What Do Israeli Sex Tourists in Thailand Really Think?

Guy Brucker spent three months in Pattaya, where Israeli men go for one reason - to have sex with prostitutes.

Yotam Feldman
Haaretz Correspondent
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yotam Feldman
Haaretz Correspondent

On a steaming hot summer morning around three years ago, Guy Brucker, a student from the Haifa University, traveled the 165 kilometers from Bangkok to Pattaya, the sex tourism capital of Thailand. The silence of the other passengers in his taxi - an Israeli in his 50s, two German men and a Japanese man - made it unclear what they were after. Or not.

"People go to Pattaya for only one reason," Brucker, 35, said. "Everybody knows that, but nobody talked about it on the way. I felt like I was climbing mental and physical mountains. I felt so very alone."

Unlike his fellow passengers, Brucker was not searching for sex in Pattaya, at least not in the customary sense. Brucker had traveled there within the framework of an anthropological study of Israeli men seeking sex services in Thailand. Over the course of three months, Brucker did not leave the city, which is viewed as heaven by some and as hell by others. Today he says he will not be traveling in Thailand in the future.

Brucker stayed at the "Mai Travel" hotel in the city, which accommodates, almost exclusively, Israeli sex tourists. He visited sex clubs, dined with Israeli sex tourists and played pool with them. In between activities, he interviewed some 60 men.

Amir (not his real name), a 39-year-old bachelor, said "I heard about Pattaya the same way everyone hears about it. But only when you arrive, and you breathe in the atmosphere and live the place, only then do you understand how much everything you were told is nothing, a pathetic tiny nothing of nothings, compared to the amazing and wondrous reality that awaits you here."

"The openness," Amir continued, "the humanity, the smiles of the beautiful sexy and open-minded women. It's not like the Israeli women, with their nose so far up in the air that it slaps Jumbo planes flying by in the sky."

Brucker, formerly a member of the Sha'ar Ha'amakim kibbutz, currently lives in Ramat Gan. He traveled to Pattaya alone after spending a week in Thailand with his girlfriend, Hila, a clinical psychologist. "I was afraid that Guy would get bored, and wouldn't be able to last three months," Hila said. "It wasn't that I was afraid he would do something, but three months seemed like too long to me. When we sat with Israelis and I heard them speak about the Thai women I was disgusted. I thought it was the most vulgar thing. Later, it became apparent that this kind of talk was the acceptable norm."

Do whatever you want

Brucker, an introverted type, overcame his natural shyness and bought a ticket to the infamous city through the Israeli Connection travel agency. "When the Thai driver called out 'Pattaya' I got a flashback of seven-year-old Guy breaking a soup bowl in the middle of the kibbutz dining hall during Shabbat dinner and the eyes of half the kibbutz turn to him, asking 'what's going on with Shmuel's son?'" Brucker writes in his report.

The hotel was not very striking, he writes. "You can see pictures of men hugging Thai women on the walls alongside thank you notes from former clients thanking the hotel owners for their hospitality. There are wooden tables in the lobby and a small room with three computers," he describes the scene. The room was the closest thing he could imagine to a whore house, he adds. "Inside there is a television, a DVD and a refrigerator with a box of condoms resting on top. Just in case, there is another condom on the bed, alongside burned DVDs of Israeli television shows and movies. The first thing I did was buy new sheets at the local supermarket. Just the thought of what previous guests had done on them?"

The first night, he writes, was a jarring experience. "A large number of women standing in the streets, touching you, inviting you, calling out to you. There is a sense of a lack of boundaries. I have never seen anything like it."

"It is difficult to reconcile all the papers I've read with the feeling this place gives me. With sex out in the open and seductive women, the defenses and the theories don't silence the libido. The city invites you. It tells you 'go do whatever you want' - there are girls here at your service and around you everyone is affirming the very behavior you've always criticized. Think of Eilat, an entire city, only all the streets are part of an enormous brothel. There is no where to run other than into your room and inside your head. Even when I went to buy food at the mall."

What happened there?

"I thought I could get a break. Everything is very sterile there, except perhaps the many pairs of Thai women and tourists. So I sat down at a restaurant to eat, and two women were making eyes at me for the duration of the entire meal. You could say men are sexually harassed in Pattaya. This way you can really understand how women feel."

On the second day, the city looked a little less inviting. Brucker describes his work as a defense mechanism protecting him from the feelings raised by his first encounter with the city. Maybe it was this defense mechanism that left him with no real friends during the three months he spent on the island. "Most of the time I was unhappy," he said. "The worst days were the ones during which no one wanted to be interviewed. I would find myself spending most of the day in the hotel room in front of the television. After that I would go to another restaurant, and another restaurant, and no one wanted to talk."

He managed to convince the Israeli men to talk to him relatively easily, during the afternoon hours at the hotel. Though most men were reluctant to divulge information about their lives in Israel, they were happy to describe their activities in Pattaya. There were those who even approached him voluntarily. The interviewees ranged from age 17 to 50s and 60s, from trash collectors to students to businessmen. Some of the men were permanent residents of the city - retired policemen or Israel Defense Forces officials who bought apartments in town and stayed for several years.

"They say that the economic situation in Israel is killing them and that the women are killing them. They have no sex lives. So in Pattaya, they say, they have relief on both fronts. They come to a vacation spot and feel like life is a vacation," Brucker said.

The Israelis he met were not ugly or repulsive in any way. However, many of them complained of having undergone a crisis over their manhood. They said they were disappointed by the economic situation, the loss of their youth, the materialistic culture, but more than anything they blamed the feminists and the Israeli women. The comparison between Israeli and Thai women always took center stage in his conversations with the Israeli men.

"I think it's the exact opposite of what happens in Israel," said Assaf, a 39-year-old bachelor. "In Israel women wait until they are 150 years old, and by then they have been eaten by worms in their graves for about 60 years. In Pattaya, women give off the signal 'we want to devour you, we're ready for anything with you, sex and romance too, so let's live because there are a lot of nuclear bombs in this world and some idiot could push a button and the world could go to hell.'"

"I felt handsome," said Ran, a good looking man of 21 who spent most of his time without a shirt on. "All the things that make you feel ugly at a young age - I stopped thinking about that nonsense a long time ago, thick eyebrows and all that crap. For a long time now I have thought that I have nice eyebrows after 20 thousand Thai women told me they were nice. This whole thing about maybe my hair is nasty, all those dumb thoughts you have about yourself: maybe this doesn't suit me, maybe this is why girls don't whistle at me, maybe because of this I have to work harder to get the girls, be cuter inside. But then you arrive here, and suddenly your hair is the most beautiful in the world."

Brucker emphasizes in his study that the victims of the sex trade, first and foremost, are the women, but he adds that men, too, have become the victims of the society they belong to. They suffer not only from the social requirements around them - to be rich, to be handsome, to be a chauvinist - but also from the merciless social requirement to get laid. "People there don't rest," he said. "They feel the need to have sex with more and more women. They don't care that they're tired, they don't listen to what their bodies are telling them."

Could this situation lead to positive things too, such as a more critical view of Israel?

I think that some of the men are extremely critical of Israel long before they arrive in Thailand, and their stay only reaffirms their criticism. The problem is that when they talk about being unhappy, they blame the women. If they complain about the value placed on having money, they'll eventually end up complaining about women and the feminism that has reared its head, about the fact that the man is not given his rightful place."

Like a rag for you

In his study, Brucker describes at length the otherworldly quality the men that visit Pattaya attribute to the city. They feel as though they are leaving the familiar world and moving into a parallel universe with an entirely different set of rules than the ones they are accustomed to. The anonymity and the lack of social restrictions are two key elements in their experience.

"Imagine me coming to Israel and suddenly becoming a different person," said Haim, a 54-year-old married insurance agent. "Think about it, I have to disconnect myself. I disconnect from what happened here, I don't recount experiences, I don't tell my wife. Here I am disconnected. It's hard because I have a family. I try? If it were up to me, I wouldn't call anyone at any time, I would disappear. But I call because I have a commitment, I call my parents, I call my family, but not too much. As little as possible."

Many of the men think of Pattaya as a liberal open space that allows them to overcome the inhibitions that characterize their sexual relations in their home country. Brucker was surprised to find how prevalent the cultural relativism theory, which originated in the social sciences departments, was among the tourists, and often used to justify. "They recruit the ideas of relativism to see an openness that doesn't really exist in Thailand, and by that justify their deeds," Brucker said.

Yoram, 60, married with two children, fifth time in Pattaya: "In Buddhism there is no taboo on sex, it's not a sin, not a crime, it's nothing, so these girls enjoy themselves from the get go. When you're with someone you can tell that she wants to have sex."

Moshe, a 24-year-old Jerusalem resident, added "Here, it is the most natural thing there is, that's how they are. They don't know any other way. It is the way they see things, they think that this is the way it should be. When you bring a girl to your hotel room nobody looks at you as if you're doing something wrong, because it is the most normal thing that could be."

These descriptions ignore the pain and the humiliation that define prostitution, like the physical and psychological violence prostitutes endure. Pattaya sees a very high incidence of murder and violence, Brucker said. Some of the interviewees even told him about bullying the women as though it were a natural part of the relationship between a tourist and a prostitute. "You feel that you can do anything," said Eli. "You come and you do everything, all the things you don't do with your wife out of respect, you let yourself do here. Because here they are like a rag for you. If one doesn't want to do something she can go home. There will be another one within seconds, so you can do whatever you want."

"We are our head, we have fantasy," said David. "We want to realize our fantasies, and we can't make them happen at home. With the Thai women you can do anything. You can bang her in the ass, she sucks you off, you can put your penis in her ear, her mouth, her nostril. You can do everything and everything alright. And why is that? Because with my employees, when I tell them to do something, they better do it. So even if she's a really good employee, she has to get up in the morning and go to work and she has to make my fantasies a reality because I am paying her money."

Against this background, it is easy to understand what Pattaya brings out in men. Brucker explains that more than anything, he was embarrassed by the treatment the hotel waitresses received. "These are 17-year-old girls from Laos. I felt the most shame over the way they were treated, more than other things, because I sat with men that they gave service to, I was part of them. You see them smack the waitresses on the back side, people telling the waitress she's stupid or ugly. I sat with them at the table and didn't tell anyone to stop, so I felt much more complicit in it than in other things."

Giving them Zionism

Despite the distance from Israel, tourists in Pattaya bring much of home with them. It's not only the Israeli hotels, with menus in Hebrew. "There was a group of paratroopers who came straight from reserves duty to the island," Brucker related. "One of them said that one day he didn't feel like leaving the hotel so he ordered a girl by telephone. He said 'I called the enlistment officer' referring to the woman who sends prostitutes to men."

Another interviewee, 26, went even further when he explained to Brucker about the ideological messages he insists on relaying to the prostitutes. "I give them a lot of Zionism, lots of Zionism. I talk about Israel constantly, about the army, how much I don't like Arabs and that they shouldn't go with Arabs? I tell them I was a paratrooper and that I fought the Arabs who killed my commander. I tell them that in Israel, radical Muslims carry out terror attacks. Somehow it isn't easy to explain it to them, but I try."

Brucker surmises that Israeli sex tourism, like domestic violence and sexist attitudes towards women, is directly connected to service in the IDF. As a combat fighter who was wounded during his service in the Israel Air Force's elite Shaldag commando unit, and through his work at a facility researching behavior of IDF troops, Brucker sees a clear connection between IDF service and sex tourism.

"You see how we have a culture of personal glorification, of saying that who you are is related to the occupation of the other. This is how people grow, through the subjugation of others. It's possible to see this in the way we don't acknowledge what is happening in Gaza or the failures of the Second Lebanon War. We see these as the result of us not finishing the job, because the resistance of the prostitute was too strong. She said there was a limit to how much you can trample on her."

One of Brucker's surprising revelations in his research was the way sex tourists in Pattaya would avoid or ignore the concept of prostitution, often crafting elaborate fantasies of romantic relationships with the women whose services they had purchased. Many of these men don't pay for the women's services outright, instead buying them gifts, inviting them to restaurants, and sending money to their families. Brucker sees this as a form of denial and personal fraud carried out by the men.

"This allows them to be present physically, while at the same time detached from the act," Brucker says.

"She really enjoys it," says Kobi, 40.

"I also love to tell her nice things, to whisper them to her, to hug her after sex, I love spoiling her before the sex. I do things for her that no one has ever done?She knows how to appreciate this," Kobi says, adding that he sees this as why "she didn't ask for money the first time. The sex was so good and she enjoyed it so much that at some point she just turned away the money?On many occasions, she tried to pay for things, but I prevented her from doing so, even when she said it's alright. I like giving her things, with the knowledge of course that she stays with me and doesn't go out with any other men."

One man, Dekel, says "she's in it for the fun" though he did admit that "I did pay her rent and bought her clothes, she can't say I owe her anything. I buy her food, buy her what she wants, little things of course."

But does Thailand allow men to pursue relationships they couldn't find with an Israeli woman who is only interested in their money? According to Brucker, "On a basic level, the place [Thailand] doesn't allow for relationships that aren't based on the exchange of money." Brucker added "this place doesn?t allow you to think of relationships in the same way they're thought of in Israel."

Brucker insists that a trip to Pattaya has a lasting effect on men after they return to Israel, in the way they treat women.

"The boss who returns from Pattaya will treat his female employees differently, he will treat women he meets at work, the pharmacy, the mall differently. One man told me, after Patayya, even when his wife tells him no he knows she really means yes."

Would these women still be considered prostitutes if they were to return to Israel with men they met in Thailand?

"For many women, this is the dream," Brucker says, "but in reality, its like winning the lotto, there is almost no chance it will happen." Still, Brucker says even in such hypothetical cases, he doesn't see any likelihood that the relationship would become any more equal than it was as a prostitute-client arrangement back in Thailand.

Brucker says that today there is a need to change legislation in order to prosecute men who travel to Thailand to take part in the sex trade, but in the meantime, it is up to women to prevent their husbands from going on such trips, or at least to tell them they are not naïve, and know the real reason they are flying to Thailand with their friends for "a two week trip to take in the sights."