Dispatch from Pattaya
“I was in a bar recently and a john told me, ‘Pattaya is where people go to die.’”
The bar that Dianna Bautista refers to is one of hundreds in Pattaya’s red light district. These bars are not just bars, but also brothels—places to purchase illicit things, from drugs to women to men to children. A john, in bar-speak, is a male client.
Pattaya, Thailand is a city submerged in darkness. Dubbed the Sex Tourism Capital of the World, the resort town is home to tens of thousands of bargirls, men, and ladyboys who make a living selling their bodies on the streets and in clubs. On one street alone, Soi 6, over 4,000 bodies are up for sale. The city masks its exploitation in a veneer of playful indulgence, all neon lights and go-go dancers. Yet even the johns who travel to Pattaya for sex—many white, Western, and middle-aged—seem like they’d rather be anywhere else.
The city masks its exploitation in a veneer of playful indulgence, all neon lights and go-go dancers.
It’s been over two years since we visited reformer Dianna Bautista in Pattaya. Dianna is the founder of Shear Love International, a vocational beauty school for people leaving situations of exploitation. A lot has changed since our visit. For one, Shear Love built a state-of-the-art training salon and celebrated the graduation of dozens of young women and men who now have skills for dignified employment. For another, the organization launched new partnerships in two closed countries.
It’s been over two years since we visited reformer Dianna Bautista in Pattaya. A lot has changed since our visit.
Other things remain the same. Despite Pattaya’s staggering human trafficking statistics, despite its infamous exploitation and poverty, nonprofits still largely avoid the city. Dianna counts around eleven organizations working to prevent exploitation in Pattaya, only three of which actually work in the bars. She understands why: “The spiritual darkness [here] is just too heavy. You have to be so deeply in the Word and so connected to God in order to focus on the hope and not the darkness,” she says. One of the ways she copes? “I spend a lot of time with the students.” During English lessons and salon training Shear Love instructors remind students that no amount of forced trauma in their life is ever okay. Recently Dianna told her students that Jesus ran toward people who suffered. Far from shying away from those with histories of abuse, He restored them and called them into a healed life.
Despite Pattaya’s staggering human trafficking statistics, despite its infamous exploitation and poverty, nonprofits still largely avoid the city.
Another thing that hasn’t changed in Pattaya: the overwhelmingly majority of bar girls and ladyboys who work in the red light district still come from the same place, a rural northeastern province called Issan. Issan is the poorest region of Thailand, with most of its residents surviving off what they can grow from the land. Education rates are dismal and most parents accept it as an unfortunate but inevitable truth that their daughters—and even sons—will one day move south to find work in bars.
It is largely this rural poverty that leads women and men into sex work, whether by force or by choice. Since we visited Pattaya, Shear Love launched a barber training school for men to address the imbalance between empowerment programs for men and women. Many of the students in the barber program have been exploited for sex and labor. At Shear Love, men receive holistic training in men’s hair and facial design, financial training, personal development, hygiene, mentoring, and discipleship.
The number of organizations that serve and protect men is less than a quarter of those that serve women. Shear Love created the barbering program to educate men alongside women to be partnered in the workplace and in relationships. The vision of the barber program is to see strong and courageous men become leaders within their communities, provinces, and countries. This week, the second class of barber students graduates from the program.
The number of organizations that serve and protect men is less than a quarter of those that serve women.
Dianna shared one more story before our conversation ended. On our last visit we met Rain, a brave and playful girl preparing to graduate from Shear Love. Rain recently saved enough money to purchase land in Issan near her family. She plans to open her own salon there. “When I offered to help her by looking over her budget, she told me no,” Dianna said. “She wanted to do it herself.” After years of exploitation, Rain is clinging to the dignity and self-sufficiency she fought for and won from the bars.
Shear Love is currently raising funds to reach more students. They have their eyes set on a building across the street from the salon, a space that will accommodate three times the current number of students. “There are a hundred thousand people being sold for sex in this city,” says Dianna. “We had 12 graduates this year. And that’s great—but we need to reach more.”
You can help Shear Love reach more men and women in Pattaya by donating to the “Building the Future” campaign today.
Photography by Dorothea Schulz.
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