Handsome Men – Invisible Women

Prostitution in Thailand and why we don't talk to our mums about it.

By | Wed 26 Oct 2011

If you ever felt a pang of shame at the cinema in Thailand when you heard such words as ‘she’s as loose as a Bangkok whore’, or a similar defamatory witticism in reference to Thailand’s bawdy image, you can put your conscience at ease. Thai subtitles are not usually so brash, while – and to some extent therefore – many of the locals sitting near to you may not be aware that their country’s most talked about attraction is prostitution.

In spite of Thailand’s sex industry being emblematic of the country externally, internally the game and the players are hardly sensationalised, or even discussed critically. It goes on with a volley of collaborative winks between users, suppliers, non-consumers and law enforcers, who have all learned to turn their blind eyes to – or take advantage of – the nominal law and its moral precursors, for myriad reasons.

Marketing departments might be working hard in an attempt to purge Thailand of its lusty image though it will be exceptionally difficult to undermine, or even openly admonish something that is continually very profitable, and also implicitly accepted as common practice within the parameters of double-sided cultural values. For this reason the sex industry has somewhat become the country’s worst kept secret.

It was reported by the Harvard Business Review in 2000 that around sixty percent of tourists visit Thailand for sex, and so TAT’s counter-active pastoral slogans will always be playing catch-up to seedier images of the country, whether true or not. On the other hand it has also been argued by various critics that those beautiful and demure smiling girls in certain TV advertising campaigns, and other international marketing initiatives, are complicit with the sex industry and indirectly associated with sex tourism. Perhaps to please a varied target audience an ambiguous image needs to be preserved, that is both innocent and sexy. The Land of Smiles may have been a work of marketing genius.

Outspoken critic, Professor Federico Ferrara, author of Thailand Unhinged, writes about a nationalised, fuzzy perception of sexual morality in Thailand: “For anyone who has ever spent any time in Bangkok, to read the ongoing debates on morality and sex in the editorial pages of Thai newspapers is essentially to venture into a parallel universe – a petty bourgeois black hole whose existence is quite distinct from the everyday reality of Bangkok’s busy streets. Even as the country was being transformed by its rulers into a degenerate open-air bordello – a veritable beggars’ banquet – the Thai press has spent much of the past century nostalgically lamenting the decline of Thai culture…” His criticism is not of sex work, but of a part of society’s inability to conceive of its own norms, partly as a result of a consistently naive and blundering process of socialisation. This has created a kind of force-field that blurs the more realistic image of culture, and so is helping to prolong the lack of substantial (other than sex work) opportunities for the poor to egress from their social bunkers.

Prostitution is ubiquitous throughout Thailand. It is also illegal (since 1960), and in a sense due to the so-called rules of Thai decency, it remains self-contradictorily immoral, mostly in view of commandments concerning female chastity. Contradictions abound. A hypocrisy often raised by critics is: How do women righteously protect their virginity until married, while men fulfill their masculine promiscuous obligations?

The Ministry of Justice in 2003 did consider legalising prostitution to minimise its more venal, inhumane, and criminal elements, while looking at gaining huge tax returns, though it never happened. It’s also well known, and has been widely reported, that the vast majority of Thai male politicians indulge in prostitution. To promote enforcing the law, or to even condemn prostitution, would be outright hypocrisy for some advocates, and also a great loss to their senses.

Because Thailand is a country that for the most part collectively embraces the ‘iceberg theory’ we know that the infamous poles of Pattaya, and the miasmas of vaginally discharged cigarette smoke of Soi Cowboy, are certainly just the very gaudy tip of an often less spectacular underside of prostitution. The ’you handsome man’ genre of the sex business, though a large chunk of tourist revenue, plays a minor supporting role compared to its more discreet Thai counterpart. During the Vietnam War foreign soldiers pumped an estimated 16 million dollars of their wages into the Thai sex-economy – the catalyst of en-masse sex tourism – but the majority of prostitutes in Thailand work not in the spotlight with wayfaring foreign travellers, but at the end of the lane with local customers.

Dr. Nitet Tinnakul, while working at Chulalongkorn University, wrote in 2004 that the sex industry employed 2.8 million people in Thailand, including approximately 2 million women, 20,000 adult males, and 800,000 minors under the age of 18. These seem like disproportionate numbers when you consider the population of Thailand. But the sex industry employs many kinds of workers, such as cleaning staff, promoters, etc.

Prostitution anyway is a nebulous word. What actually defines prostitution? ‘Services’ may be rendered in flowery circumstances between the benefactors and the sponsored, tempered with romantic interims, though coitus on a pro rata basis might still be the essential nature of the act. If this is sex work, statistics will always beguile us. The now retired Dr. Nitet told me that prostitution can mean “many things”, from “working in a bar, karaoke, massage parlour,” or what he plainly called “service.”

In his book Paying for It Garth Mundinger-Klow writes that European sailors reported about Siamese prostitution as early as the 16th century. In the late 19th century F.A. Neale’s book Residence in Siam explains how fathers traditionally took their unmarried 13 year old (“having reached their expiration date”) daughters to their shops to “be sold to the highest bidder”, or the even worse fate of being “sold to Arab merchants”. Female infanticide (“nose pinching”) and abandonment have also been reported in studies of northern villages as ways to off-load excess baby daughters in the past. It is said that the process of dok keaw, parents promising their daughters to buyers – after a down payment is made at a young age – until they have ‘ripened’, was practiced in northern Thailand until the mid ’90s.


In light of this, the freedom to sell oneself might be looked upon as a kind of modernity that is a vast improvement against the vagaries of cold, and self-serving, paternalism. If poverty in the past ruled unmarried girls a bane to their families, then has modern prostitution reversed the curse? Admittedly, with circumstances for poor women still being dire.

The early 20th century saw women’s bodies for sale in the Siamese 50 satang brothels. The luxurious arb ob nuad became popular as early as the 1940s, and what one young Thai man I interviewed called Ae referred to as the “w**king massage”, is fast becoming popular today. After reading one of many indecisive statistics concerning prostitution in Thailand I asked Ae if it could be true that, “95% of Thai men over 21 have visited a prostitute,” and he replied, “Yeah, I guess. My friends do it, if they win at gambling, then they go to arb ob nuad.”

One particular term used for exceptionally attractive girls who may temporarily commoditise their bodies is ‘sideline’, pronounced in Thai with the omission of the ‘d’ and ‘n’ sounds (sie-lie). Rumours of spectacular sidelines (purportedly mostly students) have become near to mythical all over Thailand (the Golden Fleece in Chiang Mai being a book of photos consisting of young students). The cost of a sideline is high due to their putative innocence and often chimerical nature. Blogs and websites with sidelines offering services are full of ‘normal’ girls with day jobs or upcoming exams, complaining about lack of funds. A sideline is a ‘luxury’ item, Ae explains, not a ‘garee’ (whore). Morally speaking, a sideline is contrived to be a better class of prostitute, if thought of as a prostitute at all.

How we construe prostitution will always be flapping in the wind somewhat. A child that is sold to a brothel, and a girl who decides to have ‘conditional’ sex with men, offer up very different social and moral implications. One is a universal human tragedy, while the other might be seen as taking initiative, or perhaps viewed as a socio-economic tragedy. Slavery and entrepreneurship are in direct opposition to each other.

Dr. Nitet explained that women, “become prostitutes for economic reasons, and lack of education…It can’t be legalised as society still doesn’t accept it. Women can’t admit they do it, it’s a loss of their dignity.”


Happy Ending

Empower, an organisation empowering and supporting sex workers throughout Thailand, sees absolutely no reason for this aforementioned loss of dignity. Liz Hilton, who has been with Empower since 1992, and helps run the Can Do Bar (run by sex workers for sex workers) in Chiang Mai Land, outlined more clearly to me the local sex industry.

“From 1992-95 there were still some locked brothels in Chiang Mai that kept women,” she explains, though the brothel culture mainly consisted of hilltribe, Burmese or Chinese migrants. “By 1994 there were no Thais in locked brothels,” Hilton says.

“When the new prostitution laws came in the long rehabilitation law was changed to a 1,000 baht fine, this made it so the police couldn’t extort a lot of money from the girls.” The threat of three years in prison gave police leverage in ‘taxing’ sex workers, says Hilton, though the 1,000 baht fine stopped this. The police soon changed tactics, she says, and knowing that most girls were undocumented in the brothels they changed from “extortion for prostitution, to harbouring undocumented migrants.” This in effect closed down all the brothels. “The economic pressures on brothel owners went up with all the illegal women working for them, and because of child labour crackdowns the police had a reason to regularly raid brothels.”

So women then went out on the streets and into places like karaoke bars. “The women had freedom of movement,” says Hilton. “In the last 3 years we have found only one case of enforced labour in a closed brothel. The industry has developed. But with no political will, it just changed by itself. Imagine development with political will and social support!”

Hilton advocates decriminalising prostitution, for the implementation of labour laws, improving working conditions, having social security for workers, and improving occupational health and safety for workers. Decriminalisation may also prevent the police from corralling their regular under-the-table bounties – a kind of taxation without representation.

The industry is vital to the economy of Thailand, Hilton says, but it’s also vital to the police as it is now in its state of illegal limbo. “The industry supports the police force, every sex worker in Thailand pays the police, whether directly or indirectly,” she says.


But if its illegality were to become a reality, then Thailand would suffer a social and economic catastrophe says Hilton. “300,000 working women, what would happen to them?” she asks. Most of the prostitutes Hilton works with support 5-8 other adults, “Imagine 300,000 women out of work supporting 5 adults!? There are a lot of people anti-this and that…we know what they don’t want, but we don’t know what they are offering. They want to take girls out of one cage, and put them in another cage.”

Hilton’s analogy concerning the necessity of the sex industry is simple. Imagine impoverished girls receiving a menu of opportunities for life much like the scant menu of a noodle stall, and more affluent members of society receiving the menu of a large restaurant. Sex work works for those with very little realistic opportunities in life to become independent and support family members who have only paltry (500 baht a month if approved) government assistance in old age.

Hilton then introduced me to Wan, a young Chiang Mai karaoke worker. Wan says she enjoys her job, although she is not too keen on some of her working conditions: “I get dressed and made-up for 6 p.m. If I’m not made-up and in on time I get fined five baht for every minute I’m late,” she says, explaining her employers use the clock-card system to properly enforce this rule. “It’s a big business,” she explains, “there is PR, mama-sans, service staff and managers.”

Wan explains that she must meet a monthly quota of 60 drinks bought for her and have 50 hours of sitting time with men (many nationalities and every conceivable occupation). “If I don’t reach this target my salary is cut,” she says, and then explains to me that if her job was recognised as a job under labour laws there legally could be no such thing as wage cuts for apparent misdemeanours or failure of monthly objectives.

“I get about 20,000 baht a month, and most of that goes on my house, car, clothes, make-up, and family,” says Wan, and explains that she enjoys her financial independence. “Every job has difficulties,” she says, “no one likes their job all the time. Sometimes we have really drunk customers, often the policemen, and they make it hard for us and the manager when they don’t want to pay…I don’t have to go home with a customer if I don’t want to, and I am under no pressure to do that from the boss. I just have to meet my quota.”

As for the stigma she says, “When I go back to my village, which is poor, and I have a car, I have money, and I can make sure my parents don’t have to work hard, people don’t look down on me, they’re envious.”

Wan has also worked taking care of children; she used to mend clothes, and she has worked in factories. She doesn’t feel she is a victim. “This service is not so different from the dowry system, except now I earn the money myself, a man doesn’t give it to my family. I have freedom and choice, and the payments keep coming in. It’s not just one payment.”

“Do you want to say anything else,” I ask Wan, as she must get ready for a night’s work.

“Yeah, don’t forget a big tip.”

“We don’t want the government to go to bed with us,” Hilton insists, and repeats that she wants to see prostitution decriminalised, not legalised. “We need laws against rape, or child abuse, or violence, but often laws against prostitution just create another opportunity for extortion by the police.”


The refreshingly outspoken Australian says that the sex business is something most people still feel coy about despite its preponderance. “The foreigners say it’s a Thai thing, and the Thais say it’s a foreign thing,” Hilton explains humourously, “everyone passes it around like a hot potato.” Though the girls who work in the sex industry, she explains, are not ashamed about the matter and are quite open. The stigma she says is more acute in the daytime, at nighttime it’s different.

“Politicians, doctors, most men, see prostitutes in Thailand,” Hilton explains, “but after a lot of crap was said about HIV and AIDS being spread by female sex workers, the stats went down to 16% of Thai men.” During the HIV epidemic and the global publicity it received statistics were rehashed so that blame for the disease could not be ascribed to Thai male customers, says Hilton.

People should get rid of this image of all the women being victims she says, “it is not at all true”, and adds that women sometimes feel obliged to take on this image of the sad, victimised prostitute to reflect the theories of a myopic public, and also to consolidate Thai society’s mandatory, often hypocritical moralism that asserts prostitutes and promiscuous sex are immovably mai dee.

This evening as nightfall descends on Thailand shining fairy lights will speckle a network of beat-up roads and stretch around an entire country like a series of electric arteries; within a few hours of Thailand’s karaoke bars turning the switch the high-heeled prostitutes of Rue Saint-Denis in Paris will have unofficially clocked-in, and a few hours later in the predominantly middle-class cloisters of leafy Ottawa suburbs, police will be out looking for girls utilising their reproductive organs as a means to make money. Meanwhile laws are repealed, amended, and reformed almost all over the globe on a yearly basis, and are consistently basis for sincere moral ambivalence, religious rhetoric, and interminable controversy.

While severe poverty coupled with the absence of social welfare is certainly a direct stimulator of the sex industry, it can’t be said to be the sole reason for it. Governments in some countries have advanced the blanket victimisation stance, or have bypassed their laissez-faire embarrassment, and through regulations have afforded sex workers improved safety, labour rights, and independence from unscrupulous agents. More so, taxation with representation (especially Thailand) in such a mammoth industry could create substantial revenue to be re-thread into society. Perhaps in the future sex workers might not have to extend an embittered closed palm to the many reaching hands of a police force that continually finds ways to exploit the law.

The stigma attached to promiscuous sex is in some ways inhuman. It is our ceaseless virility that ensures the industry of the human race remains intact. Taboos are just protracted toothaches, they require treatment. So rather than embrace the verdict handed down to us from centuries of ‘enlightened’ moralists concerning the vice of voluntary sex work, these so far counterintuitive principles might be subdued and we can accept a human condition while administering human rights to it. Maybe then there might be a happy ending, or at least a better sequel, for the sex workers of Thailand.