Commercial Sex Workers in Southeast Asia

By: Sarah Troester

Commercial sex has become a major business in Asia, it has acquired many characteristics of an industry. It is highly organized, wages for work, factory-like atmosphere, anonymity and a complete alienation at the workplace.  According to reports from International Labor Organization, in spite of Asia’s economic crisis, the sex industry wont be slowing down because of the economic and social forces.  This industry wont even be affected in regions with high unemployment levels.

Generally, sex work is usually better paid than most of the option available to young, often uneducated women, despite the stigma and dangers with the work.  For many women, sex work is the only viable choice when experiencing poverty, unemployment, failed marriages or have family obligations.  Commercial sex works tend to be less time consuming than factory or unskilled labor.  For single mothers with children, the hours are more flexible than factory work.  Women also get paid better than they would for unskilled labor. Average monthly earnings in the middle range were estimated at around US$600 monthly and US$100 at the low end (“Sex Industry assuming massive proportions in Southeast Asia”, 2).  Commercial sex workers are not usually found in small towns or villages where they grew up. The young women leave the town or village for the city, to find their first-time job in the urban areas. The foundation for Women in Bangkok said that official policies promoting tourism and migration for employment, particular among women, encourage the growth of prostitution (“Prostitution a Major Industry in Southeast Asia”, 2).

The total number of sex workers is not available. It is believe there is several million workers that are indirectly and directly earning their living through commercial sex. A 1997 study by the Ministry of Public Health of Thailand found that of a total of 104,262 workers in some 7,759 establishments where sexual services could be obtained, only 64,8886 were sex workers; the rest were support staff including cleaners, waitresses, cashier, parking valets and security guards (“Sex Industry assuming massive proportions in Southeast Asia”, 2). Commercial sex clearly has created jobs for the population. Giving others the opportunity to earn better wages through the industry.

In 1997, it unofficial estimate of sex workers was between 200,000 to 300,000.  There are also ten of thousands of Thai women working in other countries as commercial sex worker. It is also estimated that hundred of thousands Burmese women work in Thailand’s sex industry.  Most of the Burmese women are illegal immigrants. Since most of the women are breaking two sets of laws, they are reluctant to seek services when they are available, because they fear being arrested or deported.  Nearly half of the women are estimated to be HIV positive which causes a health concerns for Thailand’s sex industry.  They generally have little education on STDs and HIV.  Because of the lack of education, Burmese sex workers HIV rates are higher than among Thai women.  The Thai authorities have begun to address some of these challenges.

The income of the sex workers is estimated to account for 2 to 14 perfect of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Southeast Asia Countries.  The countries government authorities collect substantial revenues in the areas where sex industry is thriving.  In this area, they illegal receive money as bribes, but legally from licensing fees and taxes on the hotels, bars and restaurants that participate in this industry.  In the Southeast Asia countries, the legal stances are not clear and causes issues when trying to create effective public policies or programs for the industry.

Sex industry in the Southeast Asia, has created complex health threats. In 2003, the harmful affects of sex industry in these areas had an increase.  The industry is source of spread of HIV and other sexual transmitted disease.  This is a problem that will require regional and international cooperation to resolve. The most obvious heath concern with commercial sex, is increased risk of exposure to STDs, and HIV infection. The long term affect are infertility, cancer and death.  Another health concern associated with commercial sex work is increase of mental health diseases, such as depression, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Thailand has tried to create health policies for commercial sex workers.  The most prominent policy is the “100 Percent Condom Campaign” which distributes free condoms to sex workers and the clients. Thailand’s health service and policies have not successful reached the undocumented sex workers.  This is a concern for the Thai government because of the large proportion of women in the Thai sex industry are from Burma.

Commercial sex work is becoming more prominent across Southeast Asia and the trend wont be changing anytime soon. The government authorities need to create policies to insure a safe sex industry.  The Southeast Asia countries also need to make policies and programs to help the women who are sex workers. By having policies and programs they can minimize health threats to the employees of the sex industry and the clients.

Work Cited

Beyrer, Chris, and Julie Stachowiak. “Heath Consquences of Trafficking of Women and Girls in Southeast Asia.” John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health X.1 (2003): 104-117. EBSCOhost. Web. May 2012.<\>.
“The Economics of Sex: Example Southeast Asia.” Women’s International Network News 25.4 (1999): 60. EBSCOhost. Web. May 2012 <>.
“Prostitution a Major Industry in Southeast Asia.” Women’s International Network News 25.4 (1999): 61-62. EBSCOhost. Web. May 2012. <>.
“Sex industry assuming massive proportions in Southeast Asia.” Women’s International Network News. 24.4 (1999): 65. EBSCOhost. Web. May 2012. < bGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=1210130>.


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