Last spring I was ecstatic to experience my very first trip to Southeast Asia. I flew to Thailand early spring for the typical beach vacation. I spent my days lounging by the ocean, reading books and nights eating curry and sipping fruit shakes. But beyond the white sand beaches, tasty street meat and full moon parties is an grim sub culture which surprisingly shows little attempt to remain behind closed doors. In fact it’s in plain view for everyone to see. It is no secret if you so desire, purchasing a Thai girl (or boy for that matter), whether for a single encounter or for longer companionship is a relatively simple task.
While backpacking through Thailand, I heard many stories about the country’s sex trade, namely in the city of Pattaya. Travellers told me you can walk the “Walking Street” along the beach side and see shoulder to shoulder prostitutes jam packed along the boardwalk. My first reaction was curiosity. I wanted to go there and see it for myself. My travel buddy, who had visited Pattaya a few months previous, seemed keen to return and show me the sights. Well, I never made it to Pattaya, silly farangs had no idea what was going on and forget to get off the bus. We ended up going straight through to Bangkok. So instead of visiting Pattaya we headed to the entertainment district along Sukhumvit Road. The street was lined with girls, of all ages, not to mention a large selection of “lady-boys” all screaming and shouting, trying to lure us into one of the notorious “private” shows. Curiosity got the best of us as we found ourselves pushing past the black curtains and entering a room full of flashy black lights and head pounding electronic music. A group of 20 girls were on stage dancing to the music. Each girl had a number pinned to her top. White men, mostly middle-aged, sat in the bleacher style seating area looking ahead. Some girls appeared excited and danced with energy, engaging the crowd, while others simply swayed back and forth with dead eyes. It was disturbing to say the least and we got up and left.
Technically, prostitution in the Kingdom has been illegal since the 1960’s but the Thai Government has encouraged it due to the vast amount of revenue it brings to the country’s economy. Truth be told Thailand has gained an international reputation for the mass availability of girls for sale and the nation has been referred to as “the brothel of the world.” So where did this all begin? Once a quiet fishing village, Pattaya was discovered during the Vietnam war as a destination for American soldiers to have a period of “rest and relaxation.” The soldiers referred to it as a period of “intoxication and intercourse.” The event initiated a prostitution boom which despite the city’s best efforts to “clean up” has persisted into present day. Inevitably the lucrative industry leaked across the country and earned Thailand its infamous reputation. The truth is, sex sells. When doing research for this article, it was much easier to find information on top locations to purchase Thai girls then it was to find scholarly articles on the social impacts of sex trade work in the region. Since it is notoriously difficult to measure, nobody knows how many foreigners travel to Thailand every year to purchase sex. In fact, many websites will argue the majority of business comes from local customers. While this may be true, I think there is strong evidence to suggest otherwise and it is on display in places like Pattaya. While walking these streets, middle aged white males seem to make up the majority of the non sex trade workers. It was commonplace to see white men strolling the beaches with a beautiful Thai girl in tow. It is so accepted that on more than one occasion I ran into male travellers, bragging to their buddies about paying for a Thai prostitute the night before. The number of prostitutes residing in Thailand is unknown. I found numbers ranging anywhere from 200,000 to 2 million. Both ways, it seems a like a lot. I got to thinking about these girls and boys the circumstances that lead them to the streets.
So how do these girls and boys end up on the streets, selling their bodies for money? It appears there are a few answers. Some women willingly enter into the sex trade. Culturally in Thailand, women are expected to make sacrifices for their families in order to improve the family’s financial situation. This often results in pressure for them to provide income for the family, regardless of dangers involved. Since their are few opportunities for women to make decent wages, many will end up working in the sex trade. Many workers come from the impoverished regions of Northern Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia according to the United Nations Refugee Board. They find their way to Thailand’s seedy districts in hope of making enough money for a better life. Once arriving in places like Pattaya, these girls frequently fall victim to the hazards of the lifestyle and seldom recover from the physical and emotional damages they endure. Even though some women have chosen to work in the sex industry, I think it is important to realize this does not make them any less of a victim. It was their social or economic circumstances which forced them down these dark paths. An even darker side of the situation are the stories of women who have been forced into the sex trade. Traffickers manipulate women into leaving their countries with promises of high paying factory or housekeeping jobs. Many of these women are smuggled across borders without visas or passports, making return to their home countries near impossible. The Refugee Board states the majority of trafficked women are undocumented migrants, who are increasingly susceptible to trafficking due to low economic status, low education, language barriers and little understanding of Thai laws. Even more shocking is the fact that families will sell their own daughters into sex slavery as a means to pull themselves out of poverty. According to delegates at the 2001 Second World Congress Against Commercial Exploitation of Children, in the Northern Thai region of Mae Sai, it was estimated 70% of the 800 families living there have sold a daughter to a trafficker.
So who is responsible for forcibly bringing women to Thailand? It’s hard to say. There is no doubt local Thai traffickers must be partially responsible. But I also found information linking the Russian mafia to increased trafficking in Pattaya. The large number of Russian tourists travelling through Thailand is undeniable. Of course I am not implying all Russians are involved with the mob, but I did notice a large Russian presence in all the country’s most lavish areas. Statistics state an increase in Eastern European women being trafficked to Pattaya, and I don’t think it would be unreasonable to assume the Russian Mafia is involved. The gradual dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, inevitably caused the breakdown of the Russian KGB. Thousands of former KGB were forced to search for new means of income. According to the Thailand Law Forum, Russian tourism prior to 1989 was limited to dignitaries and small groups of “privileged” citizens. Since 1989, Russian tourism has soured, with 300,000 visiting Thailand in 2009. The evidence is seen on the streets of Pattaya, formerly consisting of small German restaurants, now boasting large Russian eateries and nightclubs. It is a disgusting thought to realize how profit is made from the exploitation of so many poor individuals.
Once beginning life as a sex trade worker, women are met will numerous challenges. Not only are prostitutes at high risk for violence and sexual abuse, they are also exposed to STD infection. Since prostitutes may have up to 20 sexual partners a day, they are largely at risk for contracting many diseases. I sought to research the magnitude of the problem among these workers. Surprisingly, while researching STD rates in Thailand, I found the one silver lining in this sad story. Fortunately, unlike other developing nations, Thailand has been highly successful in reducing the amount of infections on a national scale. In the 1990’s, the Thai Government implemented the 100% Condom Use Program. This program was meant to enforce the use of condoms, 100% of the time, among sex trade workers to stop the spread of STDs. Outreach workers were sent into brothels to persuade prostitutes to get proper STD testing. Upon testing, sex trade workers were given large qualities of condoms, enough so they should never have to buy their own. Brothels found not promoting condom use were fined or pressured to implement condom use. The program was incredibly effective, raising condom usage in the country from 10% to 90% within 5 years. HIV infection rates dropped to 1.3% in 2011, down from 2% more than a decade earlier, according to the UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic. Since the execution of the program, countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Myanmar, Mongolia and Laos has also begun implementing the program.
It appears the sex industry in Thailand is here to stay. Although illegal, the Thai government has been reluctant to criminalize the industry, likely due to its large economic success and the implications of forcing a dangerous industry underground. In fact, Thailand has held numerous national debates on whether or not to legalize the profession. No doubt the legalization of the sex trade would have many benefits for the Thai government from taxation of the industry. Economics aside, the legalization of prostitution would provide sex workers with access to social services, health care and protection from violent customers, while exposing the corrupted enforcers – police, politicians and business owners, like the Russian Mafia. So is legalization the solution? I don’t know. What I do know is prostitution has been going on for generations and will continue to occur regardless of the laws in place. Instead of prosecuting sex trade workers, who have been forced into the profession by their circumstances or by traffickers, we should support organizations which support safe working conditions, disease prevention and prosecution of human traffickers. Additionally, we should support organizations which promote other opportunities for women. The EMPOWER foundation, supports sex trade workers by providing free language classes, health, law and pre-college education as well as individual counselling. The organization also lobbies government to extend labour protection laws to sex trade workers and to legalize prostitution.Share This: