At Villa Market nearby, I found Cleo Odzer’s Patpong Sisters. I read the review of the book in Far Eastern Economic Review before I returned to Thailand, and it was one of the books I knew I would be looking for.
Cleo Odzer is an American ex-hippie turned social anthropologist. She’s got a feminist point of view, of sorts; a very personal one when it comes to prostitution. She decided to study the Bangkok prostitutes at Patpong Road, and her thesis is that these girls in the bars of Patpong far from being exploited are free entrepreneurs and an avant-garde for the liberation of Thai women. Her study was done between 1988–1990.
What first strikes me when I read her book, is how very American she is, and how safe she feels in her firm belief that American culture always is superior, and it’s values something to be spread as a blessing to all parts of the world. She never questions American (or her own) superiority. She is of course writing for an American audience, and that might contribute to her regular falling into exoticism. She chooses extreme examples of primitivism from the most backward villages upcountry for the amusement of her audience, and to reinforce them in their sense of superiority. Of course she is really a missionary, but not peddling religious beliefs. Instead she preaches individualism and the blessings of materialism and the American Way. And as a good, naïve American, she’s probably unaware of it! She is no different from the American missionary I met outside Calvary Baptist Church in Soi 2 of Sukhumvit Road some 25 years ago, who called the Thais the heathens! After spending more than a year in Thailand, Odzer finds herself in a situation, where she wants to buy some food for her young Thai lover. At that point she admits that she doesn’t know what to buy; that she knows nothing about Thai food! And she’s not even ashamed to admit that! She’s supposed to be an anthropologist for heaven’s sake! And there is no such thing as an anthropologist not knowing about the food of the people she’s doing a fieldwork on. She’s been living for over a year in one of the culinary capitals of the world – and she’s obviously fed herself expensive, imported American junk food at all times. She is a real disgrace and an embarrassmment to fellow anthropologists!
In her relation to her first Thai lover, her own values are made very clear: She is superior. The Thais have to adjust. She’s not going to conform to any Thai rules of behaviour – except when she has something to gain; when it boosts her ego and sense of superiority! It makes her very upset when she realises that people believe she pays her young lover. Why it is so upsetting to her if it’s OK for girls to support themselves in this way, she never explains. Her lover is a Patpong tout, half her age! And middle-aged Western women coming here do pay their young lovers. Is she feeling devaluated as a woman if she pays him? Does it make it morally wrong when money passes from a woman to a man? Why can’t she see it as simple as: She’s got a lot of money – at least she says so repeatedly! – and he’s got nothing? She let him pay for her expensive coffees when they meet at McDonalds, because, she says, that is the Thai way. He really can’t afford it. As it turns out he also has a family to support. He is spending the money his family need so badly on her, and it makes her feel morally superior to those who give some money to their lovers! But she chooses to ignore that she as a wealthy, Western woman with a dirt-poor, young Thai lover discretely should have slipped him the money to pay for the bill. That is also the Thai way! A face-saving way! The one who is senior, or has more money, pays. She is both! She’s using him shamelessly, and obviously she feels it’s OK, since she is a woman. She’s not helping him pay his dentist’s bill; she just stands by watching him go to the dentist to pull out his teeth, because he can’t afford the few dollars it would have cost to have them repaired. She’s a cruel bitch and doesn’t want to see that there are ways – face-saving Thai ways – to give him the little money he so desperately needs! It wouldn’t even be interpreted as money for sex. She could have slipped some money into his pocket when he was in the shower! That’s the Thai way!
She says she is madly in love with the boy; but does she care for him? No! She’s rigid, totally self-centered and lacking all capacity for compassion. When she finds out that her lover has a wife and a child to support, it makes her very upset. She wants him to break off the relationship with them! (But that is not the Thai way!) On the other hand she’s making fun of him, when he fantasises about going to America with her. Of course he’s aware that it is a fantasy, but one of the kinds that can help you through a very tough reality. She can’t even share the fantasy with him! She just finds him ridiculous and thinks of what her mother and her friends back in New York would say if she turns up with a Thai lover! No, their relation is strictly limited to the time she’s staying in Thailand. But she still wants him to break off with his wife and family! And when he doesn’t, she punishes him by leaving him without saying good-bye – and finds herself a new sex-toy on the island Koh Samet!
I can understand why she finds Thai morality so annoying!
Western men falling in love with bargirls are only ridiculous to her. The girls are whores, and they have no feelings, they just want their money, and if you turn your back, they will steal them from you and run off. And when she finds a girl roughly matching this description, a girl named Hoi, she idolises her! At no place she shows any signs that she really got to know a single one of the girls. She doesn’t tell anybody’s “inside” story; she only gives superficial sketches of their backgrounds. Odzer paints a very one-dimensional picture of the Thai bar girls. She doesn’t even understand about peu-un pod!  Much like a farang male tourist, she just sees a lot of girls. She believes the tales circulating among the farang about borrowed babies, girls lying about dying mothers, dead sisters, hospital bills, and funeral costs – and as an anthropologist she lends the stories some credibility. If she’d cared to learn to really know only a few of the girls and had talked to them, she would have found an endless history of misery and suffering behind their smiling faces! She’d have realised that the need to invent phoney stories about suffering isn’t that great! But for Odzer they are only objects to study! And for men – in her opinion – objects to screw!
Business. Money for sex. Sex for money. That Odzer can understand. But she doesn’t understand Thai morality!
She knows that most girls are here – not as emancipated women, and not as outcasts – but as parts of their families, to which they have obligations. But Odzer doesn’t understand the implications of these obligations.
Many girls are working mothers with children to support. And to those who Western commercial attitudes have not yet sent them into a cultural limbo, their business transactions also have moral implications: It is not only a question of how much can you give me, and what do you want. In a Thai cultural setting it’s rather, if I take your money, what do I owe you, and how can I repay my debt to you.
The underlying idea is the principle of mutual dependence and reciprocity, and the principle of being practically and morally indebted. It is the recognition that people need each other if they want to go on with the business of living, formulated in a system of mutual but unequal moral obligations. Respect and obedience to elders, trust in their wisdom and protection, the need to return favours received, all these are strong themes in Thai culture.
This is one major thing separating a Thai woman from most Western women; her pursuit of virtue also as a prostitute!
This problem is illustrated clearly on the last page of the book, where Odzer ridicules criticism by some Thai women she met at a women’s conference in New York. They pointed out Odzer’s ethnocentrism, and criticized her for idolosing the Isaan girl named Hoi, who in Odzer’s description seems almoast totally amoral. They would have preferred another bar girl as example, they said, because, they said, they are not all bad like Hoi. But to Odzer this is just ridiculous. To her a whore is a whore, and a virtuous prostitute a contradiction in terms.
Thais disagree. But Odzer doesn’t even understand that the Thais disagree!
On the last page of the book Odzer writes: …to me the prostitutes are pioneers in advancing women’s autonomy by breaking from the mold of suppressed and passive females. In the same way that soldiers striding into battle are called brave and patriotic regardless of whether they enlisted or were drafted by the government, Thai prostitutes can be called pioneers in defying women’s subjugation. They allow themselves this little bit of selfishness and self-indulgence, which Thai culture otherwise denies them.
But earlier, on page 273, she was aware that her description was problematic:
I realized, though, that the prostitutes themselves didn’t necessarily agree. Looking at prostitution as providing the women with independence and power was looking at something Thais didn’t see or didn’t value. Independence, for instance, had no role in the structure of their society. Living alone was usually something to be avoided. So, while Patpong prostitution offered benefits to the women, it may have benefitted me more than them. Their breaking away from traditional behavior helped the cause of women in general but not the specific women who had to deal with society’s condemnation of them and the possibility of contracting AIDS. Though Hoi received admiration from her neighbors in Ubon and respect from her father for supporting him, she felt Thailand as a whole rejected her.
First, I must say, it seems Cleo Odzer is lacking basic knowledge of Thai culture. She can’t possibly have read the anthropological standards on this country. If you want to study suppressed and passive females you simply have to go elsewhere! Does Cleo Odzer know the basics of Buddhism? If so, it doesn’t show anywhere. About the only reference to Buddhism in her book is her statement that Buddhism is degrading women! But the main problem with her angle is that she has never bothered to ask in what way these girls become “ruined” by the work in a Patpong bar, or what the differences are between a morally good prostitute and a bad one. She just assumes the values of here own society are valid. That it is the exchange of sexual services for money that makes a girl “ruined”. But it is not! It is when girls turn themselves into what Odzer wants them to be, they become “ruined”. If they are prostitutes and turn their backs on their families back in their dusty Isaan villages, then they are condemned by society. But if they are good daughters and bring money back to their families, people disregard the source of the money. It’s just their kamma, and kamma must be accepted. There is no way to alter one’s fate. Happiness is accepting one’s position. Happiness is being with people who understand and respect that position. People who smile and laugh; people who are lighter than air. The girls working at Patpong and similar places and associating with farang on a daily basis may also become “ruined” by distancing themselves to Thai values and rules of behaviour. They become westernised. As are Thai girls returning from work or studies abroad. It has something to with the loss of thainess, loss of some qualities that men cherish in Thai women. But girls working in Thai nightclubs and karaoke bars dressed in long traditional Thai silk dresses are never called “ruined” just because they sell sex. As for Hoi, she is in trouble with society on a number of levels. Odzer says she is respected by her family and neighbours back home in the shittiest of dirt-poor villages in Ubon. She’s not all bad; she has not abandoned her family. But since these people are on the absolute bottom of society and Hoi apparently attended a lousy village school for one or two years only, she’s not even got the necessary education to know how to behave among other Thais, regardless if she is a prostitute or not! She speaks Lao, and her skin is very dark. She is doomed, but not mainly because she is a prostitute; she was doomed already for reasons of social class! Of Thai moral values, the obligations towards the family come first. But Thai people also despise public nudity. When they talk about the bad girls at Patpong, they explicitly point out their disgust for the sex shows, but even the go-go dancers in their diminutive bikinis are offensive.
As are Western women in bikinis on the beaches.
But people just smile and pretend they don’t see!
 Peu-un pod is the tight “family” group a working girl belongs to. She refers to the other girls in the group as her sisters, meaning they are as close as real family members are. In such a group each member has her rank and position, much the same as in a family. A bargirl might try to snatch a man away from another girl in the same bar, but never from a girl of her own peu-un pod! (Nowadays, however, she might ask you to bring her sister along!) A girl has to show kreng jai to elder sisters in her peu-un pod; the same respect she owes parents and people of higher rank in society. She is depending on her peu-un pod for her survival, when business is slow and she’s unable to make enough money to meet her daily needs.  Thai: กรรม kam; Pali: kamma, in Western languages usually spelled karma in accordance with established Sanskrit transliteration.
–———– Copyright © 1999 by Carl Jacobson ————
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