We were all playing a card game, happy. There were seven to eight of us crowded in a small room when our dear friend came in. He had just gotten off work, and we asked him how it was.
“It was intense. Today, the we pulled off the prostitution sting.” Our friend works for the police station, and that very day, the local police had arrested about six men for soliciting a prostitute.
“What kind of sentence do they get?” I asked.
“A night in prison, a fine, their picture in the newspaper, and a court date. According to law, it is considered a “victimless crime.” My attention veered from the card game to his face.
“Did you just say a victimless crime?”
“Yeah, dumb, huh?” My face glowered. My brain raced. Like heck…. I thought. Like heck. Why do we still believe this? Why? I happened to glance over to my friend, and her face looked like mine— steamed and cross. It was affecting her as much as it was affecting me.
Then I realized it was because
we had seen it.
I have been to two red light districts— one in Rio de Janeiro and one in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, I talked to the girls, but in Rio, I just stood there like an American gimp. In Rio, it is one long street, lined with dirty bars, and mysterious alleyways made up of bared rooms and clubs. I walked while a Brazilian introduced me to the women in Portuguese. My translator did all of the talking, and she invited the women to a lunch they host every week. As I stood there like an innocent home schooler, she would say,
“This is my American friend, Marissa.”
The girl looked at me, and she was beautiful. Perfect skin. Makeup flawless. I held out my hand to give her a good handshake, and smiled my babyfaced smile. The girl’s eyes lit up. She smiled right back at me, and I saw a row of metal braces in her teeth. This startled me, and I thought,
“How old is she? Seriously, how old?” The pimps pay for braces, because to them, it’s a business investment. What a juxtaposition it was! A girl in a dominatrix outfit, smiling with a mouth full of metal. It clears all the fog of the scene. All the nonsense that this is “a victimless crime.” This girl is a baby looking for a job, and somebody lied to her. And now she’s gone too far, she can’t go back. And now, they’ve got her addicted to something, so she can’t go back. And now, she’s making enough money, so she can send some home.
She smiled a long time, as the translator talked to her. I smiled back, and kept thinking,
“She’s me. She’s me. She’s me.”
She could be me.
The prostitution zone in Hong Kong is different than Rio’s. In Rio, every person is in a daze. People trapeze throughout the place, stumbling, because they are SO drunk or SO high. It is a mass of confusion and haze. Hong Kong’s red light is different, because it’s made for Expats. It’s made for Americans and Europeans. It’s made for us.
It is clean. It is a few blocks of orderly streets. There is good cheer in the bars. The nightclubs have live bands, and old bartenders. We entered a club, that our guide told us to go to.
“What do we even do?” we asked.
“Just talk to them,” she replied, “They all speak English, and nobody ever talks to them or is kind to them unless they want something.”
So, we walked into the club. It looked like a normal night club to me—a huge bar in the center, a live band and people dancing, but a few things are off. There are WAY more women than men, and the men are considerable older than the women. Some men are in suits and ties. They are leaning on bar tables with a drink in hand, and girls who are considerably younger are leaning into them.
“Gross,” my American self thought, “That guy is WAY TOO old for you.” But, this isn’t a game they’re playing, and that is why these men come. They come so a pretty girl wants them. As I stand in the bar and try to start conversations with “what drink is the best,” I see a 50 year old man lead a 20 year old girl out of the club on his arms. I sit down, bewildered, and a beautiful girl sits next to me, and says,
“I like your sweater.”
“Thank you,” I reply, “I got it at a thrift store.” She squeals with delight, and says,
“Oh! I LOVE thrift stores! I can find the best things there!”
“I know!” I reply, “Rich people give away a lot of stuff!”
“It’s so true. Some of my best clothes are from second-hand shops.”
We exchange small talk. I ask her how long she’s been in Hong Kong and how long she will be staying. She pulls out her phone and shows me a picture of her daughter.
“She’s my everything. I do all this for her.”
All this. She is the friendliest person I’ve ever met. She’s asking me about my life, my home, and if I had a boyfriend. I tell her, and then she says,
“Yeah. I just broke up with my boyfriend. He lives in Japan, and I’ve been with him for two years, but he just broke it off. It is so weird, because I am so much younger than him. He’s like 70, and I’m like—it just doesn’t make sense.”
Now, she is not me, because I can’t relate. I can’t even come close, and I don’t know what to say, because girl talk never goes like this at home. For now, we are playing a game. She knows I’m not there for the drinks, and I know that man wasn’t her boyfriend. He was a client, a faithful client. But, here we are sitting in a club together in Hong Kong talking about thrift stores, and families, and boyfriends. Cultures and my privilege collide at that moment, but then I understand.
I’d pretend, too.
See, I know prostitution is not a victimless crime, because I’ve seen it. She’s not some vixen prowling the streets at night. She is a girl with braces in a dirty bar. She’s wearing a thrift-store sweater and has a picture of her daughter on her phone. Some low-life told her that there was work for her. She went for the money, and now she’s making pornography and hanging on a 50 year-old married man, because she has to, or now because she wants to, because it’s better to pretend.
I see you. Government, money, and privilege kept me from your experience, and I don’t know what evil brought you to where you are, but all I know is that you are the bravest, strongest person I’ve ever met, and I see you.
P.S. Want to do something? Justice 61 is working to stop human trafficking in Colorado. It’s a good start.