Prostitution in Thailand
Prostitution is not strictly illegal in Thailand, though solicitation and public nuisance laws are in effect. In practice it is tolerated and partly regulated. Prostitution operates clandestinely in many parts of the country. Local officials with commercial interests in prostitution often protect the practice. The precise number of prostitutes is difficult to assess; estimates vary widely and are subject to national and international controversy. Since the Vietnam War, Thailand has gained international notoriety among travellers from many countries as a sex tourism destination. In July 2016 it was reported that the Thai government intends to abolish the sex industry. Ms Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, the tourism minister, said "Tourists don't come to Thailand for [sex]. They come here for our beautiful culture" and that "We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone".
Extent of prostitution
Estimates of the number of prostitutes in Thailand vary widely and are subject to controversy. A 2004 estimate by Dr. Nitet Tinnakul of Chulalongkorn University gave a total of 2.8 million sex workers, including 2 million women, 20,000 adult males, and 800,000 minors under the age of 18, but the figures for women and minors were considered to be grossly inflated by most observers, and to have resulted from poor research methods. According to a 2001 report by the World Health Organisation: "The most reliable suggestion is that there are between 150,000 and 200,000 sex workers." In its annual human rights report for 2008, the US State Department noted that, "A government survey during the year found that there were 76,000 to 77,000 adult prostitutes in registered entertainment establishments. However, NGOs believed there were between 200,000 and 300,000 prostitutes." The state department's 2013 Human Rights Report for Thailand made no estimates of the extent of prostitution, but in 2015 Havocscope, a database providing information about the global black market, gave a figure of about 250,000 for the number of prostitutes working in Thailand. UNAIDS in 2014 estimated the total population of sex workers in Thailand to be 123,530.:195
It has been suggested for example that there may be as many as 10,000 prostitutes on Ko Samui alone, an island resort destination not usually noted for prostitution, and that at least 10 percent of tourist dollars may be spent on the sex trade. An estimate published in 2003 placed the trade at US$4.3 billion per year, or about three percent of the Thai economy. In 2015 Havocscope said that about $6.4 billion dollars in annual revenue was being generated by the trade, a figure which accounted for 10 percent of Thailand's GDP. Sex workers in Thailand send an annual average of US$300 million to family members who reside in more rural areas of Thailand.
Location of prostitution
Centres such as Bangkok (Patpong, Nana Plaza, and the red-light district of Soi Cowboy), Pattaya, and Phuket (Patong) are often identified as primary tourist "prostitution zones", with Hat Yai and other Malaysian border cities catering to Malaysians. In Bangkok, the so-called Ratchadaphisek entertainment district, running along Ratchadaphisek Road near the Huai Khwang intersection, features several large entertainment venues which include sexual massage. Lumphini Park in central Bangkok is well-known as a prostitution spot after dark. Prostitution also takes place in nearly every major city and province in the country.
Prostitution takes place in a number of different types of venues, including brothels, hotels, massage parlours, restaurants, saunas, hostess bars, go-go bars and "beer bars". In some karaoke bars there are women who, in addition to singing and playing traditional Thai music, sometimes engage in prostitution. Many other service sector workers offer sexual services as a sideline. Straightforward brothels, which offer no services aside from sex, represent the lower end of the market. These are most common outside Bangkok, serving low-income Thai men.
Ab ob nuat
Ab ob nuat establishments ("bathing and massage" in Thai) typically provide either an oil massage, nude body massage, or a bath treatment which includes sexual services. In this type of establishment, male clients can engage in sexual activity with female prostitutes, similar to soaplands in Japan. Prostitution establishments targeted at locals are usually "bathing-sauna-massage" parlours of this type.
Although Thailand is known for Thai massage, its non-sexual, traditional style of massage, known as nuat phaen boran, some massage parlours provide customers erotic massage at additional cost including handjobs, oral sex, and sexual intercourse. The Federation of Thai Spa Associations (FTSPA) in 2016 urged authorities to clamp down on sexual services being offered at some massage parlours. The FTSPA maintains that influential figures have used legal loopholes to open "pretty spas" or massage parlours where tourists can buy sexual services. The difference between this type of massage and ab ob nuat is that not all massage parlours offer sexual services.
Bars catering to foreigners
Women ("bar girls"), or men, in the case of gay bars, or transsexual ("kathoeys") are employed by the bars either as dancers (in the case of go-go bars) or simply as hostesses who will encourage customers to buy them drinks. Apart from these sorts of bars, there are a number of other sex trade venues. In most of these establishments the prostitutes are directly employed, but in hotels, some bars and discos freelance prostitutes are allowed to solicit clients.
The documented history of prostitution in Thailand goes back at least six centuries, with overt and explicit references by the Chinese voyager Ma Huan (1433) and subsequently by European visitors (Van Neck, 1604; Gisbert Heeck, 1655 and others). It is certainly not a new phenomenon, though it may have been exacerbated by the Japanese occupation during World War II and by the extensive use of Thailand as a "Rest and Recreation" facility by US forces during the Second Indochina War (c. 1963 - 1973)
Thailand has an ancient, continuous tradition of legal texts, generally described under the heading of Dhammasattha literature (Thai pron., tam-ma-sat), wherein prostitution is variously defined and universally banned. The era of traditional legal texts came to an end in the early 20th century, but these earlier texts were significant in regard to both the writ and spirit of modern legislation.
In the twentieth century a variety of laws relating to the sex industry were passed, including the Contagious Diseases Prevention Act of 1908 and the Entertainment Places Act of 1966. Prostitution itself was made illegal in Thailand in 1960, when a law was passed under pressure from the United Nations. The government instituted a system of monitoring sex workers in order to prevent their mistreatment and to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The 1960 law was repealed by the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, B.E. 2539 (1996).
Current legal situation
As of June 2012, the legal framework governing prostitution in Thailand is based upon three acts:
The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, B.E. 2539 (1996)
The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act is the central legal framework prohibiting prostitution. Under the act, a definition of "prostitution" is provided: "Sexual intercourse, or any other act, or the commission of any other act in order to gratify the sexual desire of another person in a promiscuous manner in return for money or any other benefit, irrespective of whether the person who accepts the act and the person who commits the act are of the same sex or not." However, a clear definition of the phrase "in a promiscuous manner" is not provided.
Under the act, persons who solicit sex "in an open and shameless manner" (a phrase that is not clearly defined), or who are "causing nuisance to the public" are subject to a fine of no more than 1,000 baht, while persons mingling in a "prostitution establishment" face a jail term of up to one month and/or a fine of up to 1,000 baht. The term "prostitution establishment" is not clearly defined, although it may be broadly interpreted to include any place where prostitution takes place, especially in regard to cases involving child prostitution that carry heavier penalties (up to six years if the prostitute is younger than 15 years of age)—otherwise, the law is not usually enforced against prostitution in private places. The act also imposes heavier penalties against owners of prostitution businesses and establishments: A jail term of three to fifteen years, or longer in the case of underaged or forced sex workers. The criminal code also stipulates penalties for procuring or using money earned from prostitution.
The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act was written with a particular focus upon child prostitution and trafficking. Section 8 penalizes customers who engage in sexual intercourse with sex workers under the age of 15 years with a prison term of two to six years and a fine of up to 120,000 baht. For sex workers between the ages of 15 and 18 years, the prison term is one to three years, and the fine is up to 60,000 baht.
In regard to trafficking, Section 9 of the act states:
Any person who procures, seduces or takes away any person for the prostitution of such person, even with her or his consent and irrespective of whether the various acts which constitute an offence are committed within or outside the Kingdom, shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of one to ten years and to a fine of twenty thousand to two hundred thousand Baht.
Additionally, any offense under Section 9 that is committed "by means of fraud, deceit, threat, violence, [or] the exercise of undue influence or coercion,” results in a penalty that is “one-third heavier."
The Penal Code Amendment Act
The Act does not explicitly state that prostitution in Thailand is illegal, but Title IX, Section 286 of the Penal Code states: “Any person, being over sixteen years of age, [sic] subsists on the earning of a prostitute, even if it is some part of her incomes [sic], shall be punished with imprisonment of seven to twenty years and fined of fourteen thousand to forty thousand Baht, or imprisonment for life.” While penalties are not specified, the same section of the act penalizes any person who (i) is found residing or habitually associating with a prostitute, (ii) receives boarding, money or other benefits arranged for by a prostitute or (iii) assists any prostitute in a quarrel with a customer.
The Act was also written to address child prostitution, but lacks complete clarity, as it does not define what an "indecent act" is. Title IX, Section 279 of the Penal Code states: "Whoever, commits an indecent act on a child not yet over fifteen years of age, whether such child shall consent or not, shall be punished with imprisonment not exceeding ten years or fined not exceeding twenty thousand Baht, or both."
The Entertainment Places Act
The Entertainment Places Act places the onus upon the owner of certain types of entertainment establishments if prostitution occurs on the premises, thereby making them criminally liable. According to the act, sex workers must also undergo rehabilitation for one year at a reform house upon the completion of punishment for practicing prostitution.
In 2003, the Ministry of Justice considered legalising prostitution as an official occupation with health benefits and taxable income and held a public discussion on the topic. Legalisation and regulation was proposed as a means to increase tax revenue, reduce corruption, and improve the situation of the workers. However, nothing further was done.
In 2008, 532,522 Thais were suffering from HIV/AIDS. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Thailand, and especially among sex workers, has been the subject of significant media and academic attention, and Thailand hosted the XV International AIDS Conference, 2004.
Mechai Viravaidya, known as "Mr. Condom", has campaigned tirelessly to increase the awareness of safe sex practices and use of condoms in Thailand. He served as minister for tourism and AIDS prevention from 1991 to 1992, and also founded the restaurant chain Cabbages and Condoms, which gives free condoms to customers.
After the enactment of the Thai government's first five-year plan to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country, including Mechai's "100% condom programme", as of 1994 the use of condoms during commercial sex probably increased markedly. No current data on the use of condoms is available. The programme instructed sex workers to refuse intercourse without a condom, and monitored health clinic statistics in order to locate brothels that allow sex without condoms.
Thailand was praised for its efforts in the fight against HIV/AIDS during the late 1990s, but UNAIDS estimates that in 2013 from 380,000 to 520,000 Thais are living with HIV.
Reasons for the prevalence and toleration of prostitution
Thai society has its own unique set of often contradictory sexual mores. Visiting a prostitute or a paid mistress is not an uncommon, though not necessarily acceptable, behaviour for men. Many Thai women, for example, believe the existence of prostitution actively reduces the incidence of rape. Among many Thai people, there is a general attitude that prostitution has always been, and will always be, a part of the social fabric of Thailand.
According to a 1996 study, the sexual urge of men is perceived by both Thai men and women as being very much stronger than the sexual urge of women. Where women are thought to be able to exercise control over their desires, the sexual urge of men is seen to be "a basic physiological need or instinct". It is also thought by both Thai men and women that men need "an occasional variation in partners". As female infidelity is strongly frowned upon in Thai society, and, according to a 1993 survey, sexual relationships for single women also meets disapproval by a majority of the Thai population, premarital sex, casual sex and extramarital sex with prostitutes is accepted, expected and sometimes even encouraged for Thai men, the latter being perceived as less threatening to a marriage over lasting relationships with a so-called "minor wife".
Another reason contributing to this issue is that ordinary Thais deem themselves tolerant of other people, especially those whom they perceive as downtrodden. This acceptance has allowed prostitution to flourish without much of the extreme social stigma found in other countries. According to a 1996 study, people in Thailand generally disapprove of prostitution, but the stigma for prostitutes is not lasting or severe, especially since many prostitutes support their parents through their work. Some men do not mind marrying former prostitutes. A 2009 study of subjective well-being of prostitutes found that among the sex workers surveyed, sex work had become normalized.
Politicians and prostitution
Chuwit Kamolvisit was the owner of several massage parlours in Bangkok and considered by many a "godfather of prostitution" in Thailand. In 2005 he was elected for a four-year term to the Thai House of Representatives, but in 2006 the Constitutional Court removed him from office. In October 2008 he again ran for governor of Bangkok but was not elected. He revealed in 2003 that some of his best clients were senior politicians and police officers, whom he also claimed to have paid, over a decade, more than £1.5 million in bribes so that his business, selling sex, could thrive.
Although Thailand's sex trade aimed at foreigners can be considered overt, the industry that caters exclusively to Thai men had never before been publicly scrutinised, let alone the sexual exploits of Thailand's unchallengeable officials.
Support of prostitution is pervasive in political circles, as BBC News reported in 2003. "MPs from Thailand's ruling Thai Rak Thai Party are getting hot under the collar over plans by the party leadership to ban them from having mistresses or visiting brothels...." One MP told The Nation newspaper that if the rules were enforced, the party would only be able to field around 30 candidates, compared to its more than 200 sitting MPs."
Attitudes towards women were exemplified by MP Thirachai Sirikhan, quoted in The Nation, "To have a mia noi [mistress] is an individual's right. There should be no problem as long as the politician causes no trouble to his family or society".
After a police raid on some Bangkok parlours where policemen had sex with prostitutes, "Acting Suthisan Police chief Colonel Varanvas Karunyathat defended the police action, saying that the (police) officers involved needed to have sex with the masseuses to gain evidence for the arrest." Apparently, this is standard practice as a separate police force did the same in Pattaya in May 2007.
Interview with a Thai human rights activist
Kritaya Archavanitkul, a Thai human rights activist, interviewed by UC Berkeley Institute of International Studies, said,
This is sad to say, that the Thai social structure tends to accept this sort of abuse, and not only to accept – we have laws, we have bills that vitally support the existence of these sex establishments. That's one thing. And also, we have a Mafia that is also involved in the political parties, so this keeps the abuse going. The second reason is a cultural factor. I don't know about other countries, but in Thailand the sexual behaviour of Thai men accepts prostitution. Every class of Thai men accept it, although not all Thai men practise it. So they don't see it as a problem. So when it comes to the policymakers, who are mostly men, of course, they don't see this as a problem. They know there are many women who are brought into prostitution in Thailand. They know that some are treated with brutal violence. But they don't think it's a terrible picture. They think it's just the unlucky cases. And, because of the profit, I think there are many people with an interest involved, so they try to turn a blind eye to this problem.
According to a Library of Congress study published in 2003, "The red-light districts of Thai cities are home to...brothels, casinos, and entertainment facilities that function both as sources of income and as operations centers for trafficking in humans....":44
In the book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Kevin Bales argues that in Thai Buddhism, women are viewed as naturally inferior to men, and that Buddha told his disciples that women were "impure, carnal, and corrupting." This is also supported by the belief that women cannot attain enlightenment, although this view is disputed by other Buddhist scriptures such as the Vinaya Pitaka in the Pali Canon. The current Dalai Lama has repeatedly asserted that women can attain enlightenment and function as equals to men in spiritual matters, but his branch of Buddhism is not the one practised in Thailand, which has its own particular agglomeration of beliefs. Bales also points to the fact that ten kinds of wives are outlined in the Vinaya, or rules for monks. Within these rules, the first three are actually women who can be paid for their services. In present day Thailand, this is expressed as a tolerance by wives for prostitution. Sex with prostitutes is viewed by wives as empty sex, and thus women may allow their husbands to have meaningless sex with prostitutes rather than find a new spouse.
Buddhism also prescribes "acceptance and resignation in the face of life's pain and suffering", in accordance with belief in karma and the expiation of sins from previous lives. Women may choose to believe that suffering as prostitutes is the result of their karma.
Prostitution and crime in Thailand
The exact number of child-prostitutes in Thailand is not known. According to the US-based research institute “Protection Project”, estimates of the number of children involved in prostitution living in Thailand ranges from 12,000 to the hundreds of thousands (ECPAT International). The government, university researchers, and NGOs estimated that there are as many as 30,000 to 40,000 prostitutes under 18 years of age, not including foreign migrants (US Department of State, 2005b). Thailand’s Health System Research Institute estimates that children in prostitution make up 40% of prostitutes in Thailand.
- Poverty: a high proportion of the population lives in poverty.
- Ethnic hill tribe children: these children live in the border region of northern Thailand. They suffer from disproportionate levels of poverty in relation to the general population and most of them lack citizenship cards. This means that they do not have access to health care or primary school, which limits their further education or employment opportunities.
- Trafficked children: Many children are trafficked into or within the country through criminal networks, acquaintances, former trafficking victims and border police and immigration officials who transport them to brothels across Thailand.
- 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 to pay off family debts, many girls have been forced into prostitution.
Children are exploited in sex establishments and are also approached directly in the street by paedophiles seeking sexual contact. Child sex tourism is a serious problem in the country. Thailand, along with Cambodia, India, Brazil and Mexico, has been identified as a leading hotspot of child sexual exploitation. Paedophiles, in particular, exploit the lax laws of the country and attempt to find cover to avoid prosecution.
A 2004 report from the US Department of State indicates that human trafficking—for sexual exploitation and forced labour—originates in Thailand, as well as being a destination, and is also used for transit. There are also reports of bribe-taking by some low- or mid-level police officers that facilitates the most severe forms of trafficking in persons. A human trafficking gang was intercepted in the southern city of Pattaya in October 2014.
Women of Thai and other nationalities have been lured to Japan and sold to Yakuza-controlled brothels, where they are forced to work off a financial debt. It is easy to lure these women from neighboring countries because Thailand has 56 unofficial crossover points and 300 checkpoints, where people can cross the border without paperwork. In a landmark case in 2006, one such woman, Urairat Soimee, filed a civil suit in Thailand against the Thai perpetrators, who had previously been convicted in a criminal court. The woman had managed to escape from the Yakuza-controlled prostitution ring by killing the female Thai mama-san and spent five years in a Japanese prison.
Support organisations for sex workers
Numerous support organisations for sex workers exist in Thailand. Most of them attempt to discourage women from taking up or continuing the trade.
SHE Foundation (Self Help & Empowerment) is a Christian charity organisation that works with women and children involved in the commercial sex trade in Phuket. SHE offers a prevention programme that provides women with free hotel training, free housing and paid employment making jewellery within the SHE Center.
EMPOWER is a Thai NGO that offers health, educational and counseling services to female sex workers. The organisation seeks to empower sex workers and has been operating since 1985, with offices in Patpong (Bangkok), Chiang Mai, Mae Sai and Patong Beach (Phuket).
SWING (Service Workers in Group) is an offshoot of EMPOWER, offering support to male and female sex workers in Patpong and Pattaya. It offers English classes, teaches safe sex education, distributes condoms, and promotes health and safety with an in-house gym and discounted medical examinations. The newly formed organisation SISTERS works with transgender sex workers in Bangkok and Pattaya.
The work of the Destiny Rescue organisation is focused on preventing girls from being involved in prostitution in Thailand, as well as the assisted removal of girls from the industry.
FACE is an organisation that focuses on child prostitution and trafficking, and is the main partner of the United Nations in the country. DEPDC is another organisation that works to prevent the trafficking of women and children.
The Population and Community Development Association (PDA), headed by Mechai Viravaidya, pioneered family planning and safe sex strategies in Thailand over thirty years ago. The organisation no longer focuses expressly on safe sex issues, but continues to provide information, condoms, and prevention programmes throughout the country.
International Justice Mission is a US-based Christian human rights organisation that operates in Thailand to rescue brothel workers who are held in sexual slavery.
The Fr. Ray Foundation in Pattaya provides care and housing for vulnerable children at the Children's Home, and the Drop-In Centre for Street Kids for homeless children. Exploited women and their children are provided with education and care at the Fountain of Life facility.
The Well, a US-based Christian service that is part of the Servantworks organisation, has been working with sex workers and at-risk people in Thailand since 2004. The Well provides alternative employment, educational opportunities and social services to assist women and families.
The SOLD Project began in 2007 and is committed to stopping child prostitution through education. The organisation's mission is "to prevent child prostitution through culturally relevant programmes for vulnerable children and to share their stories to empower creative, compassionate people to act".
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- Travels in the Skin Trade: Tourism and the Sex Industry (1996, ISBN 0-7453-1115-6) by Jeremy Seabrook describes the Thai sex industry and includes interviews with prostitutes and customers.
- Cleo Odzer received her PhD in anthropology with a thesis about prostitution in Thailand; her experiences during her three years of field research resulted in the 1994 book Patpong Sisters: An American Woman's View of the Bangkok Sex World (ISBN 1-55970-281-8). In the book she describes the Thai prostitutes she got to know as quick-witted entrepreneurs rather than exploited victims.
- Hello My Big Big Honey!: Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews by Dave Walker and Richard S. Ehrlich (2000, ISBN 0-86719-473-1) is a compilation of love letters from Westerners to Thai prostitutes, and interviews with the latter.
- For an informative caricature of the contemporary sexual norms and mores of Thailand (and its Sex Industry) versus the West see the novels of John Burdett including Bangkok 8 for the comparative anthropology of his half Thai-Western (son of a 'Bar-Girl') protagonist detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep.
- Dennis Jon's 2005 documentary travelogue The Butterfly Trap provides a realistic and non-judgmental first person viewpoint of sex tourism in Thailand.
- Jordan Clark's 2005 documentary Falang: Behind Bangkok's Smile takes a rather critical view of sex tourism in Thailand.
- David A. Feingold's 2003 documentary Trading Women explores the phenomenon of women from the surrounding countries being trafficked into Thailand.
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- A modern form of slavery: Trafficking of Burmese Women and Girls into Brothels in Thailand, 1993 report.
- Asia's sex trade is 'slavery' - BBC
- Prostitution in Thailand and Southeast Asia, by Justin Hall, 2004.
- Fight Against Child Exploitation (FACE) "The Coalition to Fight Against Child Exploitation (FACE) was founded in 1995 to monitor the legal/justice mechanism in Thailand."
- Patpong Sisters. Urban Desires, Volume 1, Issue 1, Dec 1994. Excerpts from the 1994 book Patpong Sisters (ISBN 1-55970-281-8) by anthropologist Cleo Odzer.
- "The brothel king's revenge" Guardian UK
- UC Berkeley Institute of International Studies, Interview with Thai Human Rights Activist Kritaya Archavanitkul
- The Diplomat: Sex, Lies, and Visa
- Overview of Thai prostitution and red light districts
- Child protection in Thailand TAT article
- Learning the Thai sex trade - Prospect (magazine)
- The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, B.E. 2539 (1996)