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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