On the arm of many white-haired, 50-plus-year-old men, was a young, beautiful, dark girl. I saw this everywhere in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand.
"You're in the sex capital of the world," friends laughed, insinuating that of course I was going to see such things, that it's what men did when they went to Thailand.
It's one thing to know about it, and another to see it. I was highly upset.
On the island of Koh Samui, Thailand, I often went for motorbike rides at sunrise and sunset. It was beautiful to see the way the sun bounced off different chips of the water. Sometimes the ocean was a lavender field at sunset, other times, in the morning particularly, red raspberry bushels.
One evening I'd driven for two hours to get to the other side of the island, called Lamai Beach. This was the main tourist area. When the brochure-blue water finally slurped down the sun, I took a walk down the white beach - after being cooped up with my friend and her boyfriend for a week, I was ready to meet some new people.
There was a beach bar not to far away with a gaggle of white guys. I thought, "They might have something interesting to say." At the very least I'd probably get a free drink. So I sauntered over.
In the midst of three thirty-something men, leaning on the bar in a provocative dress/gesture, was a young Thai girl. Maybe - maybe - she was 16. I just caught the end of their discussion, "happy ending" being part of it.
"Hello," I said casually, throwing out a lure for someone who spoke English.
The men turned and acted surprised to see me. They were nervous to speak for a second. But then their anxiety over my presence ebbed.
" 'Ello there," said one. They were British.
"Mind if I join you?"
The entire time I was at the bar, enjoying one drink on these men, the Thai girl glared at me. I tried to join her in on our conversation; I tried to be nice to her in any way I could. But she wasn't having it. That's when I realized: I was accidently stealing her clients.
I left the bar and took a walk on the street to see the touristy sights. It was dark by this point and all the restaurant and shop windows lit up like a multi-colored carnival.
The casualness of this business was everywhere: at a fine-dining Thai-fusion bistro were two 60-something men having dinner with two young Thai girls; selling roses to white couples on holiday was another young Thai girl with her light-colored baby on her hip; the "Mr. Smile" massage parlor.
It was suffocating; I got on my motorbike and rode back to our bungalow.
I told Christina and Song about my sightseeing.
"Yeah, these guys rent girls for the week," Christina said. She'd been talking to our Brooklyn neighbor Jeff about the sex industry there earlier that week. "Sometimes they don't even pay them. They just feed and lodge them."
When Christina and I were in Chiang Mai, Thailand a few weeks later, we came across a plaster of stickers on the side of a wall. The message was simple: "Real men don't buy girls." Apparently this motto was a campaign launched by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher (demiandashton.org/realmen). The goal of the campaign was to create a cultural shift around the societal acceptance of child prostitution, and thus, child sex slavery.
Two million children are bought and sold in the global commercial sex trade. In just the United States, between 100,000 and 300,000 children are enslaved and sold for sex, the average age of entry into prostitution being 13.
If that's the case, then what's the statistic for a country like Thailand?
I've always been aware of sex slavery - it was something I was very mindful about traveling as a young woman.
But it's something totally different when one sees it firsthand in its completely acceptable environment.
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to
or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com