Recently on a holiday to Thailand, a friend took us as a joke to see a ping pong show in Bangkok. Up until the moment we stepped into this seedy night club I really thought he was just joking about going.
No one in our group thought the experience was enjoyable or funny. As one of the guys said it was "one of the most disturbing experiences of his life".
I was incredibly upset and appalled by the whole situation and the humiliating circumstances the women had to live in. As if all that wasn't enough one of the bar maids in bikini tops and mini skirts actually blurted out to a friend of mine that she was fourteen – quickly correcting that she had made a mistake and is actually eighteen...
Needless to say we left the place quite quickly. This experience prompted me to do some digging on the Internet about the sex trade phenomenon in Thailand.
No real statistics exist
It seems that no one really knows how many people actually work in the sex trade, as the government is not willing to even recognise the existence of such a market in their country. This eventhough the sex industry is undoubtedly a massive market in the country, employing not only the sex workers themselves, but loads of support staff as well.
The only study I was able to find on the subject is an ILO report from the year 1998. That study estimates that the number of prostitutes in Thailand could be somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000. The same study says the sex sector could account for up to 14 per cent of the GDP in Southeast Asian countries.
This must explain that while officials are reluctant to admit to the existance of such a sector, they are also not actively trying to do anything to reduce or erradicate it either.
A serious side effect of sex trade in the area is human trafficking. Girls and women from yet poorer neighbouring countries such as Burma, are brought to Thailand to work in the industry. Child abuse is common as kids are basically sold by indebted parents to traffikers.
What is the truth?
But then there are those who claim that the sex industry is empowering women to make their own money and to help the economy.
EMPOWER, an NGO representing the sex workers of Thailand state on their web page:
"We are sex workers. We are workers who use our brains and our skills to earn an income. We are proud to support ourselves and our extended families. We look after each other at work; we fight for safe & fair standards in our industry and equal rights within society. We are a major part of the Thai economy, bringing in lots of tourist dollars. We are active citizens on every issue... politics, economics environment, laws, rights etc..."
I found myself wondering if this is some kind of propaganda to justify prostitution as a profession in Thailand or are we just hypocritical to condemn the sex trade? While exceptions may very well exist, it would be rediculous to claim that all the hundreds of thousands of women working as prostitutes in Southeast Asia are doing it because they want to.
Often women are driven to work in the sex industry because they cannot sustain themselves and their families on the salaries paid by factories which produce clothes or food in substandard working conditions for foreign markets.
Women must have a real right to choose how they make money to feed their families. We in the consumerist western countries need to be at least ready to implement fair trade practices to enable women to make a decent living selling something other than their bodies.