“You should know that prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960. Still, it’s estimated to be worth US$6.4 billion a year in revenue.” Ever since I told people that I was moving to Southeast Asia for a semester, studying abroad in Bangkok, I heard a number of things. Many were curious to know if I was going to visit the sky bar from The Hangover, see a live Muay Thai fight, or encounter prostitutes casually walking on the streets or in clubs. And, to my disbelief, I’ve actually seen all three. But, out of these experiences, the one I was most shocked with was when I saw sexual tourism at its prime, right in front of eyes.
A specifically uncomfortable experience that I had involving these exploited women was pretty recently. My mom came to visit, and some friends and I took her out for dinner downtown on her last night. We were a couple minutes from the restaurant when we accidentally turned onto the wrong road and ended up walking down a remote, yet very lively street filled solely with bars and massage shops. In front of each establishment stood about five barely clothed young Thai women, in sky-high heels, matching body-con red pleather ensembles, donning apathetic grins. And then it hit me; these women that I was walking past with my mother were sex workers. Sure, they were also bartenders and masseuses, but they still provided a little more than that.
Now, I had learned in my history class that prostitution is illegal in Thailand, and it is highly frowned upon by many. But, how did that explain the fact that nightlife in some of the biggest cities here was pretty much dominated by the prevalence of female sex workers in nearly ever night club, bar, and busy street corner? To answer that question, I did some research and found a few things regarding the history of prostitution in Thailand, why its kept such a blatant “secret,” and what is currently going on with women right in my very city.
Initially, I learned that there are certain districts dedicated to sex tourism, mimicking somewhat the Las Vegas strip. Clubs line the streets with flashing lights and even flashier women. Pattaya, Thailand is perhaps one of the most popular cities in the country known for this atmosphere. There is something known as the Red Light District here, also similar to that in Amsterdam, however not as blatantly legal. Women work in the clubs doing a number of things, whether they bartend, host, or provide sexual favors for men in plain sight. In an article written by journalist, James Austin, entitled, “Prostitution: Thailand’s worst kept secret,” he explains that such sexual work is rarely hidden, and clearly promoted across clubs in the city. These women that do such degrading work are swallowed by the historic idea that they are property made to be sold. Austin then mentions how he spoke with a professor from Chulalongkorn University named Dr. Nitet Tinnakul. In their interview, Dr Nitet states, that women in Thailand, “ ‘become prostitutes for economic reasons, and lack of education… women can’t admit they do it, it’s a loss of their dignity.’ ” This statement here is troubling to read, especially as a woman with much self-respect. And, it alone explains why so many women do such degrading work, because they truly do not understand what it means to be respected and not objectified. Additionally, “prostitution provides a way for people of low education to earn a high salary,” as explained in an article regarding the supply and demand of the prostitution sex trade in Thailand. This is a billion dollar industry, so to someone desperate for money, it’s a profitable option.
Furthermore, stemming off of Austin’s article is another piece addressing the same incident where a female gave sexual services to a man in the middle of the bar, is entitled, “Prostitution and Sexual Hypocrisy in Thailand.” Addressed here is the overwhelming hypocrisy with societal norms throughout Thailand. The writer talks about how, “In Thai culture, virtually anything goes… as long as the “dirty deed” is done in private” and people play the ignorant card. This fact alone is perhaps even more shocking than the initial fact of women selling themselves for money in the first place. The country publicly abhors such inappropriate behavior, yet it “secretly” promotes it at the same time with online “dating” sites, escort services, and club environments where such sexual work is nearly everywhere.
And, in the end, sexual tourism in Thailand still exists, forever making me, and my confused mother, uncomfortable.