Tanned burly men in white boxer shorts and striking crew cuts gyrate suggestively to a dance number. The low-rise stage offers the audience a close-up view of the muscular men, capturing the attention of male and female patrons seated on a row of sofas. Each dancer makes eye contact with a new member of the audience within seconds of their arrival. The musty scent of sweat and cheap perfume hangs heavily in the nightclub catering to patrons with sexual orientations ranging from gay and bisexual men to heterosexual women.
Located in a strip of bars on Patpong road, it is one of a number of clubs where heterosexual women, both local and from overseas, come for sexual services provided by Thai male sex workers, who are largely bisexual.
Ken, 24, and born in Prachin Buri, is a smartly dressed male go-go dancer who believes it is about time Thai society opened up to the fact that women have the same rights as men in opting to pay for sex, which he thinks is a convenient way to release one's sexual urges with no strings attached.
''This topic is taboo because our society would prefer to think it doesn't exist,'' said Ken, who has worked in the red-light district for almost five years. ''Asian women in general have become more outgoing and don't want society to dictate to them how they should spend their money. The purchasing power of women today is much greater than one would have imagined. Just like buying a new bag or shoes, paying for our services is another way to let off steam for my female clients. I think it's about time we respected that. Being a male sex worker is not just about what goes on behind closed doors, often we also become their confidants.''
Ken, who is the youngest of four siblings and a college drop-out, believes that the sex industry is like any other service-oriented profession, and the customer is king. As he considers himself bisexual, he manages to pick techniques to please his women customers through his interaction with gay men, where he plays both a passive and active role.
''Thai women prefer tall, muscular men, but as I am on the slimmer side, I get asked out mostly by Japanese, Chinese and some Caucasian tourists.
''Most Thais admit to me that they are willing to pay for sex to get back at their philandering husbands or boyfriends. They feel getting a lover is too much emotional hassle.''
Over the years this lanky, bright-eyed young man has become a favourite with female Japanese clients, who he admitted were more vocal and explicit about their requirements compared with their local counterparts. He has also found to his surprise that most women patrons are rather pretty and are aged between 35 and 50.
Well-heeled women, who prefer the services of handsome heterosexual sex workers, often head towards clubs exclusively for women on Sukhumvit and in the Ratchadaphisek area, noted Ken. Often referred to as ''bar hosts'', the men are hand-picked not only for their dashing good looks, but also their education and manners. Most of these men have wealthy patrons who offer them a house, car and monthly pocket money.
Clubs such as the one Ken works for are more open to recruiting the more average-looking Thai. ''At the time I was recruited, I didn't really fancy men. However, the bar owner asked me if I had any reservations about entertaining men. Of course, I was looking for work, so at the time I just agreed. It took me a couple of months to get used to gay sex. Now, it's not a problem because I look at my job as a profession. I have also made it a point to not get attached to the people that take me out. If the same person comes to the club the next day and picks someone else, I don't let myself get upset over it and tell myself that I have to do better the next time around.''
Ken says being a male sex worker is high maintenance, so he hasn't been able to save much money. He says his only regret is that he didn't complete his college education. He plans to continue working in the sex industry until he's 30, after which he hopes to settle down with a woman.
''Even though I have bisexual tendencies, I hope to start my own family one day. Of course, this can only happen when I'm able to completely turn my back on Patpong's alluring night life, which has taught me so much about life. It will be like starting from scratch _ my future wife should also never know about my past.''
Ann, not her real name, is a divorced Thai women in her fifties. An entrepreneur by profession, she sees no problem in paying for sex: When she's not in a committed rela tionship, she feels paying for sex is one convenience that she can buy with her hard-earned money to unwind. As long as she practises safe sex and there are no strings attached to the financial transaction, she doesn't see what all the fuss is about.
''Men and women experience the same sexual feelings. The double standards in our society, however, condone men for purchasing sexual services, despite the fact that they have girlfriends and wives, so when the tables are turned what's the fuss about? Women have the right to choose how they would like to satisfy their sexual urges. I believe opting to pay for it is so much better than having an affair with a married man or someone in a committed relationship. Wouldn't you agree?''
Spectrum reporters went undercover to check out the conditions sex workers work under, and what they had on offer. We found most bars hire the services of a mamasan who doubles as club manageress to match potential customers with the men, while more aggressive ''papasans'' pull and shove potential customers to their clubs. While most clubs on the narrow lane attract visitors with sex shows, the one we decided to try offered a more traditional show, with men dancing to a ramwong beat in costumes exposing their muscular six packs and biceps. The highlight, according to Kung, the club manageress, was the acrobatic stunts by a group of the dancers in swimming trunks. The stale smell of worn-out leather furniture and a thick nicotine haze permeated the air, and as the show was in progress, she mumbled a list of numbers, saying they were ''real men'', but added that if we picked from the more effeminate ones, it would not pose a problem. ''Money is god, darling, your wish is our command,'' she cooed into my ear, when asked how gay or bisexual men would react to being taken out by a straight woman.
''Everything comes with a price, and our boys know very well how to please their clients, regardless of their sexual orientation.
''We have heterosexual men working in our club, however, they can't exclusively go out with women if they expect to survive in this industry. It is all about buying and selling _ one can't be selective.''
Kung was quick to assure us that testing for STDs (sexual transmitted diseases) and HIV/Aids are conducted regularly on the boys, and only after a clear health certificate are they allowed to work at the club. There is no reason to worry about contacting any disease from them, she gestured in an attempt to convince us to select one of the men on stage.
In terms of education, most of them have completed college and some even university. Some even hold regular day jobs and moonlight in these clubs at night, she said, noting that the economic downturn had driven a large number of men to become sex workers.
''The owner treats the staff like his family, so a number of them have worked with us for years. A healthy and happy person makes a better worker. Some of them have done well for themselves and purchased a house and land for their families upcountry. As long as people are welling to pay for wacky excitement the sex industry will continue to draw people with little hope of a better tomorrow.''
Judging from the male sex workers we spoke to, it was pretty evident that most of them took drugs and alcohol to get them through the day. Most are shy and introverted at the beginning. Encouraging customers to buy them drinks is the first step to getting better acquainted. They get a meagre 50 baht from each 150 baht priced drink. After hitting it off with a potential customer, the price _ which can range from 1,500 baht up _ is fixed, the customer decides on the venue. A ''bar fine'', a cover charge of 500 baht, is paid to the bar before they are allowed to leave with the customer. The more effeminate men are sometimes physically abused by their male clients. Reporting them to the police is futile, said doll-faced Kai, and showed us a purple bruise on his left arm. This is part and parcel of working in this industry, he lamented matter-of-factly. Despite his gay tendencies, Kai admitted that women are more gentle and nicer to be with.
The services offered to some male and female clients don't always take a sexual nature, said a handful who were interviewed by Spectrum. Clubbing, followed by dinner and an oil massage. Most women sex tourists are very precise about how they want to be pleased _ often preferring oral sex to other services. The working environment in most clubs looked rather stuffy and crowded, with narrow exits and windows that could be a problem in the event of fire. As customers are allowed to smoke inside, flammable objects such as thick curtains and cardboard boxes stored near the bar area were points of concern.
We left the bars of Patpong with a heavy heart _ hoping and praying state agencies would find it in their heart to safeguard the interests of these sex workers, most of whom would not risk their health if given an opportunity to make a good living.