Prostitution is illegal in Thailand although it appears otherwise. It is widespread and seems partly regulated. There are major hubs including Bangkok (Patpong, Nana Plaza, and Soi Cowboy), Pattaya, and Phuket, but prostitution exists throughout the Land of Smiles, even in the village. Thailand is widely known for its sex tourism with people traveling from all over the world to indulge. There are many Western men who have permanently relocated to Thailand – sexpats if you will. The numbers are obscure, but in my research I’ve read that there are as many as 2.8 million sex workers in Thailand alone. In a country of 65 million, that’s not a small drop in the bucket.
It is estimated that half a million Thais are currently living with HIV/AIDS. Mechai Viravaidya, a man also known as “Mr. Condom,” has campaigned tirelessly to increase safe sex awareness through the use of condoms. He served as minister for tourism and AIDS prevention and founded the restaurant chain Cabbages and Condoms, which doles out free condoms to its patrons.
The Thais view prostitution as something that has always been and will always be a part of Thai culture. Some believe that the existence of prostitution greatly reduces the incident of rape. I can’t really get behind that ideology but there you have it. While married women are expected to be faithful, Thai men are thought to have greater sexual needs and therefore require an occasional “variation in partner.” Premarital, casual and extramarital sex with prostitutes is accepted and sometimes even encouraged for Thai men.
Prostitution in Thailand can be found in a number of venues including brothels, massage parlors, saunas, go-go bars, beer bars and karaoke clubs.
The number of child prostitutes in Thailand is currently unknown but ECPAT International estimates anywhere from 12,000 to 200,000. Thailand’s Health System Research Institute estimates that children make up 40% of all prostitutes in Thailand. If this is an accurate number, child prostitution here is staggering. Trafficking of women and children in Thailand is a serious problem. The following characteristics put children at high risk for trafficking:
- Ethnic hill tribe children: these children live in the border region of northern Thailand. They suffer from disproportionate levels of poverty and most of them lack citizenship cards. This means that they do not have access to health care or school, which limits their education and employment opportunities.
- Sense of duty: according to traditional customs the first duty of a girl is to support her family in any way she can. Due to this sense of duty and familial obligation, many girls go into prostitution.
I toured the “entertainment” districts of Bangkok to see it firsthand. While seeing old, unattractive Western men with young, beautiful Thai women made me want to vomit, I tried to put my opinions aside. Seeing some of the Thai girls strung out on drugs was the hardest. Thankfully, I did not see any children in the red light districts catering to the tourists. I’ve read that most of the prostitutes working in the tourist areas are not trafficked; they are there of their own volition. Without talking to the girls directly, I cannot know for sure.
Several “brokers” approached me and asked if I wanted to see the ping pong show or a live sex show. I graciously declined. I’m willing to try many things but I will not support the sex industry with even one dollar of my money if I can help it. You can label me should you choose to. I’m a woman, an American, a feminist, a humanist. For me the personal is political. I cannot willingly and knowingly support an industry I find to be systematically oppressive and degrading. Nor could I look into the faces of the girls without wondering what their life stories were. Where they here intentionally or because they didn’t have better job opportunities? Did they come from the village? Were they educated? Did they have aspirations outside of sex work? The districts I toured mainly catered to the farangs (foreigners). Knowing there are brothels where women and girls are held captive and hidden from plain sight is perhaps the worst. I know it’s all around me; I just can’t see it.
From a photography standpoint, the red light districts are fascinating. The neon on the lanes (sois) is incredible. I could see pole dancers in bikinis from the street. I wasn’t allowed to photograph the girls which is probably for the best. I know there are ladyboy clubs too but I didn’t have enough time to explore. Ladyboys are Thailand’s “third gender.” Most of them are post-opt male to female (M2F) transsexuals. While they are mostly accepted in Thai culture, they are often subjugated to sex work because they cannot find decent jobs outside the go-go bars. The Thais define a woman as someone who can give birth so ladyboys look like ladies but their ID cards and passports say they are male. This makes it difficult for them to travel and work. While I understand that Buddhist culture is mostly accepting of all walks of life, I see now, too, that there are some contradictions to this when it comes to life as a ladyboy. I don’t think it’s entirely easy for them.
Today, I am leaving Bangkok with my Thai and American friends. We will travel 1.5 hours out of the city to stay with in the Saw Wad Dee family’s village. We will tour the floating markets which I am very excited to see and photograph. I’ve enjoyed my five days in Bangkok and the city was surprisingly comfortable to me, but I look forward to exploring other areas now. My internet access over the next week may be limited but I’ll do my best to keep you updated. Thank you for all your comments and feedback! It is wonderful to hear from you all.