Fluorescent bulbs buzzed overhead in the second-story room on a small side street in the notorious Nana red light district of Bangkok. A handful of us sat on plastic chairs around a fold-out table. A mere four feet separated us, but a gulf of life experience lay between us.
My friend Sean and I were on one side of the table. Two young professionals from New York City, we had the good fortune of growing up in middle-class American suburbs. Our parents sat down for dinner with us every night and ensured we were well equipped to succeed in life. We both had the opportunity to attend great schools and pursue the careers of our choosing.
Four Thai women sat on the other side of the table. They grew up in extreme poverty in northeast Thailand and had little education. More often than not their parents weren't able to feed all the mouths in their families. With only a few years of education they were forced, coerced, or tricked into moving to Bangkok to work and send money back to their families.
Upon arriving in the capital they discovered that the work they left home for was not in the restaurants or shops, as they had been promised, but in the bars and brothels of Bangkok's red light districts. They were horrified when they realized their fates. They had suffered from the oppressive rule of the brothel owners, the nightly rapes, the stinging shame of social scorn, and the battering of abusive boyfriends. Their families had rejected them. By anyone's estimation, these ...