CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — Lauran Dale Bethell, an American Baptist missionary who has worked in northern Thailand for the better part of a decade, shakes her head in disagreement. "I get upset when I hear people say that children will never recover from this experience," she says, referring to sexual exploitation. "You're not giving enough credit to the power of the human spirit.
"Some of them don't want to be with men" after leaving prostitution, she adds, "but that doesn't mean their lives are ruined."
The Rev. Ms. Bethell concentrates her efforts on preventing girls from the hill tribes of northern Thailand from being sold or lured into the country's massive sex industry. The program she directs, called the New Life Center, also provides a home for girls who escape or are rescued from brothels.
Bethell is pleased with her success stories. And sometimes these victories come with the aid of a girl's older sister.
Take Bui, the youngest in a family of four orphaned girls.
Her sisters have all been involved in the sex trade, but the eldest brought Bui to the center some years ago.
Today, Bui is in college studying to be a lawyer. In a burgundy sweatshirt, a pair of serious-looking glasses, and a wraparound cloth skirt, she explains that without the center, "I would have ended up the same as my sisters, working in restaurants." The phrase is a euphemism for prostitution, since the Thai sex trade has begun to be more discreet amid sporadic government crackdowns on child prostitution.
"I would not have learned how to read and write, and I'd only be able to think in the short term," she adds. "My eldest sister is happy for me."
In a different part of this ancient Thai city, known for an exceptionally high rate of HIV infection among prostitutes, a 16-year-old named Muy would be an unlikely candidate for conversion to the hard work and slow rewards of education. But she, too, is offering her younger siblings some protection.
Amid the bright lights and loud music of a karaoke bar that serves as a front for prostitution, Muy says she came to Chiang Mai from her village "on my own." But she also says her parents got an advance on her earnings of 15,000 baht ($600), suggesting that middlemen were involved.
Another contradiction crops up later in the conversation, when Muy says she is free to come and go from the karaoke bar but acknowledges that the bar's owner keeps her government-issued identity card.
Nonetheless, she says she likes being in Chiang Mai, and she clearly enjoys wearing her bright red slit skirt and jacket, which match her lipstick.
Besides, she says, after just three weeks of sleeping with the bar's customers she has worked her debt down to $360. In another sign of familial loyalty, she plans to begin putting money in the bank for her parents soon.
Muy's two sisters also work in the bar, but they wash dishes.