PATTAYA, Thailand – In Pattaya’s famous Walking Street, amid a haze of neon and lycra, a group of scantily clad girls saunter back and forth outside a bar entrance, while nearby another holds a placard offering “red hot ladies” along with “ice cold beer.” Though prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, the thinly veiled cover of bars, karaoke clubs and massage shops do little to counter the town’s long-held reputation as a mecca for partying, sun and sex.
In an attempt to redefine Thailand as a destination for “quality” tourism, tourism minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul recently proclaimed she wants the country’s sex industry “gone.” At the same time, police have launched a series of raids on bars and clubs, saying the aim is to tackle trafficking, underage sex work and licensing breaches. But the result is a large number of establishments, many of them playing a part in the country’s sex trade, being forced to shut down for an indeterminate length of time while the owners go to court.
Advocates for the rights of sex workers say that any crackdown on the country’s sex industry threatens to destroy, intentionally or not, the livelihoods of the women who work in it. And without a system in place to help women who are forced out of sex work, the government could be pushing thousands of families deeper into poverty, they say.
At Chiang Mai’s Can-Do bar, an enterprise run by local sex workers and rights group, The Empower Foundation, Nina and Mai talk about the satisfaction they feel now, after having worked an assortment of jobs in bakeries, spas, food stalls, resorts and as manual laborers in the national parks.
“Before, if my parents got sick, I couldn’t help them. But now I earn enough so whatever my family needs, I can take care of them,” says Mai. “It feels really good.”
Nina, a single mother of one, says she is “proud” of what she is able to provide, adding that, as a Thai daughter, it’s her duty to care not only for her children, but also her parents, as well as support their financial needs.
“In the beginning, I thought I would just work part-time, but then I earned over 10,000 THB ($280) in a week, which was more than I was making in a month,” she says. “So I decided to quit my job and do this full-time.”
According to Empower spokeswoman Liz Hilton, the story is the same for many of the disadvantaged Thai women who choose to enter the sex industry: After trying to make ends meet in a series of jobs, they turn to sex work as a last-ditch attempt to fulfill their economic duties.
“This is a group of women who are refusing the poverty they are supposed to live in,” she says. “They want to take that chance, not just for themselves, but so they can bring their families, generationally, up out of poverty. So they’re the women buying the land, buying the tractor, sending kids to university, sending their brothers to the monkhood. They’re carrying the bulk of the family dream.”
The solicitation of sex has been illegal in Thailand since the 1960s. However, with the onset of the Vietnam War and the subsequent influx of U.S. soldiers across Southeast Asia, the industry flourished. When the military left, tourists took their place. Ever since then, Thailand’s sex industry has been openly, if reluctantly, tolerated by authorities.
“In the 30 years since Empower was founded, we’ve been through 14 governments – some were elected, some were appointed, some were in the green uniform. And no one has sincerely worked to solve any of the problems of sex work and tourism,” says Hilton. “It’s not unusual for a new minister to say that there will be an end to prostitution, but we haven’t heard what she’s offering the 300,000 women who have no capital and no qualifications and who are often the head of their households.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least 80 percent of Thailand’s sex workers are single mothers, and all are supporting some combination of parents, grandparents, and sometimes siblings with their sex work. The national wage is currently set at 300 Thai baht (about $8) per day. According to Hilton, even the lowest-paid sex workers can bring home twice that much.
But even as it promises a large number of women financial security and the ability to fulfil their family obligations, the sex trade in Thailand, as anywhere, can be dangerous.
After her mother died of an HIV-related illness, Mint, now 27, took on the responsibility of supporting her own young child and her HIV-positive brother. She was offered work in a Bangkok restaurant, only to discover that it was actually a massage parlor selling sex. But she was making more money than she had ever known, so she stayed in the job for a while before moving on to street work at a friend’s suggestion.
“I felt like I had no choice. I had a child I had to support and a family that was dependent on me,” she says. “Sometimes I really didn’t want to go with a customer, but I knew I had to because I needed the money … because I had to help my family. The entire burden was on me.”
Now Mint is getting help from NightLight, a charitable foundation and outreach project that helps sex workers who want to transition out of the industry. CEO Annie Dieselberg says that although the organization would ultimately like to see the end of sex tourism, that can’t happen until the government addresses the issues that force women to turn to sex work in the first place.
“There has to be assistance to families, training, micro-enterprise projects in rural villages, much better education systems that teach kids to think and help kids to see the value of staying in school, affordable high school, affordable vocational training, and better jobs that pay fair wages,” she says. “A single mother cannot support an entire family.”
But so far, say advocates, the government has made no moves to look for solutions, and there have been no discussions with those in the industry. (Repeated requests made to Wattanavrangkul’s office for comment for this story were unanswered.)
“I’m not even sure the government knows we have sex worker organizations here in Thailand,” says Surang Janyam, director of SWING, which supports sex workers in Bangkok’s Patpong area through a drop-in center and medical clinic. “Or maybe they just try to close their eyes and ears. But sex workers are not garbage. With garbage, we clean it up and throw it away. These are human beings. Don’t just say ‘stop.’ Give us options.”
At the Can-Do bar, Nina and Mai are worried. In their area, several bars have already closed down, while on the streets there is anxiety about what tourism minister Wattanavrangkul’s image makeover for Thailand means for the future of sex workers and their families.
“It’s really difficult making a living, it’s hard enough as it is,” says Mai. “If she wipes out prostitution, it’s not going to be affecting 20 women or 200 women, it’s hundreds of thousands of women. What has she got ready for that?”