Thailand’s sex industry is the elephant in the room for the Tourism Authority of Thailand. In the exotic, traditional, conservative picture painted by the state, there is no mention of an industry that has given Bangkok a reputation as “the carnal capital of the world.” Although prostitution remains practically illegal and the state does little to enforce sexual safety both for workers and consumers, Thai sex workers do much for the country. In 2015, different studies estimated that revenue from the sex industry contributed between 2 and 10 percent of Thailand’s GDP. Prostitution fuels the sex tourism industry, and has created a community of “sexpats.” But what makes Thai sex workers so popular?
Some would attribute it to the fact that in Thailand, sex work is about more than just sex. On various forums, a common message is that “It is not always easy to distinguish between prostitution and legitimate relationships.” Many foreign men seek out Thai women not just for their sexual services, but also for the time and caring that comes with it. An unnamed customer of sexual services stated that taking women working in the sex industry out for dates in what he calls a “pseudo-relationship.”
Being a prostitute is not about the sexual act itself, but also about what happens before and after. In an interview with Public Radio International (PRI), an independent sex worker in Chiang Mai describes that most of her job is having drinks with customers and that she only has sex with them two or three times a month. In a model some have compared to a “professional girlfriend,” sex workers can provide affectionate company, act as willing listeners and conversantionalists, and in return the client does not just pay for the few minutes of copulation, but will buy her clothing or take her to watch movies and on dates.
The idea of a “professional girlfriend” is not a new one in Thailand. Sex workers replicate the model of the Meīyn̂xy or mistress, that finds popular expression in Thai novels, but it does this on a different level. While mistresses typically found companions in wealthy Thai men, sex workers do so for middle class men or foreigners. It is part of Thailand’s mistress culture.
The Sakdina system was the hierarchical system of bondage and slavery that remained in effect in Thailand until King Rama V in the late 1800s. Under this system, men were allowed three categories of wives: a wife from an arranged marriage, a wife that the man chose for love, and slave mistresses. For many impoverished Thais, the Sakdina system was a form of social insurance: farmers bonded to wealthy landowners could be sure that if their crop failed, the landowners could be prevailed upon to provide a means of subsistence, perhaps through alternative forms of labor. Women from poor families could be sold as the mistress of a wealthy aristocrat, earning both money and face for her family at home.
However, when King Rama V ended slavery in Thailand, these bondsmen were suddenly free, and many did not know what to do with their freedom. For many impoverished former slaves, this meant a loss of livelihood. While the Slave Abolition Act took effect in 1905, the Conscription Act was enacted that same year, which gave men the choice of going into the military or monkhood. However, women could go into neither profession.
Women did not immediately go into prostitution, although at the time that was already a viable profession. According to EMPOWER Foundation’s private Sex Museum, prostitution’s roots in Siam go as far back as 1860, when an Ayutthaya official was licensed to run an elite brothel. When Chinese migration began in earnest in the late 17th century, the center of Bangkok’s prostitution moved to the Chinese district, Sampeng. By the time Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939, there were at least three renowned brothels in Sampeng: Yai Faeng House, Mae Kleep House, and Mae Tao House. Prostitution flourished especially in the 1950s during the Cold War era, when American GIs flooded Pattaya for rest and recreation. In the words of Noi, EMPOWER Foundation’s current director, “In their right hands they held guns, in their left hands a girl.” Prostitution was made illegal in 1960.
The state’s role in the sex industry went through three eras: the Sakdina era where third-tier wives were sanctioned by the state, the constitutional era where the state turned a blind eye, and the post-Sarit era where the state criminalized the industry. Yet, the profession remains the same — only Thais’ perceptions of it have changed. The third-tier wives were considered neither licentious or morally reprehensible — it was well established that these women came to the houses of wealthy men to seek socioeconomic mobility, and in some cases the sacrifice made on behalf of their family was even considered honorable. As the state moved to modernize the nation, it imposed an imported legal framework that exists in disjuncture with the operation of the socioeconomic system: these mistresses, now sex workers, fell into the gap that was created.
The idea of the third-tier wife or the professional girlfriend as a cultural construct is not limited to Thailand. In George Orwell’s Burmese Days, set in colonial Burma, Flory’s mistress Ma Hla May considers herself a bokadaw, “a white man’s wife.” She accesses this status through their sexual relationship, but in her eyes, this obliges Flory to provide her with the wealth, clothing, and bracelets to live up to this status in society. In return, she is incredibly loving and affectionate with him. Her sacrifice in leaving her village to come and live with Flory is significant, and when he gives her up, she is devastated.
That sacrifice is still being made today, by rural women who come to red light districts as the principal breadwinners of the family. To them, the sex industry is — as it always was — a means to sustainable income. According to the International Labour Organization of the UN, close to US$300 million is transferred annually to families by women working in the sex industry in urban areas, which in many cases is a number that exceeds the budget of government-funded development programs.
The narrative of sex work as a means of socioeconomic mobility only applies to independent prostitutes. The sex industry in Thailand is complicated, and there are many different kinds of sex workers. EMPOWER’s museum exhibits the differences between a massage parlor, a karaoke bar, and a go-go bar. Massage parlors are considered cleaner, as sex workers are able to wash their clients as well as spend time with them, and a worker in a massage parlor is more likely to be independent, unlike a sex worker in a dark bar or in a clandestine alley. For those who are trafficked into the industry, it is a different story.
However, it is important to remember that trafficking is a different issue than prostitution. Pasuk Phongpaichit’s book Guns, Girls, Gambling, Ganja explores the major role that trafficking plays in ensuring supply for the sex industry — but in Thailand, unlike in northern Asia, trafficking is a huge source of revenue for the police. As such, a corrupt state is not just complicit but encourages the trafficking of Burmese and Lao women across the golden triangle, and the trafficking of stateless hill people from northern Thailand. This may explain why prostitution remains illegal: the state has no interest in regulating the industry, especially not when parts of the state profit so much off the darker aspects of it. However, with increased international efforts to target human trafficking and modern-day slavery, hopefully the attention brought to the sex industry will provide an impetus for its decriminalization and regulation.
Even for independent prostitutes, very few would choose this work were it not for financial pressure. In Sweden and the Netherlands, where sex work is legal, protected, and safe, it is not as popular a profession as it is in Southeast Asia. Even in parts of Europe, prostitutes often come from India, Laos, and Thailand. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that of the 2,500 sex workers active in the industry, most are migrants. At the end of the day, it comes back down to the economics of demand and supply, driven by underdevelopment, state corruption, and the judgmental ignorance of a middle class that harshly places prostitution on a moral low ground.
For most of the women in the industry, sex work is a necessary intrusion of privacy. The act itself is a violation of the female body, but in any relationship this can be managed with shades and nuances. As sex work remains a financial necessity, Thai sex workers are distinctive for making sure that it is not just a physical act, but one that includes emotion, romantic interaction, and that bears the semblance — no matter how slight — of a relationship.
In the system of violation, it humanizes the work they do.