* Prostitution in Thailand: Her fate, or choice?

Thailand has a prostitution problem. It is of neither recent nor imported vintage. Nobody really knows quite how big the problem is or how many Thais are involved in the industry because, contrary to the impressions of many tourists, the sale of sexual services is illegal. Social scientists estimate that the number of prostitutes ranges from 500,000 to 1 million within Thailand. Tens of thousands of Thai women also work overseas as prostitutes, mostly as illegal migrant workers in Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and other countries.

The 500,000 figure works out to be 10 percent of all Thai women aged between 15 and 25. When the large numbers of children, older women and men (the latter including transvestites and transsexuals) are considered, the estimate doesn’t seem far-fetched. After all, a well-known Thai journalist, Sopon Ongkara, a few years ago pointed out that in Bangkok there was only one neighborhood, the old royal city area, where sex was not for sale.

He was wrong, though.

He had forgotten about Sanam Luang, the former royal cremation grounds, now a green field bordering the Grand Palace and the National Museum. At night it becomes an open-air marketplace where the very young, very old and very desperate hawk that last bit of flesh. Other venues include bars, barber shops, brothels, hotels, nightclubs, massage parlors, karaoke bars, parks, tea houses and golf courses. At the top of the heap are “private member clubs”, advertised in glossy magazines. Here the women wear evening gowns and are purported to be college students or former models or actresses. At the very bottom, and not difficult to find, are “locked brothels,” where the women and young girls are bonded labor or slaves. 

As measured by compensation, working conditions and number of customers a woman must service, the seedy bars catering to overweight, balding white men fall somewhere in the middle. Not that prostitution is confined to the cities. Any town with a population of 8,000-10,000 has a ramshackle brothel or karaoke bar serving the locals. In much smaller towns along the Malaysian and Burmese borders, prostitution appears to be the sole industry.

There is no single reason why, absolutely and relatively, Thailand has more prostitutes than many poorer countries. A constellation of factors converge. The age-old explanation–poverty–carries less and less weight. The numbers of prostitutes seem to have risen since the 1997 economic collapse, but they also steadily increased during the 1987-1997 boom years. While it’s true that the wealthiest segment of the population profited most from the boom years, benefits did trickle down to the lowest. At least in Bangkok, jobs as servants or construction workers were open to any able-bodied person. Many women, or their families, snubbed those jobs because they paid less than prostitution.

The boom years meant more demand, as Thai men bought more sex. The more money in their pockets, the more they were willing to spend for the prostitution setting. By far, most patrons in Thailand are Thai men, yet foreign men also continue to fuel the demand. They not only visit on sex tours from Europe, Japan and Malaysia. There are also conspicuous communities of middle-aged and elderly Western men who live in Pattaya, Phuket and Bangkok solely for the availability of cheap sex, child sex and much younger wives. Many make a living teaching in English schools.

Once Thailand was established as a destination for foreign sex tourists back in the 1970s, the routes for trafficking Thai women overseas soon followed, beginning with Germany. The largest new export market is Japan, where up to 60,000 Thai women are now working. Originally Japanese and Thai gangsters recruited Thai women already prostituting themselves to Japanese men, as on Thaniya Road in Bangkok. But what most worries women’s and children’s advocates is that Japanese gangsters now go directly to northern Thai villages to recruit very young Thai and tribal women to work in Japan. Many of them have never worked as prostitutes before. Some of the tribal women are stateless, so they can face problems when they try to return to Thailand from Japan.

The always increasing demand has made it more difficult to supply the cheapest brothels serving Thai men. Prostitutes in such places might have to service a half-dozen or more men in an evening. Procurers–usually women, sometimes former prostitutes–roam the remotest areas, promising the parents of hill-tribe girls factory jobs in the city.

Trafficking routes now stretch into China, Burma and Cambodia. Such foreign and hill-tribe girls are preferred because the language barrier limits their chances of escape.

Whether the procurers are Thai or Japanese, it’s difficult for relatively poor Thai parents to resist blandishments that could mean a new motorcycle, electrical appliances or even a new brick house–and thus an elevation of their social status. The prime so-called harvest time is in April when 12- and 13-year-olds complete the standard six years of schooling. Agents descend upon the villages. Sometimes teachers and even monks get commissions for telling the agents about vulnerable young girls, perhaps because a parent has racked up gambling debts.

It’s almost become a cliche for Thai journalists or social workers visiting a northern village to identify which families have sold a daughter: they simply gauge the size of the house, vehicles or appliances.

Whether it’s a young girl sold by parents or an older woman working off a debt, a prostitute typically must work off twice her sale price. If she is resold before the debt is paid off, she may well have to start over. Her debt may actually increase because she is charged for small infractions. The true slaves are the hill-tribe and foreign girls, sometimes kept chained. Their open-ended sentences often end only when the symptoms of AIDS become obvious. Only on rare occasions does escape or rescue free them. Pay-offs from brothels are a major source of income for the police all over Thailand.

However they land in the trade, few women seem very motivated to get out. The money is too good, the family pressure relentless, the social stigma irreversible. Dark-skinned, barely literate, speaking a hillbilly dialect, often single mothers, the Northeasterners that service white geezers and geeks have little choice, although they do have freedom of movement that many of their sisters don’t. Even after they retire, they continue to belong to a permanent caste, set off by their tight clothing, loud “impolite” behavior, short tempers and coarse broken English. Their appearance bars them from many ordinary jobs in, say, a store or hotel.

Besides, the very fact that a Thai woman finds herself in a massage parlor or brothel proves that she is a bad person. Most will talk of luck or fate. Contrary to the usual stories told by male parachute journalists, genuine Buddhists don’t subscribe to either. Buddhists don’t believe in predestination. Buddha strongly condemned flesh trafficking. And Buddhists believe that the most wretched person can improve her lot in this life and the next.

It’s true, however, that the most popular Thai religious beliefs–which are an amalgam of animism, superstition, Brahaminism and debased Buddhism–do little to discourage prostitution or advance the most basic rights of women. Instead, they promote the idea that, with enough money, a person can make a donation to the temple that will buy nirvana, luck, prosperity, a Mercedes or whatever for both the donor and her family, in this life and future ones. Then there’s the belief, held by the vast majority of Thai Buddhists, that by spending even a few weeks in the monkhood, a son can earn transferable merit for his family, especially his mother. A daughter must prove her gratitude to her parents in other ways, often monetary.

Along with the dismal status of lower-class Thai women, Thai notions of masculinity contribute to the proliferation of prostitution. In olden times, noble Thai men advertised their status by collecting wives and concubines of various ranks. Immigrant Chinese men who made good acquired a “minor wife” or two or three. Today, if a man can’t afford a concubine, evidence that he’s had sex with many women is a measure of masculinity.

The Don Juan-type that seduces many women and abandons them is considered by many Thais to be more manly than the family man who supports his wife and children. Anyone that stays in Thailand for a few months will encounter lower-class Thai women that have been abandoned by their husbands. They now must support an entire family back in the provinces. Their brothers seem as feckless as their husbands. Be they prostitutes, housemaids, construction laborers or factory workers, their marital histories (and views of Thai men) are much the same.

Feminist organizations don’t concentrate their efforts on extricating girls and women from prostitution. Rather, they work on prevention, especially helping vulnerable teenagers stay in school. After feminist organizations initiated scholarships (amounting to about $40 per year per student), the government and expatriate women’s clubs followed suit. Still, only a few thousand girls are reached this way per year. Thai feminists also run a shelter near Bangkok for abused women, some of them escapees from brothels. Yet it is little known and overburdened. And it’s the only one in the entire country.

Prostitution is probably the principal reason that the AIDS epidemic grew so quickly in Thailand. The primary means of infection is heterosexual sex. Most married Thai men patronize prostitutes …∞

This is an essay on the roots of Thai prostitution that I wrote for Apa Insight Guide: Bangkok. A decade ago, it was quite novel to suggest in a guidebook that Thai prostitutes (and Thai women, for that matter) were human beings rather than passing entertainment or tricky vendors meriting tough bargaining techniques. The rise of the internet also has added new dimensions to the industry, especially at the higher end of the industry.

Today there are large numbers of Thai prostitutes in relatively new markets such as Australia, South Africa and United Arab Emirates. Finally, let’s put absurd legends to rest: no Thai needs to sell a daughter or face starvation. Thailand isn’t that poor; in fact, there is a labor shortage and at least 2 million foreign migrants work illegally in the lowliest jobs. Plenty of organizations will care for a child. Foreign organizations, such as the American Women’s Club and Soroptimist International, will finance a girl’s education through at least high school. Families that sell daughters or pressure them into the trade spend the earnings to buy vehicles and  mobile phones, finance a gambling habit or to build bigger houses that enhance their social status.

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