Despite contributing an estimated 10-12% to Thailand’s overall GDP, Thailand’s Prostitution Act states that it is illegal to buy or sell sex. “It’s [The Prostitution Act] working, don’t you think?” Jane quipped after briefly explaining the act to me. Jane (who prefers to be unnamed) is a leader at Empower, a Chiang Mai-based sex worker advocacy organisation founded and led by female sex workers.
Among the myriad of work Empower does, one club within the organisation is the Legal Club, whose high heel defenders (a play on the phrase barefoot lawyer) study laws that impact sex workers. These high heel defenders work to organise and mount campaigns, such as their current campaign to repeal Thailand’s Prostitution Act. Empower is also currently part of a class action lawsuit against the Thai government’s failure to provide proper compensation for sex workers affected by the entertainment industry’s prolonged closure. But the adversities faced by sex workers began long before the pandemic.
While 80% of the women who join Empower were single mothers before starting sex work, many outsiders overly assume that sex work is driven by poverty or a lack of education. While that may very well be the case for some sex workers, one’s decision to become a sex worker is often more nuanced than that.
Jane explains the decision to become a sex worker with the following analogy: “If you go into some restaurants they have a big menu, it’s like a photo album you could spend ages on. Very few people in the world have that kind of menu for the careers they’re going to have. Most people don’t start with astronaut and end with zookeeper. You just get the one page noodle menu. You can wash clothes, you can clean houses, you can do this or that. It’s very small. Some women will choose sex work on that menu.”
While many women at Empower have other jobs such as selling lottery tickets, sex work is their main income. Jane adds that the money sex workers make provides freedom for their whole family. Sex work also allows more free time than most other professions — an incentive for many single mothers who have more time to be with their children or study to fill gaps in education.
Jane contrasts the benefits of sex work to the monotony of working in a factory, where you get the same amount of money, everyday, for the rest of your life. “What you do today you’ll do tomorrow,” Jane says, “Sex work’s not like that. You’re meeting people from all walks of life, from all around the world. You’re getting the worldview. And you might be getting this much today, but tomorrow you might get a customer that throws 5,000 baht at you as a tip.”
Founded in 1985 by a Thai woman who had returned to Thailand after being exiled in America, Chantawipa Noi Apisuk was reoriented to life in Thailand after meeting sex workers in a bar in Patpong. As Jane tells the story, “She [P’Noi] felt that like she was a good woman and that sex workers automatically had to be bad women. But when she went to the bars of Patpong, she couldn’t find the bad women, she could only find other women like herself.”
P’Noi began teaching these women English since many of the bar owners (or employers) and many of the customers were Westerners. The English classes took off, and after a few makeshift classrooms (namely P’Noi’s kitchen and afterwards a sidewalk), a local bar owner offered his space when rainy season began.
After a Bangkok Post writer published an article on how amazing it was to see sex workers learning, female sex workers across Thailand began seeking out this still unnamed organisation. Since its 1985 inception, 2,000 women have been part of the Empower network. Language education has always been at the heart of Empower’s mission, and eventually Japanese and German were added to the educational menu.
“Being able to say yes, no, I will, I won’t, is the beginning of asserting yourself and your rights. It’s a tool that goes to a whole lot of other areas,” Jane says. It is worth sharing that Empower is in fact an acronym for, “Education Means Protection Of Women Engaged in Recreation.”
Empower’s leadership has always included migrant workers, something that remains true today. Jane notes that this is unique from other industries throughout Thailand, where migrant and Thai workers are typically very separate. Jane estimates that 20% of sex workers in Thailand are migrant workers, but that number probably doubles in Chiang Mai, and even more so in border towns. But as Jane puts it, “There’s all kinds of numbers out there all over the place, but until it matters to women to be counted in one of those numbers, then why bother?”
For women that choose sex work, Empower has been instrumental in creating a support network to pool resources. While Empower Chiang Mai is the only physical Empower centre, there are active chapters in at least nine other areas throughout Thailand. Over the years, other centres have opened and closed, but these decisions have always been made by sex workers in a given Empower chapter.
While one may argue that lack of education leads to sex work, even when sex workers have worked to further their education, it has not been an easy process. When the Thai government instituted non-formal education, allowing more opportunities for adults to obtain their elementary or high school qualifications, many women at Empower wanted to partake in such classes.
But there were already two huge barriers: school timing, which assumed most adults would be able to take class at night, and the level of stigma that sex workers encountered as students. As Jane explains, “they [sex workers] were told they were not allowed to use the toilets because nobody wanted to use the same toilets as a prostitute. With that as an attitude, you can’t study in that environment. That’s just too ugly.”
Empower attempted to carve out space for themselves and register with the Department of Education to become a non-formal education centre. Initially the department said that because migrant sex workers did not have identification cards they could not study. After filing and winning a lawsuit, the Thai government agreed that migrant sex workers could study, but not get certificates, which led to a second round lawsuit. Still, these certificates noted that these women were, “not a Thai citizen,” which led to third round lawsuit, and yet another Empower victory.
Migrant sex workers can now study for and obtain the same school qualifications as their Thai-national counterparts. Time and time again, the women at Empower have persevered despite all odds against them. But this ultimately begs the question: what is so terrifying about an educated migrant sex worker?
Despite an estimated 300,000 sex workers in Thailand, sex workers continue to be plagued by the same issues: stigma and the police. Because sex work often is funneled through entertainment industries in Thailand, such as karaoke and go-go bars, it is widely known that entertainment venues throughout Thailand pay police to allow sex work.
This fee is commonly deducted from women’s salaries. Although Thailand’s biggest (male) clientele comes from within Thailand, Thailand consistently ranks in the top sex tourism destinations and attracts male clientele from countries such as Germany, Japan, and the United States. Although demand ultimately drives supply, female sex workers continue to be scapegoated for an industry that existed long before any one sex worker.
In 2006, Empower opened Can Do Bar: a bar that does not break any laws, or pay police like other entertainment venues. Last year Empower moved its “This is Us” museum throughout the bar. The first floor “Can Do” section explains the general history of sex work in Thailand, while the upstairs portion of the museum explains the history of Empower and its resistance. COVID-permitting, Can Do also hosts events such as drag shows and eventually hopes to lead guided tours throughout the space.
Like other working professionals throughout the world, sex workers have been decimated by COVID-19. Because sex work is illegal and consequently unregulated, sex workers are not eligible to receive benefits from the government. Sex workers are trying to make money in any way that they can. Some women are eating less, some have refinanced their motorcycles, and many are selling any and everything. Some women returned to their rural hometowns to live off land with family, or back to low-paying jobs like construction. At one point, Empower even housed a communal garden.
It is unclear whether sex work will become legal anytime soon, but for now, the stigma surrounding sex work is lessening. This is in part because Thai society has changed the culture of the ways women should “be,” which has had trickle down effects to sex workers. In the past five years, social society has also changed, in part due to the outspokenness of the rising youth movements. “People may still look down or disapprove of sex workers, but people are putting rights before morals,” Jane says.
Rather than assume what sex workers need and want, governments around the world should acknowledge that sex work is here to stay. Supporting legislation that legalises sex work will begin to better protect female sex workers. As Jane jokes, “Every time people think sex workers are special or a special case, their lives get a whole lot worse. What they’re asking for now is to be treated equally as badly as everyone else.”
As one of the sex workers at Empower shared with me, “We’re just one kind of worker, that’s trying to earn money to look after our families like everyone else. We’re not asking people to approve of sex work, they may continue to believe it’s immoral. But we’re asking that it doesn’t have to be criminal. That we can stop being harassed and arrested.”
Words: Erin Hanley
I am not a sex worker, nor have I ever been a sex worker, or plan on engaging in sex work in the future. Prior to spending time at Empower and getting to know some of the women there, sex work was fairly unfamiliar to me. Working on this article helped me better understand the sex work industry. I hope this piece encourages those who are also unfamiliar with sex work to begin to educate themselves.