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Liisa Leeve
Journalism Student (Helsinki, Finland)

I'm a journalism student from Helsinki Finland. My special interest in this competition is to discuss issues related to the empowerment of women.


The sex industry in Thailand – a problem or a profession?

Published 21st April 2010 - 9 comments - 7635 views -

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.


Photo by adaptorplug courtecy of Flickr Creative Commons

Category: Equality | Tags:


  • Asza Valdimarsdottir on 21st April 2010:

    You’re right: The sex-trade in Thailand is extreme and the government doesn’t do anything about it, nor do I think they plan on doing anything about it.
    I grew up in Thailand and have been to Pattaya where the infamous ‘ping pong shows’ go on (although never been to one). Bangkok is also full of similar clubs although perhaps a little less… graphic. It isn’t only a problem for women though - although the ‘ping pong’ shows make it difficult for men to show their ‘craft’, plenty of young boys make up the numbers in Thailand’s prostitution.
    It’s a sad fact that many natives of South East Asian countries are forced into the sex trade because of finances, and many of them at a young age.

    One note though: Chances are the barmaid was only 14, but there’s also the chance that she made an honest mistake. (Language barrier?)

  • Liisa Leeve on 21st April 2010:

    I also thought maybe she had genuinely made a mistake, but she looked very young…

  • Marianne Diaz on 21st April 2010:

    I do need to admit that I have a moral issue regarding prostitution. I believe that the vast majority of women involved in this field of work are forced in a way or another, if not by some kind of slavery, by economic, social and cultural impediments that stop them from getting a dignifying work that allows them to overcome poverty. But, in the other hand, I know several women who practice prostitution while they’re in college, some to pay the bills and some not so much, and a lot of them stay in prostitution even when they have a degree, only because they make more money of it. (A young educated prostitute in my country makes four times my monthly wage, and I’m supposedly not underpaid as a lawyer).
    I feel the best legal solution is the one we have in here, if the laws were enforced. It isn’t illegal if a woman is a prostitute, it’s illegal if someone else drives her to prostitution. That doesn’t work, of course, because law is just a piece of paper here. However, that doesn’t solve the issue. Women need opportunities, because there are no rights at all if one can not choose.
    I’m sorry for the very long comment. :( Thanks for your article!

  • Robert Stefanicki on 21st April 2010:

    I can add some points to the article:

    1. Before anyone here turns to complaint on “filthy white old men” - most of the sex industry in Thailand is destined for local market. Lots of Thai males use to visit a brothel once-twice a month. But this local part of the industry is hidden from “farang” (foreigner) eyes, so you can imagine how huge this market is altogether.

    2. EMPOWER propaganda? Not so. Sex workers unions and NGOs for decent sex-work condition exist in some European countries - so why not in Thailand? Some of the girls are forced to do it by poverty, for some others it’s a choice.

    3. Great credit for Thailand government for efficient fight against AIDS. There are very few developing countries in the world where public policy has been effective in preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS on a national scale, but Thailand is an exception. Education and free condom distribution work.
    On the other hand - the authorities only pretend a fight against prostitution (formally illegal in Thailand). Once in a while the police strike at a red-light district somewhere, but this strike is short-lived and ONLY at foreign sector, never local.

  • Bill Hinchberger on 21st April 2010:

    I have never been to Thailand, but here’s a report I did from Brazil a few years ago, originally for The Lancet:

    Something else perhaps of interest:

  • Liisa Leeve on 22nd April 2010:

    Thanks for the comments!

    Marianne, the same phenomenon of college girls earning some money on the side as prostitutes does exist also here in Finland, although I doubt that earnings are relatively as good as you say (more than a lawyer). We have the same legislation, that prostitution is legal as long as the prostitutes manage themselves (i.e. pimping is illegal).

    Bill, really interesting article. A lot on the same lines as the women running the Thai prostitutes’ union.

    Robert, I also read somewhere that it’s mainly Thais and other Asians who make up most of the clientele of Thai prostitutes.

    The worry I have with organisations such as EMPOWER is that it might draw attention away from the women who are forced (either by financial reasons or physically coerced) to work as prostitutes.

    The sex industry as a whole is a seeding ground for human trafficking and child abuse, so untill those issues are resolved I can’t really consider prostitution a sound form of business.

    But I do admit that maybe the crime related to prostitution would decrease if it wasn’t illegal and cosidered “dirty”. There would be more transparency in the business.

  • Jodi Bush on 22nd April 2010:

    I think it’s like with any trade/profession - if you’re forced into it and subjected to bad conditions/bad pay then it’s wrong. If you’re making the choice to work, have protected rights and are paid fairly then it’s fine. I don’t have anything against prostitution per say - I’ve read plenty of testimonies from women and men who have made the decision to work in that profession. It’s their choice. The main problem with the sex industry is that such a huge proportion of people involved don’t have rights, aren’t paid properly and don’t have any choice about staying or leaving. I think groups like EMPOWER (and there is another in Japan that was formed recently) which give those in the industry a means to organise themselves and a united voice are positive. They can also help increase focus on cleaning up the profession and clamping down on the darker side of the industry.

  • Katie on 22nd April 2010:

    An interesteing and informative book on this topic is Half the Sky: Turning Oppresion into Oppurtunity for Women Worldwise. Written by a married couple, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn it is an eye opening and honest look into the issues women around the world face daily.

  • Liisa Leeve on 26th April 2010:

    Thanks for your comments Jodi and Katie. While I do agree that as there are men and women truly choosing prostitution as a profession, it should be made as safe for them as possible.

    But I have to wonder what kind of a percentage of the world’s prostitutes actually prefer prostitution as a means of making money over every other possible option in the world (if they were given a real opportunity to do anything)? I suspect the number is very small.

    The the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights aspects of the victims of trafficking in persons, especially women and children, Sigma Huda, has been quoted in saying:
    “For the most part, prostitution as actually practised in the world usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking. It is rare that one finds a case in which the path to prostitution and/or a person’s experiences within prostitution do not involve, at the very least, an abuse of power and/or an abuse of vulnerability.”

    So how can anyone be sure that a prostitute is not being abused even if he/she claims to be a willing professional?

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