4 Truths about Exploitation from the Chiang Mai Red Light District

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How could red and green Christmas lights, a symbol of home and hope to many, represent such a horrific alternate universe? Last week, my study abroad program went on a tour of the Chiang Mai Red Light District, an area in the Northern Thai city famous for a booming sex industry.

Sex trafficking.



Each of these terms that we use to describe the injustice we are fighting are much more fluid and complicated than we would like to admit. While there is a whole lot of unknowns about exploitation, there are a few truths I have come to know. To give us a better understanding of the injustices we are fighting with Dressember, I have outlined four small truths I have come to learn about exploitation through my study abroad experience in Thailand.

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1. Exploitation is right under our noses.

As we walked down a main tourist street in the city, it was filled with hotels, massage parlors, bars, and more. Some places of exploitation were blatantly obvious, while some remained completely unknown to the swarms of tourists and local residents. Our professor, a long time friend to the exploited in this area, gave us unique insight into the issue. She pointed out things that would otherwise go unnoticed. She led us on foot down the streets and alleyways of the city, the very streets her and her husband have spent years on, building relationships with girls in the sex industry. We could learn every possible statistic on exploitation in the classroom, but that pales in comparison to learning from her first-hand experience. Though prostitution is illegal in Thailand, a single street could have an upwards of 80 sex establishments. Other forms of exploitation can be right under our noses too. More specifically, it can be in our closets, down our streets, and on our social media. The list goes on.


2. There is more than one way to fight exploitation, and they all play a significant role.

Through the many organizations I have visited and heard about, I have seen a diverse variety in how this issue is being combatted. Approaches to human trafficking can be anything from preventing it from happening to new victims, providing after-care and rehabilitation to survivors, seeking alternative employment opportunities for victims, to raiding brothels. Sometimes it can be tempting to condemn different ways that people are fighting against exploitation in the quest to find the “ultimate and best solution.” The thing is, I don’t believe there is such a thing as one sure-fire solution. While we should be assessing the effectiveness of different solutions, it is important to remember we are all in this fight together. The more we support, encourage, and share with one another as a community of world-changers, the better we will become at addressing exploitation. There is room at the table for sustainable approaches that are different from one another.

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3. What we are doing to stop exploitation is worth it, because things are changing for the better.

Whatever your approach is, KEEP GOING! As we stand together, we are making a difference. Though the exploitation we witnessed in the Red Light District was grave and discouraging, our professor pointed out that just the year before, students saw almost double the amount of establishments on their red-light tour. This year, Thailand went from a tier 3 (the worst level) to a tier 2 watch list on the State Department’s Trafficking In Persons report, showing signs of hope. And even if the statistics don’t always change as drastically as we like them to, making a difference for a single victim is still WORTH IT, because that one empowered person will go on to make a difference. Fighting exploitation is a domino effect, but it still requires that someone pushes the first domino.

4. Seeing exploitation in another culture should lead us to be more aware and active in our own communities as well.


One of the biggest takeaways that seeing injustice and exploitation in another culture has done for me, is made me see clearer when looking at my own life and culture. Though we often hear about the trafficking of “the poor” in other countries, the truth is that human trafficking is on the rise in all 50 US states and a majority of these victims are US citizens. Seeing exploitation in Thailand has made me want to be more aware when I return home to the States in December. Who was exploited with labor so I can have the clothes in my closet? What about the jewelry around my neck? How are the girls in my own state or city, my neighbors, exploited? Am I exploiting the stories of those I am trying to help and advocate for through my choice of language? All of these are questions that I will continue to ask myself, while I reflect back on my time in Thailand.

Pursuing these four truths about exploitation, I have discovered that there are no "silver bullet" answers or solutions. Still, I hope they can encourage us as a Dressember community to not let exploitation go unnoticed, to seek innovative and sustainable ways to fight injustice, to keep up the fight, and be more aware of the cycles of injustice in our own lives and communities.


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About the Author

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Reagan Swier enjoys fashion, food, travel, writing, and more. She believes that all of those passions (and your passions too!) can be used to advocate for social justice and create a better world for future generations. Currently, she is a Junior at a small university in Oregon, where she helps lead her school’s IJM (International Justice Mission) chapter. She enjoys the creative scene of the Portland area, which inspires her writing and feeds her passion for social entrepreneurship. However, she is currently studying abroad in Thailand, learning all about topics close to the heart of Dressember.