History and Prominence
Prostitution has been common in Thailand and its predecessor states for centuries. From 1351–1767, prostitution was legal and taxed. It became illegal in 1960.
There are three acts governing prostitution in Thailand.
- Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act
- Penal Code Amendment Act
- Entertainment Places Act of 1966
Sex work is a prominent component of contemporary Thai culture and the national economy, but as is true of virtually every culture, there’s a multi-faceted ethical, human rights based controversy surrounding the practice. Like many other nations, Thailand struggles to control sex trafficking, and some believe that finally putting a stop to the illegal yet prevalent industry is a key component of doing so.
Solicitation of sex has been illegal in Thailand since the 1960s. However, upon the onset of the Vietnam War and the subsequent influx of U.S. soldiers throughout Southeast Asia, the industry thrived. When the military left, tourists began to fill the void in the market that they’d left. Since then, Thailand’s sex industry has been openly, if reluctantly, tolerated by authorities.
In 2017, tourism minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul commented that she wants the country’s sex industry “gone.” Since then, Thai police have launched a series of raids on bars and clubs, the aim of which is to find and put a stop to trafficking and licensing breaches. While the raids are well intentioned, many fear the most immediate effect will be that, without a system in place to help women who prevented from doing sex work, thousands of families who depend on income from sex work will be forced deeper into poverty.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that over 80% of Thailand’s sex workers are single mothers, and that avast majority are supporting a combination of parents, grandparents, and sometimes siblings. The national wage is currently 300 Thai baht (approximately $8) per day, but even the lowest-paid sex workers can bring home twice that much, making it one of the few options for a economically and socially disempowered woman to support herself and her family. (https://www.newsdeeply.com/womenandgirls/articles/2017/02/09/sex-workers-face-poverty-thailand-announces-image-makeover)
Sex Worker Power
The push to enforce the illegal state of sex work in Thailand is motivated by desire to cease and prevent the abuse of sex workers, but simply enforcing the illegality of the practice would likely have a detrimental effect on those who the policy change seeks to assist. As is the case globally, Thai sex workers advocate for decriminalization of sex work in order to regulate the practice, like any other work environment. Currently the lack of regulation due to sex work being illegal and yet such a strong component of the Thai economy allows, and in fact incentivises, disempowerment and abuse of sexworkers. Among those pushing for regulation of sex work is The Empowerment Foundation, which is an organization that provides educational (law, human rights, medical) & legal resources to sex workers.
Chiang Mai’s Can-Do bar is entirely run by sex workers in The Empowerment Foundation, which publishes research, personal experiences, and creative media about sexwork in Thailand, emphasizing personal empowerment and the importance of sex work to disempowered women. (http://www.empowerfoundation.org/barcando_en.html) As Empower spokeswoman Liz Hilton described, “This is a group of women who are refusing the poverty they are supposed to live in. 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.” (https://www.newsdeeply.com/womenandgirls/articles/2017/02/09/sex-workers-face-poverty-thailand-announces-image-makeover) Through their work, Empower ultimately hopes to decriminalize sex work in order to achive regulation of labor for the protection of sex workers, much of which hinges on official legal seperation of sex work from sex trafficking. In this way, the national goal of stopping sex trafficking and protecting the rights & safety of sex workers can be achieved while maintaining the livelihoods of the thousands of sex workers thier and families who rely on the industry. (http://www.chiangmaicitylife.com/citylife-articles/what-sex-workers-want-you-to-know/)
Lila Weller, Manon Maurer, Mary Grace Lewis