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Thailand’s Sex Industry: An ‘Open Secret’ Thriving on Exploitations of its Vulnerable Workers

CW: Mentions of slavery, Human trafficking, and Abuse

The Changes in Thai Perception Towards Prostitution

When King Rama V abolished slavery in Siam (modern-day Thailand) in 1905, women did not have the choices men did to either enter monkhood or join the military. Before the Slave Abolition Act, followed by the Conscription Act in the same year, Thai society operated under the hierarchical system of bondage and slavery: The Sakdina system separated wives into marriage through arrangement, love, or the social insurance that slave mistresses and their poorer families received when farmers bonded with wealthy landowners to ensure subsistence when their crops failed.

Post-1905, the roots of prostitution in Siam from the mid-1800s gained popularity during the Cold War era as American GIs visited Pattaya, a city on Thailand’s eastern Gulf coast popular for its beaches, resort hotels, and 24-hour nightclubs. When Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat staged a coup and came to power as Prime Minister in 1957, his authoritarian state saw the sex industry flourish in Bangkok and the Central-South due to a rising middle-class, more male migrant workers coming in from rural areas, and American soldiers bringing in tourists and businessmen as they flooded Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

However, where once ‘third-tier’ wives were considered honorable sacrifices women made in their quest for socio-economic stability for themselves and their families during the Sakdina era, in 1960 sex work became criminalized. Consequently, Thai perception towards prostitution has changed dramatically over the course of the last 60 years – especially when Wattanavrangkul, Thailand’s first female Minister of Tourism and Sports, came to power after the 2014 military coup (which installed Thailand’s junta government up until 2019) and vowed to end Thailand’s reputation as a sex tourist haven. This resulted in multiple raids on Pattaya nightclubs in 2014-15 and some high-profile sex establishments throughout the country in the years after.

The Legacy of ‘Tok Keow’ & the State’s Moral Duplicity

In the midst of the rising HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1990s, the practice of ‘Tok Keow’ – one of two definitions which we concern ourselves with being the reservation of adolescent girls from their parents post-graduation from middle school – escalated as many women moved from Mae Sot, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Mai to go south to Songkhla, Surat, and Bangkok to become sex workers. ‘Long tai’ (go south) echoed the sentiment of young girls fulfilling their moral debt to their parents amidst harsh economic conditions, leading to the social stigma around sex work somewhat lessening as children returned home to buy their parents property and material wealth.

The Anti-Prostitution Act that came to effect in 1960 put harsher penalties on sex workers rather than agents responsible for deceiving impressionable girls into the industry; though a renewed bill in 1996 included penalties for all parties involved in sex work, the harmful reality of police officers disregarding enacting penalties on those with the economic means to pay them resulted in sex workers being unjustly exposed and vulnerable within a legal system which only exploits rather than protect them. Adding to this contradiction is the fact that paying for sex in the country is legal if it is consensual, but sex workers can be fined $40-$1,600 or imprisoned for up to 2 years if they approach clients (who remain unaffected), work in brothels, or spread the news about their services.

In Thailand, trafficking is a major source of revenue for the police: The state encourages forcing Burmese and Laos women across the Golden Triangle (where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet), as well as the trafficking of northerners. In 2014, one-third of human trafficking victims in the world – mostly girls from Thailand and Laos – faced sexual exploitation, and today Thailand produces one the most sexual abuse perpetrated by tourists. Instead of tackling cross-border sex trafficking, the 2008 Anti Trafficking in Persons Act used ‘rescue’ missions into sex establishments without a warrant to arrest and deport women who entered the industry voluntarily, only widening the gap between Tok Keow’s legacy and workers rightfully embracing self-agency.

The country’s archaic legislation on prostitution that claims to protect sex workers only proves to manipulate the industry from which huge profits are gleaned by those in power as its workers suffer from violence, economic neglect, and social ostracization. Indeed, malversation toward prostitutes as the nation continues to divert attention through its facade as ‘The Land of Smiles’ has made Thailand’s sex industry an “open secret”, as one Bangkok Post article highlights.

Economic Realities for Sex Workers

In 1998, prostitution contributed between 2-14% to Thailand’s GDP, according to the International Labour Organization; before the pandemic, the sex industry made $8 billion a year for the country’s economy. Reflecting the filial piety that incentivized ‘Tok Keow’, women in the sex industry transfer close to $300 million annually to their families in rural cities – a figure which surpasses Thailand’s government-funded development program. With World Bank projections of a 50% return to normality for Thailand’s tourism industry (representing up to 20% of the country’s GDP) by 2023, sex workers who have been pushed into poverty are one of the groups to bear the brunt of the pandemic.

SWING, a foundation working to promote human rights for people in the sex industry, revealed that sex workers haven’t received any assistance from the government for more than a year by August 2021. Harsher political and economic suppression of prostitutes in Thailand has solidified the social stigma around their occupation as an illegal, and therefore shameful, aspect of the kingdom’s identity tied in with its thriving red-light districts in Bangkok, Pattaya, and Phuket. When COVID-19 escalated, workers were left to fend for themselves as their “ambiguous status”, already depriving them of basic labor protection as they remain unregistered in the social security system, further barred them from the protection of government unemployment benefits recompensed to other professions as the economy declined.

With the Thai Civilised Party wanting to legalize “grey” areas like casinos and prostitution in the country as a way to tackle state corruption as officials continue exchanging bribes within the sex trade, not only would as many as 500,000 prostitutes benefit from the legalization of their work, but black money within this context would turn into state revenue in the form of tax. One deputy leader from the party stated that, even with anti-prostitution and anti-human trafficking laws in place, sex work will continue to exist in Thailand. Moreover, legalizing prostitution could also attract more foreign visitors to alleviate the country’s desperate economic situation since they closed their borders and went into lockdown in April 2020.

The Case for Humanizing Sex Work

A state known for child sex trafficking, migrant abuses, and political suppression, many are adamant in accepting how legalizing prostitution would counter state corruption and the exploitation of vulnerable sex workers in Thailand. Despite the research being mixed on whether legalizing sex work would encourage abuse or tackle it, the focus on protecting workers from prosecution under the law should be paramount in adhering to the fact that an “overwhelming majority” of workers from a UN report citing a study on sex work in Asia pacific want their profession to be legalized or decriminalized.

Since “the profession remains the same - only Thai perceptions of it have changed”, the government should provide real and lasting support for workers to remain afloat beyond the pandemic. The Nordic Model of prostitution, which was instigated in Sweden and became adopted by countries like France and Canada, allows only the criminalization of buyers and pimps while protecting the exploited and providing them with economic and social assistance in leaving the industry if they wanted to. The model’s effectiveness is proven through its link to decreasing trafficking, respecting not only basic human rights but de-stigmatizing sex work for those who voluntarily enter the industry.

As we strive to humanize sex work while raising awareness about the realities of economic corruption and human rights abuses permeating Thailand’s socio-political sex tourism landscape, we realize how very few independent prostitutes would choose to continue their work if financial strain wasn’t an issue. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs notes that, of the 2,500 active sex workers in their industry, most workers come from India, Laos, and Thailand to escape corruption, underdevelopment, and the “judgemental ignorance of a middle class that harshly places prostitution on a moral low ground”.

In ‘Rethinking Thai Sex Work: The Mistress Culture’, Jasmine Chia emphasizes how the community of “sexpats” that had foreigners flocking to fuel the country’s sex tourism industry contains a layer of companionship and affection that drive clients to care for their “professional girlfriend”. Thai sex workers pair their “necessary invasion of privacy” with emotions and romantic interaction that lead us to see how “in the system of violation, it humanizes the work they do”.

Editors: Chau, R., Yan, B., Clemo, S., Masud, U.


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