The Erotics of Authenticity: Sex Trafficking and “Reality Tourism” in Thailand

In this article, our ethnographic focus is a human trafficking “reality tour” of Thailand, a one-week tour of purported trafficking-related sites that the authors jointly attended. This tour was part of a growing number of trips around the world that offer alternatives to mass tourism, taking issues of social justice and humanitarian intervention as their focal orientation. As scholars with an interest in trafficking, labor exploitation, and sex workers’ rights, we chose to take not human trafficking itself, but rather the “reality tour” that claimed to represent it as our ethnographic object, to critically interrogate the reality of the “realities of the global trade in humans” that it endeavored to convey. What do commercially packaged “anti-trafficking” tours reveal about global panics around sexuality and sex work, as well as about the politics of tourism and development in Thailand? Transnationally, how does the notion of “NGOs as experts” interact with local expertise around trafficking, labor, and sex workers’ rights? And how do moral and political economies of authenticity circulate in the “reality tourist” experience? We situate our interrogation of these issues within the expanding literatures on tourism and authenticity as well as the critical literatures on sex tourism and sex trafficking, two terrains of scholarship that have infrequently been juxtaposed.

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