Thailand is considering legalizing sex work: ‘The image that many Thais have of sex work is changing’

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‘Hello sir! Where you going?‘, ask scantily clad girls in the Thai seaside resort of Pattaya. A nurse in a miniskirt pulls on your arm, a police officer with a generous cleavage points her water pistol at you and a sweetly smiling student with braces makes a blowjob gesture. Groups of men from India walk shouting through the famous Soi 7 street, older men from Europe sit silently behind a Tiger beer with a girl forty years younger on their lap, techno sounds from speakers, the facades are bathed in neon light.

This is how it has been going for decades in the former fishing village on the Gulf of Thailand. There arose a huge one red light district when American soldiers were allowed to recover from the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Since then, Pattaya has become a magnet for men from around the world looking for sex at a bargain. And for Thai women – often single mothers who can no longer make ends meet – and take the bus to Sin City.

For sex worker Plai (r.) registering with the government is a step too far.Image Hendra Eka

They can get started right away in one of the thousands beer bars, go-go bars, gentlemen’s clubs or blowjob bars. Also along the kilometre-long beach boulevard, every few meters a woman or ladyboy offers herself for 1,000 bath (25 euros) per night. All this under the watchful eye of the police, even though sex work is punishable in Thailand.

However, that appears to be changing, thanks to a growing number of NGOs, activists and parliamentarians calling for the legalization of sex work in Thailand. They are concerned about the merciless fate of the hundreds of thousands of men and women in the sex industry, which only became clearly visible during the corona crisis. It turned out that sex workers were not entitled to government help or care, and they often could not rely on family. They huddled together in rooms above empty bars and survived thanks to food aid from NGOs. Concerns about human trafficking, child prostitution and increasing economic inequality in Thailand also play a role in this social discussion.

Sex workers in front of a bar in the Thai seaside resort of Pattaya. The debate in Thailand focuses on two options: decriminalization of sex work or legalization.Image Hendra Eka

Toiling in a rice field

“I previously worked as a chambermaid, as a waitress and as a cashier,” says 29-year-old Talay at the start of her shift in the Zombie Bar. She waits for customers in a see-through top and super tight pants. “That work did not yield enough to save.” According to Talay, toiling in the sun on a rice field, like her parents, yields even less. “And that is at the expense of my beauty.” When her 19-year-old sister Rose became pregnant and the father ran away, the sisters decided to go to Pattaya together. “We saw on TikTok that you can make a lot of money here.” Rose joins them, wearing an orange bikini that leaves the large tattooed wings on her chest exposed.

Together they explain the revenue model: the bar pays them approximately 125 euros per month salary to be present in a sexy outfit six days a week from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. If a customer their a ladydrink offers for 3.80 euros, they can keep 1.25 euros of it. If they go with a customer, they charge about 38 euros for two hours of sex, for which the customer also has to pay a 12 euro commission at the bar. A mama san behind the cash register, everything is meticulously recorded. Talay also has a friend from Sweden who pays her per night. “Now we can send home 150 to 200 euros every month for the whole family.”

A mustachioed Englishman wanders into the bar. With a subtle movement of her fingers, Talay sends her young sister in that direction. Soon they are sitting together over a drink. Rose places one leg on his lap and he eagerly runs his fingers all over her body. A Mụ̄x Plāh̄mụk (octopus hand), Talay concludes disapprovingly, a customer trying to touch as much as possible for a few euros. Almost as bad as one Tʹhèā H̄ạw ngū (old snake head); grandfathers who ask for an innocent kiss and then suddenly stick their tongue deep into your mouth. What almost all sex workers are looking for is a sugar daddy: a foreigner who sometimes takes them out for dinner and shopping and transfers money every month.

Single moms

“The image that many Thais have of sex workers is changing,” says senior researcher Boonwara Sumano Chenphuengpawn of the Thailand Development Research Institute in the Thai capital Bangkok. According to her, the dire situations during Covid have made many compatriots think. “They now realize that no one does that work for pleasure. That the cause of sex work is economic inequality; lack of education and lack of access to finance.” About 60 percent of female sex workers, Boonwara estimates, are young, single mothers from underdeveloped border regions. “In rural areas, daughters are also required to take care of their parents and grandparents.”

According to the researcher, the debate focuses on two options. NGOs and activists have been calling for the decriminalization of sex work since last year. “Then the police can no longer demand bribes or sexual services in exchange for turning a blind eye.” According to those involved, this happens frequently, says Boonwara. “Once you have a criminal record, you can never get rid of it. So most sex workers prefer to pay.” As a first step, the Thai government removed the collection of fines for sex work from the police at the end of 2023 and gave it responsibility to the Ministry of Social Development and Human Rights. “A paper procedure. In practice, almost no one knows this.”

Option two is legalization. This amounts to a licensing system, in which the sex worker must register with the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Tax Authorities. “Most parliamentarians prefer this option, because then they can, for example, designate places where sex work is allowed, such as in Singapore or the Netherlands.” For Thailand, legalization provides additional tax revenue, more contributions to the social insurance system and possibly more sex tourists. Sex workers, in turn, are entitled to health insurance, maternity leave and pension, for example. Their vulnerability towards the police, employers and slum landlords also decreases. MP Tunjaway Kamolwongwat of the reformist Move Forward party, which is popular among young people, says he already has the bill ready. “I’m waiting for the right time to submit it.”

For the children

The question is what sex workers themselves want. Talay: “My family absolutely does not know that I do this work. They think I have a rich boyfriend.” She is therefore in favor of decriminalization, but against a licensing system. Her 22-year-old colleague Plai, dressed in a tiny nurse’s outfit, is also against it. “My family knows that I work in Pattaya, so they also understand what I do here.” Yet registering with the government goes too far for her. “I have a 4-year-old daughter. In a year I hope to return with 2,500 euros in my pocket and I want to build a house for the two of us and open a shop.” She walks away to greet a regular customer, a 70-year-old boss with a huge belly and a walking stick. They sit next to each other in silence, because they do not speak each other’s language. He scrolls on his phone with one hand, while his other hand disappears between her thighs. Plai stares into the distance and seems far away with her thoughts.

The older Mai is for registration. “Now I have to pay for everything at the doctor myself.” The 43-year-old does sex work to pay for her son’s education. Proud: “He’s going to be an engineer!” A special case is Pear, a 21-year-old nursing student. “My roommates on campus get everything. But my parents don’t care about me. I work here during holidays to pay my school fees.” Pear shows off her Instagram account, where she proudly poses with her high school diploma and her uniform as an assistant nurse at a hospital.

She is in favor of legalization, because sex workers can then receive medical care and be tested for venereal diseases. Her safety could also improve. “Indian men like me because they like them plump. But they have a bad reputation.” In Pattaya, a tour shows that Indians have taken the place of Chinese men. According to sex workers, they sometimes pay less than agreed, or invite their friends to the hotel room.

Labor economist Yong Yoon from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok is also concerned about the safety of sex workers. He warns of a negative effect of legalization. “If we start to see sex work as normal, we may forget that no one does that work for pleasure.” According to him, these are vulnerable women from poor regions who deserve legal protection. “They end up – through poverty – in a system that dehumanizes and exploits them.” A cautious approach is needed, Yoon advises, where sex work is no longer criminal, but also not romanticized.

‘I just help them’

In Soi 7, 54-year-old Englishman Nick Dean owns five bars, including the Zombie Bar, plus a hotel where his employees can take customers. “Of course I have nothing to do with that, because sex work is illegal.” He describes his bars as a place for speed dating. “If you don’t like a girl, you move on to the next one.” Indeed, many of his employees are single mothers from the poor province of Isaan. “Some leave after an hour, most stay for about two years.” Dean doesn’t think he’s exploiting the women. “I actually help them! I offer them work and treat them fairly.” Dean says he keeps an eye on their safety via a group app. “A customer recently refused to pay for two girls. Then we drove there and it was quickly resolved.” Outraged: “We even give advice on using money wisely!”

The bar owner describes his customers as two week millionaires – tourists from the US, Europe and Australia who feel equally rich – and older expats who live in Pattaya part of the year. For both groups, legalization will likely mean a price increase. “Someone has to pay the taxes.” Dean is nevertheless in favor of legalization and hopes that the government will immediately make a medical examination mandatory. “That is now the responsibility of the sex worker and that doesn’t work.” Dean avoids the question of whether he will have to pay fewer bribes to the police. “I can’t say anything about that.” He hopes that legalization will enable foreign recruitment of sex workers. For example in Cambodia. “The better the Thai economy is, the harder it becomes to find girls. Even in Isan.”

In exchange for a whiskey and cola, sex worker Talay is willing to explain her future plans. She comes from the Ubon Ratchathani region, not far from the border with Laos. “It’s very quiet there. Our parents grow rice and tap rubber.” Together with her sister Rose, she sends money to their family every month to build a wooden house. “That is already 80 percent finished! Only the windows, the doors and a large awning above the veranda.” Talay thinks he will have to do sex work for a few more months, at most a year. With a dreamy look: “It will be a big house for the whole family, with a chicken farm behind it and a peach tree in front.”

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Thailand legalizing sex work image Thais sex work changing

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