first definition of human
trafficking in international law, and it has become influential both in policy circles
and amongst the plethora of development aid programs that engage in trafficking
The term ‘‘human trafficking’’ refers to the non-consensual recruitment, or
movement, of a person for the purpose of exploiting his or her labour (United
Nations, 2000).6 In other words, we are not merely talking about generating profit
Human Trafficking Along the Thai-Lao Border 215

from any migrant labour. Human trafficking places a strong focus on migration that
leads to an exploitative situation. This means that anti-trafficking legislation does not
criminalise labour exploitation in itself, but the prelude to it: that is, the deceptive or
coercive movement of a person with the intent to put that person in an exploitative
labour situation. So, when one says that ‘‘human trafficking is profitable’’, one is
implying that the act of using deception or coercion in recruiting migrants is
particularly profitable compared to other recruitment methods.
The assumed relation between non-consensual recruitment and profit is
intertwined with notions of trafficking ‘‘hotspots’’. In other words, like the situation
within HIV/AIDS prevention programs, anti-trafficking organisations need to
identify exactly where trafficking takes place as well as identifying trafficked victims.
As not all migrant labourers are subject to deceptive or coercive recruitment
practices, it becomes imperative for anti-trafficking organisations to explore exactly
who is more likely to become a victim of trafficking, as opposed to being a mere
labour migrant. Over the last few years, there has been a growing focus in the anti-
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trafficking sector on the ‘‘demand side’’, where attention has shifted from the
reasons that migrants leave village communities, to the role of recruiters, employers,
and – in the case of the sex industry – clients. This shift in focus has brought
assumptions about profit to align more closely with the notion of value. Several
reports on human trafficking imply – although rarely theorise – that trafficking
emerges when demand for products and services in a given sector is greater than the
supply of voluntary labour (Anderson and Davidson, 2003; Long, 2004; IOM,
2004b; Marshall, 2001). The production of surplus value due to the low cost of
docile migrant labour is also emphasised (UNODC, 2006; Bales, 2005; Kempadoo
et al., 2005).
Although much anti-trafficking programming explains trafficking in terms of an
assumed ‘‘lack of awareness’’, ‘‘poverty’’, and so on, the notions of value and profit
are often related to essentialist assumptions about female bodies. This results in two
intertwining assumptions: first, that non-consensual recruitment is more profitable
than consensual recruitment; and secondly, that there are some women who embody
particular qualities that make them particularly profitable. It is important to note
that the latter assumption is not merely seen as an explanation for profit, but also as
a reason why some women are more at risk of trafficking than others. In other
words, a congruence is presumed between profit, non-consensual recruitment and
particular types of female bodies. This leads a recent UNICEF report on trafficking
between Laos and Thailand to claim that:

Sexual exploitation is a major aspect of trafficking. The physical appearance of

the girls is a major factor in assessing their value as a commodity; the more
beautiful the girl, the higher the price (UNICEF and Ministry of Labour and
Social Welfare, 2004, p. 27).

The same report also notes that:

The underlying principle of trafficking is that the victims are bought and sold
on the basis of their physical assets for the intended labour situation (UNICEF
and Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, 2004, p. 41).
216 Sverre Molland

Is ‘‘the physical appearance of the girls . . . a major factor in assessing their value as a
commodity’’? Is it the case that ‘‘the more beautiful the girl, the higher the price’’ she
will command? In what sense are victims ‘‘bought and sold on the basis of their
physical assets’’? More broadly, are there correlations between ‘‘client demand’’,
profit, price hierarchies and deceptive recruitment?
I will now problematise these claims in light of ethnographic research in the Nong
Khai sex industry.

Thai-Lao Migration, Profitability and Bodies

Migration from Laos to Thailand has increased significantly over the last few years.
This relates to the fact that Thailand and Laos are culturally, socially and
linguistically similar, but are distinguished by significant disparities in terms of
poverty, infrastructure and economic development. Laos has gradually liberalised its
economy over the last two decades, transforming itself from an isolationist Soviet-
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style communist regime to an authoritarian yet liberalising nation-state seeking

trade links with its neighbours (Askew et al., 2007; Evans, 2002; Rigg, 2005; Stuart-
Fox, 2005; Walker, 1999). Data on migration from Laos to Thailand remain flimsy
but several aid reports draw attention to considerable cross-border migration
(UNDP et al., 2006; ILO, 2003; Inthasone Phetisriseng, 2001; UNIAP and Ministry
of Labour and Social Welfare, 2001; UNIAP et al., 2004). Recent data (UNIAP,
2008) suggest there are almost 200,000 registered Lao migrants in Thailand, and the
number is likely to be much higher than this, considering that many migrants cross
the border without official papers. Several studies document villages in which
migration to Thailand appears to be institutionalised and is simply part of what
young village folk do – they go to Thailand to see the world and earn money.
Although Laotians migrate for a range of purposes and travel to several destinations
within Thailand, some young Lao cross the border to work directly across the
Mekong River. One of these destinations is Nong Khai, which is a Thai border town
approximately 40 kilometres downstream from the Lao capital of Vientiane.
Although Nong Khai is by no means the epicentre of modern life experiences within
Thailand itself, it takes on symbolic importance as a gateway to Thai modernity for
Laotians because the first and main river crossing is located there.
As Nong Khai is merely a small border town, it should be no surprise that its sex
industry is correspondingly small. In contrast to larger Thai towns where the sex
industry takes on explicit styles and spectacle, Nong Khai’s sex industry is discrete
and dispersed. Although there are some Thai women who work in the local sex
industry, the majority of sex workers come from neighbouring Laos.
In Laos itself, it has been documented that, in entertainment venues that cater for
remunerated sex, there is often a co-presence of deceptive and non-deceptive
recruitment into the sex industry (Lyttleton, 2008; Molland, 2008). This is also the
case in Nong Khai. And moreover, as in Laos, such different recruitment trajectories
can be found within the same venue. Lae from Laos started working in a Nong Khai
restaurant after she met an old school friend on a shopping trip to Nong Khai. Her
friend already worked in Nong Khai as a waitress, which also involved sex work.
Considering the supposedly higher income potential7 as well as the excitement of
working across the border, she decided to try this too. Another Lao woman,
Human Trafficking Along the Thai-Lao Border 217

Amporn, obtained work in the same venue through informal acquaintances.

However, in contrast to Lae, Amporn was not aware that she was expected to go out
with customers, which in some cases meant providing sexual services. After two
weeks she left the venue, after being pressured by the owner to go out with a
As the Nong Khai sex industry includes both ‘‘voluntary’’ and ‘‘non-voluntary’’
workers, can this be explained by profit maximisation strategies? In other words, do
deceptive recruitment practices stem from a demand for specific bodies, which in
turn results in more profit for venue owners and recruiters? I will now explore these
questions by considering how a small group of venues within the Nong Khai sex
industry generates income.

Nong Khai and Brothel Economics

In Nong Khai, sex commerce is available in a range of entertainment venues,
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ranging from small bars to discothèques and karaoke clubs. As in many other
parts of both Thailand and Laos, sexual services are often provided offsite,
commonly after drinking sessions between sex workers and clients in the
entertainment venue. As such, sexual services and their monetary value in these
venues take the form of negotiation between sex workers and their clients (see
Lyttleton, 1999; Lyttleton, 1994; Lyttleton and Amarapibal, 2002; Fordham,
1998; Askew, 2002). Alongside these venue settings, there are what I call ‘‘offsite
brothels’’ (see also Askew, 2006). ‘‘Offsite brothels’’ are similar to traditional
brothels in the sense that sexual services are detached from any other form of
social script. In contrast to other entertainment clubs in both Thailand and Laos,
there is no flirting or other interaction as a prelude to the sexual encounter itself.
Moreover, sex workers reside at the premises, in some cases with considerable
restrictions on their movements. At the same time, these ‘‘offsite brothels’’ are
similar to hostess services, in the sense that the availability of women is arranged
through mobile phones and sexual services are offered offsite, usually at a
location of the customer’s choice. Since customers do not enter these venues as
they do in a traditional brothel, the venue manager relies instead on agents to
solicit customers. These agents build up a customer base by mobile phone.
Customers call an agent when they want to purchase sex. The agent then brings
a sex worker to the customer’s location, usually a guesthouse, hotel or private
house.8 Lao women predominate in these ‘‘offsite brothels’’. ‘‘Thai students’’
are also available through these networks, although they work part time.9 In
contrast to the Lao sex workers, they reside independently and are far more
Kham, introduced above, is one such agent, and he collaborates with five ‘‘offsite
brothels’’, as well as some ordinary brothels on occasion. His main role is to develop
a customer base, but from time to time he also takes part in recruiting Lao sex
workers into this network. Kham was initially a customer himself. Sometimes
friends and acquaintances asked him for advice when they wanted to obtain paid sex
and Kham directed them to the offsite brothels that he frequented. He gradually
came to realise that he could make money by charging a fee for this service. He has
now collaborated with these ‘‘offsite brothels’’ for a few years and makes a good
218 Sverre Molland

income. Kham now has a client base of approximately one hundred regular male
customers, with considerable business from one-off customers who get to know
about the network by word of mouth.
Offsite brothels can easily make more than 100,000 Baht per month. The standard
price for ‘‘short time’’ sex10 in these venues is 700 Baht, of which 250 Baht goes to
the sex worker, 250 Baht to the venue manager and 200 Baht to the agent who
provides the client. It is important to note that, as implied by the UNICEF report
(2004), venue owners and agents do emphasise that some sex workers are more
‘‘valuable’’ than others. However, it is notable that these venues operate with very
limited price stratification. Higher prices only occur in three cases: sale of virgins,
special services (e.g. anal or oral sex), and prostitution of ‘‘high-class’’ Thai students.
However, the overwhelming majority of services provided come under the standard
prices for ‘‘short time’’ and ‘‘long time’’ sex. Lao sex workers who are considered
more beautiful, or more popular, receive exactly the same retail price as ‘‘average’’
sex workers. This raises the question: if there is no retail price stratification of Lao
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sex workers, despite notions of varying ‘‘beauty’’, why is there a clear price
differential for ‘‘Thai students’’ within these venues? There are two interrelated
reasons for this.
First of all, there are far fewer Thai sex workers than Lao in Nong Khai, something
that is confirmed by venue owners, local NGOs and the sex workers themselves.11 The
majority of the Thai sex workers are much older and tend to work in Western oriented
bars that are located separately from the ‘‘offsite brothels’’ I discuss here. At the same
time, there is a minority of younger ‘‘Thai students’’ who work part time through these
‘‘offsite brothels’’. There is a clear differential between these two groups of Thai sex
workers in terms of where they work, their age and their demeanour.
Secondly, although Lao migrants may be able to fake ‘‘Thainess’’ whilst in
Thailand, this is by no means straightforward in a border setting such as Nong
Khai. Many local residents speak both Lao and Thai, and local research assistants I
worked with could at times detect such nuances, as well as revealing whether claims
of being ‘‘Thai’’ were valid.12 Also, to pass oneself off as a ‘‘Thai student’’ requires a
level of sophistication and knowledge of the world that few of the Lao women
involved in the Nong Khai sex industry possess. It must also be emphasised that the
presence of Lao sex workers is by no means a secret in Nong Khai and there is little
attempt (or need) to hide national identity (if one’s paperwork is in order). Both
brothel owners and agents readily admit the presence of Lao sex workers. Nor do
many sex workers have qualms about admitting they are Lao.
Hence, ‘‘Thai students’’ are clearly demarcated within the sex industry in two
ways. They are distinct from older Thai sex workers, and they are distinct from Lao
sex workers due to ethnicity and localised nuances of belonging and linguistic
competency. This does not mean that there are no Lao nationals who can ‘‘fake’’
being a ‘‘Thai student’’ within the Nong Khai sex industry. The important point is
that it allows for a relatively unambiguous ‘‘difference’’ that can be expressed in
terms of value through a market price. We do not see a similar price hierarchy
amongst Lao sex workers because there are no objective social markers to furnish
such stratifications. Hence, different subjective notions of beauty are not mirrored in
a retail pricing hierarchy.13 Consequently, if differences in ‘‘bodily value’’ have any
bearing on profit, this must be reflected in differences in customer turnover.
Human Trafficking Along the Thai-Lao Border 219

Although venue owners and agents, like the UNICEF report (2004), express the
view that some sex workers are prettier [Thai: suay mak] and more popular than
others, they are unable to clearly indicate whether this results in larger profits.
Rattana, a Mamasan who operates one of the offsite brothels, explained that ‘‘it
depends’’ and that ‘‘sometimes some girls get many [customers], sometimes not’’.
There are several reasons for this. In contrast to, say, a Western escort service that
has a website where customers can see photos of sex workers (i.e. where they are
available for selection in a semiotic sense), there is a limit to the ‘‘objective’’
knowledge customers possess in Nong Khai. As some sex workers are always out of
view because they are either with customers or elsewhere (such as across the border
in Laos renewing their border pass), the ‘‘selection’’ for customers is always
transitory and changing. Hence, the claim that ‘‘popular girls’’ equal higher
customer turnover is somewhat fallacious, as the more a sex worker is chosen, the
more she is unable to be chosen by other customers. Moreover, customers are more
likely to take a sex worker who is deemed particularly beautiful for a ‘‘long time’’
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rather than a ‘‘short time’’, thereby limiting her possibility of obtaining further
customers, which in turn reduces the amount of profit she will generate for the
venue. This is not to deny that some sex workers have more customers than others
over time. The point is that, given the flat pricing structure, there is a limit to how
much individual sex workers contribute relative to the total profit of a venue. It is
also important to note the combination of low profit and high turnover of
customers. Hence, it is the total volume of customer turnover and not the
appropriation of particular types of bodies that is important for profit in such venue
settings. This relates to the way customers choose sex workers.
First of all, it is not only different notions of beauty, but also customers’ desire for
‘‘newness’’, that inform preferences. And the way sex workers are marketed is here
open to considerable manipulation. In the offsite brothels, the selection of sex
workers is usually done over the phone. It is common for customers to make
preferences known (such as ‘‘pretty’’, ‘‘white skin’’, ‘‘short’’, ‘‘skinny’’, ‘‘big breasts’’
and ‘‘young’’), but such preferences are very general and can fit many different sex
workers. In interviews with agents such as Kham, no secret was made of how they
present sex workers who have worked for longer periods of time as ‘‘new fresh girls’’
to new customers, whereas they are more careful about providing newer sex workers
to regular clients. Although ‘‘freshness’’ plays a role in providing sex workers for
regular customers, it is noteworthy that, in contrast to notions of a hierarchy of
beauty, ‘‘freshness’’ is a temporal status that all sex workers embody at one point, or
several points, in time. In this sense it is not the case that ‘‘freshness’’ refers to
particular ‘‘types’’ of female bodies. In addition, the actual selection of sex workers
depends on which workers are available at any particular point in time.
Nonetheless, within entertainment venues in Nong Khai there is still a notion that
some sex workers are more popular than others and that this has to do with their
feminine beauty. This is reflected in the way recruitment is carried out. On both sides
of the border it is commonplace for sex workers themselves to engage in recruitment,
often for a commission, when returning to their home communities for visits. Venue
owners in Nong Khai typically pay 1,000 Baht to sex workers who are able to recruit
friends upon visits home. It is also common for family members to receive an
advance, up to 4,000 Baht, on the sex worker’s earnings, which increases the amount
220 Sverre Molland

of debt the new recruit will need to work off. In some cases a higher commission is
paid if the new recruit is considered to be particularly beautiful.14 Hence, in contrast
to the retail pricing of Lao sex workers, there is a differential pricing hierarchy for
recruitment. What does this tell us then about correlations between bodily value,
profit and recruitment?
It is noteworthy that the actual recruitment fee is first decided upon after the
new recruits arrive in Nong Khai. Hence the recruiter does not know for sure the
exact commission when she (it is usually a she) recruits. Although commission
fees operate within a given range (1,000–3,000 Baht), the recruiter is in fact
trading in unstable currency. Thai and Lao culture place great emphasis on
bodily display, appearance and surfaces (Van Esterik, 2000; Phillips, 1974), and
recruiters are often women who already work in the offsite brothels themselves.
As the recruiter and brothel owner know each other there is no doubt that a
certain level of shared understanding of ‘‘beauty’’ exists. The fact that no recruits
have been rejected (according to Kham) is telling. Hence, there is some degree of
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predictability for the recruiter in terms of evaluating beauty and price.

Nonetheless, price generation and notion of value are here subject to a
network-based form of negotiation, rather than being a de-socialised market
transaction with standardised prices. Nor does this mean that there is a clear
correlation between commission prices and deceptive recruitment practices. Kham
admitted that deceptive recruitment occurred amongst women who were only
valued at the normal commission fee of 1,000 Baht; on the other hand, women
who were valued more highly were not necessarily deceived.
In contrast to what is assumed by several anti-trafficking projects, correlations
between trafficking, profit and particular types of bodies are complex and
somewhat detached. Although there are subjective notions of a beauty hierarchy,
the way these ‘‘offsite brothels’’ are run does not allow the ‘‘objective’’ knowledge
to actually account for (mechanical) correlations between beauty and profit to be
generated. Nor does it explain the co-presence of both voluntary and deceptive
recruitment practices within the same venue settings. In fact, this distinction –
which is an imperative for anti-trafficking projects – between ‘‘deceptive’’ and
‘‘consensual’’ recruitment is one that venue owners, recruiters and sex workers
alike rarely make. Venue managers and agents, such as Kham and Rattana, did
not deny that at times young women arrive at their doorstep not knowing what
type of job they are expected to perform. Yet, they do not consider themselves
responsible for this situation. A similar disassociation is also evident amongst sex
workers who have been subject to deceptive recruitment. Bpet, a Vientiane sex
worker, denied ‘‘being sold’’15 [Lao: thuk khai] despite admitting that the friend
who recruited her had lied about the true work she was supposed to perform.
Why are informants in apparent denial regarding deceptive recruitment practices?
And what explains the apparently disjointed profit-logic within these venue
settings? I argue that what complicates a straightforward profit-logic is the
patrimonial nature of business practices found along the Thai-Lao border.
Furthermore, this very same patrimonial style of business operation furnishes an
economy of bad faith that obfuscates neat distinctions between ‘‘deceptive’’ and
‘‘consensual’’ recruitment methods. These two factors are interrelated and I will
deal with them in turn.
Human Trafficking Along the Thai-Lao Border 221

Thai-Lao Entrepreneurialism and Bad Faith

Historically in mainland Southeast Asia subjugation has not been a primary
function of production. As Turton has observed with reference to slavery,

[s]lave labour was used on almost all tasks, but more especially in the less
productive, in a way which contributed above all to the conspicuous
consumption of the ruling stratum, serving to develop the fetters rather than
the forces of production (Turton, 1980, p. 282; see also Stuart-Fox, 1997).

Furthermore, as James Scott has famously argued (Scott, 1976), peasant societies
that have a marginal buffer of subsistence tend to seek security, and do not engage in
profit maximising behaviour. Although this view is based on historical ethnographic
records, it resonates with many contemporary peasant communities, and is
particularly pertinent in Laos (Rehbein, 2007). Even among contemporary Lao
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traders and business people it is far too simplistic to presume production and
calculative profitability to be the central logic behind business and trade practices. A
recent study on Lao entrepreneurialism gives the following depiction of Lao traders,
and is worth quoting at some length:

Although most traders live in the towns, act as independent operators and deal
with the market economy on a daily basis, very few of them behave like
capitalists. Trade in Laos has mostly been conducted on an ad hoc basis,
directed to obtaining what is necessary or desired at the moment and to
ensuring that one’s competitors behave in the same way. A trader might sit in
the market for hours trying to sell a couple of bananas worth a ten-minute
wage because she needs the money to buy some aspirin for her father. Lao
trade is almost entirely devoid of the ‘‘spirit of capitalism’’ and ‘‘rational
accounting’’, something which also marks the internal structure of local
businesses. Most Lao enterprises have very few ‘‘employees’’, who are usually
members of the owner’s family or regarded as such. As a result of this kind of
structure, such businesses feel they need to make only enough surplus to pay
for the needs of the household and the means of production. The amount of
labour invested is not considered significant. This way of conducting business
is closely related to the ‘‘subsistence ethics’’ of the rural population and forms
the basis of patrimonialism . . . Although one might suppose that exposure to
foreign capital would encourage people to adapt to the market economy, and
although on the surface profit-orientation appears rampant in Laos,
profit is very rarely considered as something to invest (Rehbein, 2007, p. 66–

This description relates equally to the sex industry, where employment and
recruitment are commonly based on informal or extended kin networks. The
patrimonial and personal character of business and organisational practice is
commonplace in Laos (Ireson-Doolittle and Moreno-Black, 2004). Employment and
promotions are based on personal alliances and not related to any particular
performance or skill. Even today, it is, for example, commonplace in Laos to
222 Sverre Molland

demand a commission (monetary or in kind) for helping others (friends and kin
alike) with employment, whether this is in government, in private business, or
providing a job as a maid for an expatriate. In other words, the common practice
amongst sex workers of taking a commission for recruiting others fits within larger
cultural business practices based on patronage. It is not only that recruitment and
employment are shaped by informal extended kin relations rather than ‘‘objective’’
correlations of value, but that the dual commodification of friendships and extended
kin relations has clear euphemising effects on the power relationships between venue
managers, recruiters and recruits.
I pointed out earlier that recruitment is commonly carried out by sex workers,
who recruit among their peers on visits back to their village communities. The fact
that returning migrants play a part in motivating their peers to migrate is well
documented by both anti-trafficking projects and academics in both Laos and
Thailand (see Rigg, 2005; Rigg, 2006; Doussantousse and Bea Keovonghit, 2006;
Haughton, 2006; Huijsmans, 2007; Lyttleton, 2008; Molland, 2008; UNIAP et al.,
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2004; UNICEF and Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, 2001; UNICEF and
Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, 2004; UNIAP and Ministry of Labour and
Social Welfare, 2001; IOM, 2004a; Pasuk, 1982; 1999). Hence, it is important to note
that it is within an environment of desiring to appropriate modern status symbols
that such recruitment takes place. This feeds into broader cultural power
relationships and the patrimonial character of social relations in both Laos and
Thailand. Evans writes:

In the Lao cultural world there is an ambiguous relationship between power

and righteousness, one which often veers strongly in the direction of ‘‘might is
right’’. People with power and wealth have maybe acquired them because of
their Buddhist merit, or boun (Evans, 2002, p. 105).

Indeed, a venue owner or sex worker who is recruiting an acquaintance is in a

superior position due to her accumulation of economic (income, material wealth)
and social (exposure to life outside the village) capital. Montgomery points to
similar dynamics in Thailand, explaining how a child prostitute can gain high social
status by starting to pimp other children:

A [child] pimp, with his or her control of other people, and distance from
actual prostitution, is inevitably seen as having moved up the social ladder,
because it is a movement away from controlled prostitution, which is the
lowest form of sex work. For the children, their place in the hierarchy is
determined by the number of people they can directly or indirectly control
(Montgomery, 2001, p. 95).

Hence, recruiting acquaintances and friends into sex work does not necessarily entail
negative moral sanctions. On the contrary, it can be both a way of fulfilling
reciprocal obligations through patron-client relationships and a strategy for
climbing the social ladder. At the same time, a new recruit working among more
experienced sex workers is continually reminded of the possibility of acquiring
modern status symbols such as nice clothes. It is therefore not merely that a recruiter
Human Trafficking Along the Thai-Lao Border 223

or a manager may have higher social status. In Bourdieuan terms, the recruiter both
possesses and holds the key to the sought-after cultural capital.
One important effect of all this is that recruitment takes on a connotation of
helping [Lao: soi]. One Mamasan across the border in Laos repeatedly said she
‘‘pitied’’ many of the girls she employed ‘‘because they are poor’’. One night she told
me that a 14 year-old girl, who she stated was ‘‘very pretty’’ [Lao: ngam lai], had
asked her for work. She employed the reasoning that ‘‘I felt so sorry for her, I had to
employ her’’. Similarly, Kham rationalised the occasional deception of new recruits
by referring to the final outcome of their employment: ‘‘[T]hese girls are poor, but
after they have worked for a while they get used to it, and they can earn much more
money than staying home’’. It is not uncommon for sex workers who take part in
recruiting others to portray this as an altruistic act. Recruitment is often explained
with reference to one’s own trajectory as a sex worker, which further obfuscates
binary distinctions between ‘‘trafficked’’ and ‘‘consensual’’ recruitment methods.
Assessing Ruth Benedict’s famous study of ‘‘shame’’ and ‘‘guilt’’ in reference to
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Japanese culture (Benedict, 2005[1946]), Creighton (1990; see also Giddens, 1991)
has argued that whereas guilt primarily refers to the transgression of norms, shame
refers to the performing capacity of an individual in the social domain. As Creighton
states, ‘‘[s]hame involves the awareness of inadequacy or failure to achieve a wished-
for self-image’’ (Creighton, 1990, p. 285). In contrast to guilt, which refers to the
sanctions related to transgressing moral boundaries, shame refers to the anxiety
about the inadequacy of one’s self in light of the perceptions of others. It is
intimately linked with identity of the self. Some of the toughest aspects of debuting
selling sex, according to several informants, were not articulated with reference to
transgressing norms (i.e. guilt), but rather with being looked down upon by others.
This has important implications both for how sex workers change their perceptions
of themselves and how they rationalise recruiting others.
As well as the difficult and sometimes traumatic process of adjustment to the bar
environment, many women express this adjustment in terms of their ability to
appropriate status symbols and alter their appearance – that is, their acquisition of
cultural and economic capital (Bourdieu, 1984; Bourdieu, 1977[1972]). It is not
uncommon for newly recruited sex workers to have old, faded clothes that reveal an
impoverished rural background, in stark contrast to more experienced sex workers
who wear trendy clothes. On the question of adapting to selling sex, one of the
things that often surfaces in conversations is the increasing ability to earn money
and possess nice clothes and make-up. Informants articulate their acceptance of sex
work with reference to gaining a sense of a position of material adequacy in the eyes
of the wider community. The body becomes a site where agency can be rebuilt,
worked upon and mediated by the ability to display visual markers of bodily wealth
(High, 2004; Van Esterik, 2000). In other words, agency here takes on an embodied
form in which ‘‘self-esteem is redeemable through material gain’’ (Lyttleton, 2000, p.
158). The importance of this is that a recruiter who is less than transparent about her
‘‘invitations’’ can engage in self-deception by imagining her actions as reciprocating
favour with other young villagers.
Staying on in the sex industry becomes part of social agents’ projection through
material gain and bodily status markers. As a recruiter has been subject to the very
same trajectory she is ‘‘inviting’’ her peers into it is not difficult to see the
224 Sverre Molland

rationalisation process that takes place. Paradoxically, entry into prostitution

becomes both the cause and the remedy of one’s social inadequacy. It is therefore no
surprise that informants refer to the final outcome of recruitment as a trope of
helping. And by pointing to the end-outcome of recruiting someone into the sex
industry one’s own personal involvement is euphemised.
Drawing on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential analysis of bad faith (Sartre, 1957),
Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1992a; 1992b; see also Bourdieu, 1977[1972], passim) has
shown in a brilliant analysis of hunger among squatters in Brazil how social actors,
the poor and medical practitioners alike, act in an economy of bad faith (Scheper-
Hughes, 1992a, passim) – that is, they deny themselves as subjects. Similarly, in
contrast to the way the anti-trafficking community portrays trafficking as a highly
conscious coercive or deceptive process, I argue that venue managers, agents and
recruiters alike engage in an act of self-deception by externalising their own
complicity. This does not mean that social actors do not see themselves as active
subjects, but rather that they deny to themselves alternative courses of action as well
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as alternative interpretations of them. Hence, just as Scheper-Hughes argues that

medical practitioners and poor squatters in Brazil pretend to themselves that they
need medicine when what they really need is nutritious food, I am suggesting that
recruiters and venue owners in Nong Khai pretend both to themselves and to others
that they are ‘‘helping’’ when they are in fact profiting from their active engagement
in dubious recruitment practices. As Kleinman and Fitz-Henry have pointed out, acts
of bad faith do not occur in a vacuum, and must be understood in their social,
economic and political context (Kleinman and Fitz-Henry, 2007, p. 64). I suggest that
a combination of patrimonial business practices, an environment in which social
actors take advantage of the opportunities modernisation has made available to them
(including the commodification of friendships), and the simple fact that the recruiter
embodies what she introduces her friend or acquaintance into, allows for subtle
differences between deception, sweet-talk, persuasion and information to take back
stage. In other words, both the trajectory of sex work and the social environment it
operates in enable social actors to avoid personalising their own complicity.

It is late evening. The thunderstorm has cleared. Stars shimmer through the clearing
clouds over Nong Khai’s night sky. Locals and visitors who had gathered earlier for
supper and evening drinks have now gone home. I sit with Kham on the Mekong
river front. We both stare across the river, where we can see the contours of palm
trees on the Lao side. We discuss the Bridge Hotel. Kham says:

The women at the Bridge Hotel are very pretty. It is difficult to get
employment there. Women who want to work there must have connections,
they must know someone who already works there.

This remark brings us to some key concluding points. Kham is in a sense summing
up my main argument. On the one hand, subjective notions of beauty, bodily value
and profit do exist: there are some women who are considered more beautiful than
others. But at the same time, informal networks govern recruitment: it is friendships
Human Trafficking Along the Thai-Lao Border 225

and connections, not necessarily beauty or profit, that inform how recruitment is
carried out. As this paper has argued, there is a dissonance between the way anti-
trafficking programs depict recruitment along the Thai-Lao border and what is
actually taking place. As I have shown, ‘‘human trafficking’’, if we can call it that, is
not a direct function of a calculated reading of profit potential and objective markers
of female bodies.
Furthermore, the distinction between trafficking and voluntary migration, which
is so important to anti-trafficking programs, does not resonate easily with how sex
venue managers and agents such as Kham and Rattana generate profit, because they
simply do not place importance on this distinction. This is because they tell
themselves that they are ‘‘helping’’ their employees. This does not mean that venue
owners and recruiters are unaware of their own complicity, but it does suggest that
deception is rarely a result of a calculated lie, but rather is an outcome of
circumstantial and opportunistic behaviour. This renders the trafficking/voluntary
dichotomy semi-coincidental. This is why one cannot simply ‘‘read off’’ trafficking
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probabilities with reference to ideal models of profitability and ‘‘demand’’. To

understand how cross-border migration between Laos and Thailand unfolds, one
needs instead to look at the actual social practices of recruiters, sex workers and
venue managers. Recruiters, agents and venue managers do make profits from both
recruiting women into, and employing young women in, the sex industry, but such
practices do not lend themselves to a neat demarcation between profitability
generated from trafficking and other forms of recruitment practices. So, when one
says that ‘‘trafficking is profitable’’, one is in fact projecting an ideal model of how a
‘‘trafficking market’’ supposedly operates onto a social world that is radically
different – which is itself an act of bad faith.

1. Mamasan is a term commonly used for a female who arranges the prostitution of others. In the
sex industry along the Thai-Lao border the common term used is ‘‘Mother’’ (Mae) which reflects
a euphemising family ethos that is enacted in these social settings. I nonetheless use the term
Mamasan, as ‘‘Mother’’ can be a confusing term that can mistakenly give the impression of
actual family connections.
2. This particular scene was witnessed directly in a brothel that also functions as a ‘‘hotel’’. As in
other parts of Thailand, many venues that cater for sex commerce also operate as drinking
shops, restaurants and/or karaoke clubs.
3. All names of informants and venues are pseudonyms.
4. In larger towns it is not uncommon for women to wear a numbered tag, and in some massage
parlours sex workers sit on display behind a glass wall, allowing customers to pick their woman
of choice. And, as Wilson has described (2004), red-light districts, such as Bangkok’s Patphong,
are spatially organised as shopping malls.
5. The literature on trafficking in persons is relatively recent, but is growing. See Ditmore, 2005;
Agustı́n, 2007; Bales, 2005; Davidson, 2003; Doezema, 2000; 2007; Gallagher, 2001; Hughes,
2000; ILO, 2006; Lim, 2007; Long, 2004; Marshall, 2001; Outshoorn, 2005; Pasuk, 1999; Salt
and Stein, 1997; Shangera, 2005; UNODC, 2006.
6. The Protocol defines trafficking in persons thus:
(a) ‘‘Trafficking in persons’’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or
receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of
abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of
the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control
over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum,
226 Sverre Molland

the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour
or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs;
(b) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in
subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in
subparagraph (a) have been used;
(c) The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of
exploitation shall be considered ‘‘trafficking in persons’’ even if this does not involve any of the
means set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article;
(d) ‘‘Child’’ shall mean any person under eighteen years of age (United Nations, 2000, p. 2).
7. A teacher’s salary in Laos is approximately 250,000–500,000 Kip (1,000–2,000 Baht; US$25–50)
per month. A garment factory worker’s salary in Vientiane can similarly range from 250,000–
500,000 Kip (Sene-Asa, 2007). In comparison, it is not uncommon to earn approximately 8,000
Baht (US$200) or more per month in the venues discussed in this paper. Both US Dollars and
Thai Baht are common currencies in this border economy. It is very common for sex workers, as
well as the larger public in Laos, to refer to the Thai Baht when making conversions. At the time
this research was carried out the exchange rate was approximately US$1¼40 Baht/10,000 Kip.
8. Mark Askew refers to this style of operation as ‘‘booking’’ and the agent who solicits customers
as the ‘‘captain’’ (Askew, 2006).
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9. Thai students are, in contrast to Lao women, considered to be an elite and scarce commodity.
They can therefore receive far higher prices for sexual services.
10. I will limit my analysis here to ‘‘short time’’ prices, as these are the most common transactions.
However, in a minority of cases customers pay more to stay the night with the sex worker. Both
sex workers and venue managers receive a higher price when a customer pays for ‘‘long time’’
(i.e. staying the night), but this profit gain is somewhat cancelled out by the fact that the sex
worker will be unable to obtain further customers that night.
11. One local NGO estimates that approximately 90 per cent of all sex workers in Nong Khai
Province are Lao.
12. I have seen both ‘‘success’’ and ‘‘failure’’ in faking ‘‘Thainess’’ during my fieldwork. Once, when I
was with a group of Thai male informants in a karaoke club in Bangkok, one of the hostesses later
revealed that she was Lao. Her claim to be Lao is plausible because she could give details about her
home place (a suburb in Vientiane), which I am familiar with. The Thai men were surprised by this
and were amazed how ‘‘Thai’’ she was. No doubt, this relates to the fact that the nuances between
Lao and Isan (north-eastern Thai) identities are harder to detect for Bangkokians than for Nong
Khai residents. During research in Nong Khai my local research assistant, who is fluent in both
Thai and Lao, could at times point to differences in accents. Although it is usual for Lao sex workers
not to hide their nationality, this did occur on one occasion. It was, however, easy for my research
assistant to question claims of being a Nong Khai local due to lack of local knowledge (such as
schools in the area where they claimed to have grown up).
13. This contrasts to larger venues in Bangkok that can employ approximately a hundred women
and operate with a retail price strategy. One particular venue I visited had women retailing for
1,500, 2,000, 2,500 and 3,000 Baht, ranked according to their perceived beauty. There is no
doubt that scale is an important contributing factor in allowing such price hierarchies.
14. Towards the end of my fieldwork, twins were recruited into one of the offsite brothels for 3,000
Baht each, and in this case the higher commission was justified by the fact that the twins were
regarded as being suay mak [very pretty].
15. It is not uncommon for venue owners to pay a commission to sex workers who can recruit new
women. As pointed out elsewhere, at times such recruitment does involve deceit.
16. One limitation of Rehbein’s (2007) ethnography on trade in Laos is that it does not explore the
role of Chinese and Vietnamese in trade and business. His analysis is solely of ethnic Lao

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