Sitting in a restaurant as she blew out the candles, I realized I was witnessing a relatively momentous occasion. She turned 18 today. Where I'm from 18 means voting, lottery tickets, cigarettes, the military, and a few other relatively inconsequential milestones. But here I was, witnessing the moment where (according to the international community), this girl had become a woman who was now responsible for her actions. She had gone from a child exploited for commercial sex to a sex worker in one day.
The buying and selling of sex is illegal in Thailand, but it is far from hidden. Given, I am in a region of the country that is known for its sex workers (often young girls from Lao PDR) and I've been told the number of karaoke bars in the small towns in the region is particularly high. I'm not yet sure of the proportion of sex workers here who are underage vs. those who are over 18, it may be around 50/50.
But as this girl reached 18 and was now liable not only for for her actions, but judged capable of making her own decisions, it occurred to me that her range of choices were relatively few. People who work in karaoke here are very isolated, with few friends or even acquaintances outside of their job, their broker, or mamasan. This means that once you start working in karaoke, it would be hard to switch jobs while living in the same place, partially because of your reputation, and partly because your income would change so dramatically.
So what were this girl's choices really? She has been working in karaoke here for years. It is unlikely she completed school beyond elementary. She makes about 30 times more money than the girls her age who were waitresses at this restaurant. If the trends follow, she is probably here earning money to help her family in Lao, and if you ask her what she wants or where she wants to go, she'll probably say she wants money so she can leave and go home to her family.
And so I watched, sang, clapped and took pictures. She looked happy. I felt sad for her, not out of pity or judgement about how she earns money, but because she had missed the last years of her childhood, pretending to be an adult. Now she was an adult, and it was too late to go back.