Thai massages, sex work, and the foreign body

I’ve always liked travelling because it treats the body as a fact, rather than a question.

Typically, my body invokes so many questions. What do I wear? What do I eat? How attractive am I? How thin? How fit? How strong? What do I need to deprive my body of, or glut it with, to make it more beautiful, thinner, fitter?

Travelling asks none of those questions. I eat because I need to walk all day. I wear whatever will keep me cool and dry. My body has an internal logic.

I like Thai massages for the same reason: they interact with the body with no judgment, just as a fact. A body is a set of interlocking pieces, like a Lego house, and every single piece must be disassembled, wiped down, and reassembled, the pieces clicking into place.

*

In Bangkok, you can spot the Thai massage salons by the girls sitting outside: pretty, bored young women with overdrawn eyebrows. As you pass, sometimes they’ll smile at you, or call out prices, but mostly they’ll ignore you entirely.

Thai massages were one of the four branches of traditional Thai medicine, dating back around 2,500 years. Modern Thai massages usually include a combination of acupressure, Ayurveda principles, and assisted yoga positions. As the tourism industry has swept through Thailand, many massage places have escalated into opulent, aroma-ed spas. But you can still find some of the old places: a few mattresses on the floor, curtains to separate them, a plastic tub of water to wash your feet in.

I had my first Thai massage two weeks ago at one of these little places in Bangkok, feeling the lactic acid pooling in my legs after long days of walking.

Thai massages are notable because they’re so acrobatic: they feel demanding and involved in a way that Western massages are not. Every joint is pulled, every muscle is kneaded – often with the masseuse’s forearms, elbows, or heels. At the end of one massage, as I sat cross-legged, my masseuse stood behind me, hooked her arms around my shoulders and swung my upper body side to side till my chest met the mat, the cartilage of my spine crackling gleefully.

As she kneaded the knots on my back, I thought of pushing your thumb through the skin of an orange, feeling the pulp give and liquefy.

The masseuses treated each body as a fact. But I wondered what the masseuses thought about, as they took the tourists apart and put them back together, day after day. Did they think of their bodies? Were they repulsed, or intrigued, or really as indifferent as they appeared?

The Western tourists who walked into the massage shops were soft and white and scraped with sunburn, like toast with a thin layer of strawberry jam. I wondered what my masseuse, an exceptionally smooth and strong woman, thought of my body. I wondered if she disdained my soft and bony body. I never asked her name, and she never asked mine.

I felt like a foreign thing, a different kind of being entirely from her. I could feel the seams of my body unravelling; I could feel the muscles shifting under my skin, the joints popping. Her body, in contrast, felt like soft stone, like a statue carved from one faultless piece of marble, solid and supple throughout. Could we really be the same type of mammal?

“Tarocco,” 2011, oil on panel, Luigi Benedicenti

*

It’s hard to talk about the Thai massage industry without also talking about sex tourism in Thailand.

Many Thai massage parlours also serve as brothels – if you ask for an oil massage at some smaller massage places (which are also often the cheaper and more traditional-looking ones, as opposed to big shiny spas) you might also be able to choose a handjob, a blowjob, or more.

Prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960, but it’s still flourishing: the industry still employs more than 120,000 sex workers. Thailand’s most recent minister for tourism has taken a pretty aggressive stance against sex work, prompting police raids and mass arrests in well-known Bangkok massage parlours/brothels. It’s interesting to note that anti-sex-work policies are part of the Thai government’s efforts to rebrand Thailand as a destination for female travellers (as if women travelling safely and the sex industry are mutually exclusive)(creating female-only pink immigration lanes while at the same time arresting hundreds of mostly-female sex workers).

I don’t support criminalizing sex work. Bans on sex work usually only push the industry underground, and increase the already-high rates of violence and exploitation that sex workers face (from both clients and police). There’s a lot of good writing out there about the radical revisioning of society necessary to make sex work safe and fair (or, like, the overthrow of capitalism; I’ll take what I can get) – I won’t get into it all here.

Sex work is legitimate, important work: it can be a type of healing, a way of taking care of a body. The issue is that often, sex work in Thailand is entangled with child prostitution and human trafficking. And it’s undeniable that when wealthy, white, English-speaking European and North American men are the clients of mostly-female Thai sex workers, there’s a pretty noticeable and sinister power imbalance that troubles the waters of consent and fair pay.

I’m not trying to make some sort of facile parallel between the emotional, psychic and physical labour of sex work and that of massaging. I’m just noting that the two are inextricable. People are quick to demonize Thai sex workers, while in the same breath praising the abundance of cheap Thai massage places – without considering that the two industries have strong economic ties. Massage and sex work can both be safe and fair types of work given the right conditions – but police raids and stigma and blanket criminalization are not those conditions. As Margaret Corvid writes in The Establishment, arguing against criminalization: “it’s okay to pay for sex and to sell it, because even if you think sex work is anti-feminist, you can’t build justice using the brutal tools of an unjust state.”

*

It’s been a month since I left my parents, my sister, and my partner in Toronto. I have five or so months of solo travel still ahead of me; a horizon so distant that it often feels unthinkable. I can’t tell you how much I miss being held (hugged, touched, whatever) – so much I sometimes feel nauseous at the whiplash of it, a hunger that women are told never to talk about.

I’ve been reading articles and studies recently about human contact and depression. There’s the well-worn (and controversial) Harlow study about orphaned baby macaques who chose the softness of cloth surrogates over wire surrogates with milk, leading Harlow to the conclusion that human children need touch as much as they need food and water. More recently, studies on people in solitary confinement and elderly people in nursing homes show that an absence of human touch is correlated with loneliness and depression.

It’s important to be touched kindly by another person. We forget this – or perhaps we’re embarrassed of this, our appetite for meaningful contact. Human touch is so often sexualized or litigated, withheld or forced, imbued with a great deal of cultural weight. We forget sometimes that it’s just a fact, a necessity.

And having a stranger press their foot into your shoulder is not the same as being held, but it’s also not so different.

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