Sex and Buddhism

The following is an excerpt from Siddharth Kara’s book, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. Kara spent over five years traveling the world, entering brothels and shelters, talking with and interviewing victims, survivors, brothel owners, and traffickers.  His years of research produced an in depth book on the subject with glimpses into the red light districts of India, Cambodia, Thailand, Italy, Albania, Moldova and the U.S.  Kara understands the global operation and what must be done to eradicate the epidemic of sexual slavery – reduce its profitability, increase the risk factors, and enable countries to work together in criminally prosecuting human rights offenders.  I won’t go into all that here, but I  highly recommend his book!

What I want to share are his views on women in Thailand, Buddhist ideology, and how this impacts the multitude of sex slaves that exist in this country. There are two sects of Buddhism – Mahayana and Theravada. The latter is the more  orthodox sect in which it is believed you must ascend to the level of a monk before achieving nirvana.  This is the Buddhist tradition practiced in Thailand.  Since women are not allowed to be monks (although there is some movement to change this) they cannot achieve nirvana in this lifetime.  Their best hope is to be reborn a man.


The basic premise of both Buddhist sects is this:  desire leads to suffering due to the impermanence of all things including the self.  To extinguish suffering, one must follow the Eight Fold Path.  Theravada employs this in the strickest sense.  They do not believe one can achieve nirvana in any individual lifetime and must instead accrue karmic merit in the hopes of being reborn higher along the path to nirvana, which ultimately requires several lifetimes spent at the level of monk. Through the cycles of rebirth, the goal is to eliminate any negative karmic residue with accrued karmic merit.  Once this has been achieved, the cycle of rebirth is extinguished and nirvana is reached.

Kara’s excerpt:

Theravada Buddhists place great importance on the hierarchy of rebirth as a sign of spiritual advancement.  On earth, the king resides at the top, followed by the monastic, the wealthy, men, women, the crippled, the destitute, and animals.  Manifestations of wealth and power are evidence of the accumulation of positive karmic merit in past lives, whereas manifestations of poverty, disease, female gender, or slavery are evidence of past negative deeds.  In this way, Thai people reconcile themselves to inequality, and the only way for the downtrodden to be reborn into better shoes is to abide their position dutifully and to accrue positive karma, even if that position entails slavery.

Thailand remains one of the few countries that still has not signed the 1985 International Convention of Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, in objection to various articles related to equal rights for women to education, employment, property, and inheritance. Women are spiritually and civically inferior in Thailand, and this subordination has been most keenly (and not accidentally) manifested through centuries of systemized sexual exploitation by men, within the country’s longstanding and well-developed prostitution industry.

The Thai cultivate sex as a business.  This business provides the perfect veil behind which women and children can be exploited as slaves.  The history of Thai women being held as property dates back to the 15th century.  It was also generally accepted that men had a greater sex drive than women and that there was abundant prestige in having multiple wives.  Three types of wives were classified:  a major wife (mia klang muang), a minor wife (mia klang nork) and a slave wife (mia klang tasi). The major wife was arranged by parents.  A minor wife was added for more children and prestige, and a slave wife could be purchased for sexual gratification and the performance of menial tasks.  Using prostitutes to secure sexual gratification rapidly escalated after polygamy was declared illegal in 1934.  Rather than commit adultery, Thai society deemed it preferable for a man to purchase sex from prostitutes.

The cultural superiority of men and the acceptance of prostitution as a means for men to express their supposedly greater sex drive converged with the Theravada precepts of karma, duty and merit transfer to ensnare countless Thai women in a life spent gratifying male sexual desire.  Recall that the best outcome for women in the Theravada tradition is to accrue sufficient positive karma to be reborn as a man who might one day become a monk and achieve nirvana.  Thai children feel a deep sense of obligation (bun khun) that they must care for parents and show appreciation for being born on this ladder toward nirvana.  Men show appreciation by working hard, having families, and temporarily ordaining as monks before marriage, an act that transfers abundant karmic merit to parents. Females cannot become monks and transfer religious merit to their parents, so the best they can do is care for parents through financial contributions.  Often uneducated and unable to find wage-paying jobs, poor Thai or hill tribe females turn to the country’s prostitution industry as the primary vocation to fulfill parental obligation.

Traditional Thai proverbs:

  • To have a daughter is like having a toilet in your front yard.
  • A woman is only worthy when she has a husband.
  • Women are buffaloes.  Men are humans.

3 thoughts on “Sex and Buddhism

  1. Thanks’ for your Information!
    The Buddhist Theravada Monks want to give an image of being mindful and peaceful.

    The fact is: No woman is allowed to touch a Monk, no Monk is allowed to take anything directly out of the hand of a women and no Monk is allowed to look into a womens eyes.

    Women are considered as dirty and to carry bad energy.
    Just to make clear: They are allowed to shake hands with men, they are allowed to take things directly out of the hand of men and they are allowed to look into men’s eyes.

    I think, it’s about that Monks fear of getting sexual attracted by woman, which would disrupt their path to enlightenment. So, the easeast way to avoid attraction is to transfer their own problem to the nature of a woman, instead of sorting out that the Monk himself is the owner of his problem. This is sourly discrimination on defenceless women.

    It is a mystery to me, how such discriminating behaviour to half of all humanity on our earth, should not create bad Karma – as Karma is also what they believe in.

    1. Dear Hannelore,

      Thank you for your comments. Religion, when steeped with tradition, will always carry with it some contradiction. Buddhism does too. In some Buddhist sects, nuns are allowed to practice. In other sects, they are not. It’s very different the world over. One part I struggle with is karma, of course. In Buddhist ideology, if we see a person who is suffering, karma will say that their suffering is a result of their previous action. I used to think this meant Buddhists in Thailand didn’t care about girls who were being exploited. It was just their karma. I had it wrong, however. Karma does not mean inaction. Quite the opposite. Nor does it mean complacency. To live compassionately through action is the ideal. Suffering may be the result of one’s karma. Easing one’s suffering also has karmic merit. I think the more we can get out of ourselves, our “self identity” and more into the experience of others, the more open-hearted and minded we’ll be. I do believe this is exactly the type of evolutionary leap we need in consciousness and spirituality. The more we are one with one another, the less separate and divided we are. The less the ego thrives. It takes commitment and dedication to live like this. It takes responding intelligently to unintelligent behavior. It takes being kind to people who are mean. It takes getting over the self which is very hard to do in cultures that thrive and promote the self, i.e., America.

      Best to you and please revisit!

  2. Thanks! Sorry, I saw your comment right now! To discribe Karma seems complicated. It can either be translated in one or an other way. Always, when things are complicated there is a catch. It is manipulative and has nothing to do with “misunderstanding”! To me, only practical consequences counts. The practical consequences of Buddhismen that we can see in South East Asia is enourmous oppression of women. Buddhismen has not brought freedom and equality to women. It has brought them the contrary. Logically speaking, the religion is reprehensible. I do not like it at all!

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