Common Myths of the Thai Sex Industry Debunked

Myth #1: All of the prostitutes are female.
Although most of the sex workers are women, it is important to note that one in every ten sex workers is a male.

Myth #2: The clientele of the industry is mostly foreign men.
Although a great deal of the industry is foreign tourism, it is very common for Thai men to frequent the brothels. It is culturally acceptable for Thai men to frequent brothels or other businesses that offer sexual services.

Myth #3: The industry is limited to the red light districts of Bangkok.
Although the industry is concentrated around the primate city of Bangkok, brothels and restaurants offering sexual services do exist in the countryside.

Myth #4: The workers are sold into a sexual slavery.
Although there are victims of the sex industry, many of the women in the industry have made a decision to join the industry and work as agents to earn money.

Sex Industry Organization Sex Tourism Advertising Workers Conclusion

Thailand, a country inhabited by an estimated sixty-four million people, consists of a predominantly Buddhist population (95%). The minor religions include Muslin (3.8%), Christianity (0.5%), Hinduism (0.1%), and others (0.6%). Three-fourths of the people are indigenous to Thailand, 14% are Chinese and 11% are of various ethnic backgrounds. Although agriculture is the nation’s leading occupation (54%), the service industry—which includes sexual services—accounts for 31% of all occupations, and industry follows at 15% (CIA Website: Thailand).

Sex Industry in Bangkok
To begin a discussion about the sexual services industry in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, one must first understand the basics about the history, organization, its economic success, and the types of people involved. Although prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960, it has grown rapidly over the past few decades. Perhaps the most influential factor in this growth has been the US Rest and Recreation stops for GI’s that were located in Thailand in the 1970’s. Today, it is estimated that the prostitution industry brings in anywhere from 2.5-4 billion dollars each year and employs about 200,000 people (Morris 2002: 2).
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Organization, Locations, and Businesses Involved
Although most workers are women, there are some men and children involved in the sex trade. Most of the women in the industry are only there temporarily. They usually get involved in the business through a friend or relative in Bangkok, partially motivated by financial reasons. As sex workers, they earn more money than they would in most available jobs. Other workers are looking for emotional security or an escape from an abusive relationship at home. Many come from the countryside and despite misconceptions amongst the general public, most workers are not sold into the industry but enter under their own free will (Askew 2002: 283).

The organization of the industry varies. There are many local brothels, or prostitute houses, as well as other venues that offer sexual services. These include, but are not limited to, hotels, go-go bars, restaurants, karaoke bars, dance clubs, and organized sex tours. There are also streetwalking “free-lance” workers and those who work under a pimp. Much of this business is focused around Bangkok in the Patpong, Soi Cowboy, and the Nana Entertainment Plaza areas. However, there are also brothels in the countryside and other areas in Thailand, such as Chiang Mai, Phuket, Pattaya, and Hat Yai, which serve the local Thais (Belk 1998: 9).
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Sex Tourism
While the skin trade consists largely of Thai men, it is highly supported by foreign tourists, who are able to spend more money. Eighty-nine percent of tourists that come to Bangkok are male; most travel from countries such as Japan, Germany, Western Europe, and the United States (Bishop & Robinson 1998: 67). However, the sex industry hasn’t always been so closely linked with the tourist industry. It first started to take off when the United States implemented the R&R (Rest & Recreation) program for the military after the Vietnam War. This opened the political, social, and economic markets in Bangkok. After the R&R period faded, the bars in the red-light districts, such as Pattaya, managed to survive because of other tourists. Today, much of the advertising for Bangkok is geared towards white-collar corporate businessmen from the West, who come on business trips which usually provide sex package tours at night (Boonchalaksi 1994: 8).

Travel agencies design sex package tours as a type of work incentive for firms. These are convenient and include airfare, ground transportation, local guides, sightseeing, and an unlimited number of girls at one’s command. Hotels include meeting rooms for when “nightlife spills into the workday,” and rooms adjoin restaurants for customers who don’t want to take a waitress back to their hotel. Some hotels have personal prostitutes available upon order, and some even offer to rent out wives for their long-term guests (Truong 1990: 127).

Airlines and other tourist operators use scantily clad Thai girls and women in advertising campaigns, promoting the exotic beauty and servitude of Thai women that “feminism has corrupted in the West” (Bishop & Robinson 1998: 167). All tourism advertisements are paid for by the Thai government, as tourism is considered essential if the country is to continue to prosper economically. Although prostitution is illegal in Thailand and the police have started to crackdown on the brothels that local Thai men visit, the government actually encourages foreigners to partake in the sex trade, for then they support the economy (Boonchalaksi 1994: 17).
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Advertising Sex Tourism
Feminine beauty is of great value in traditional Thai culture. A women’s physical attractiveness is praised, but her real beauty is manifested in her modesty, self-restraint, and virginal purity (Mills 1999: 98). Unfortunately, these conventional values have come into conflict with the modern image of the “thansamay” female, who is the fashionable, “up-to-date,” and mobile woman represented in the developing urban-commercial culture and disseminated to the rural peoples through the media (Mills 1999: 103). Thus, young Thai girls are attracted to urban centers, such as Bangkok, in search of this lifestyle. A detrimental side affect of this migration by the young women is that their desires to find a well-paying job in order to support their families at home and buy the commodities that make them “thansamay” influence many to choose the quick and lucrative option of prostitution (Mills 1999: 105).

The commodification of the female body in modern marketing for commercial products has begun to overlap with marketing for the well-established industry of sexual services in Bangkok and other Thai cities (Mills 1999: 106). One example is the use of Miss Thailand to endorse products for beauty pageant promoters, while also being used in British telephone booth ads for call-girl services (Sakboon 2002). In a form of “discourse,” sex tours advertise the subtle, yet seductive aspects of Thai women that will tease and stimulate the fantasies of potential clients: female submissiveness, caring and warmth, and unrestrained sexual energy. Other, more overt means are also used to attract customers. Sex tour agencies will often provide specific information about the types of services offered and their prices. Pornographic videos and explicit web forums have become a medium for advertising the exotic Thai sex adventure and even pimping individual women to potential international tour clients (Truong 1999: 125).

The sex tourism industry takes an international focus in their advertising campaigns in order to appeal to Western and East Asian sex tourists. This clientele propels the economic powerhouse of sex tourism, an industry that has contributed significantly to Thailand’s urban growth and yet has stigmatized its global reputation. The government now recognizes the dichotomy in their situation: trying to strengthen tourism as a major source of revenue in the Thai economy, while simultaneously attempting to downplay the amount of negative publicity Thailand, and specifically Thai women, receive in the international media. The famous smile of the Thai woman, symbolic of Thai hospitality, is perverted into a selling tool for an odious institution. The advantages of this portrayal of the Thai woman and its ability to attract foreign tourists influence the Thai government’s actions. Because the economic prosperity of the sex industry depends on the choices made by Thai women to become sex workers, the government often neglects the welfare of the people in rural areas.
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The CQ Researcher, March 26, 2004 (v. 14 n. 12)

Class, Status, Geographic Origins, and NGO's
Although the class, status, and geographic origins of the women and men participating in the sexual services industry greatly vary, multiple studies provide fairly accurate information about these people. Most studies show that women start working in the sex industry, because they come from extremely poor, large families with rural backgrounds. For example, a study including 800 female sex workers reported that 56% of women said poverty was the reason they became involved in the sex service. In addition, the majority (87%) of women interviewed had only completed very low levels of education (Limanonda and Chongwatana 1995: 560). These statistics suggest that women participating in the sex industry belong to very low social classes and bear a low status. However, as the female sex workers become older, some “remain in the trade in a supervisory role” while others are sent to work in less tourist-oriented establishments because their value and beauty decrease with age (Booranapim and Mainwaring 2002: 768).

Studies also show that the women coming from these poor, rural families are mainly from the north and northeast of Thailand. A second study states that “Thai teenage girls and women choose to be in the business of prostitution in Thailand, specifically in the infamous sex trade in Bangkok…and come from the North of Thailand to make money in order to support themselves and sometimes to support their families” (Arnold and Bertone 2002: 33). Although there are some females, males, and even children that “provide sex work against their will,” (Skrobanek 200: 12) more often, they are not exploited because they make the decision to be a part of the industry. This includes males who come from different countries in Africa to enjoy the high wages they earn from gay clientele. However, males have “become increasingly popular with women, particularly Japanese tourists” (Rahman 7). Males participating in the sex industry include these foreign male prostitutes and those who own the bars, brothels and other establishments where sex services are provided. Because of their high demand and management positions, they generally have a higher status, class, and earn higher salaries than women.

In order to help and protect sex workers forced into the industry and even those who aren’t, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have formed, such as Project Hope International and EMPOWER. These organizations strive to make improvements for prostitutes by getting involved in Thailand’s government and fighting for laws to protect sex workers. It is important for the leaders of NGOs to form relationships with government agencies and police, because laws regulating the sex industry are leniently enforced (Arnold and Bertone 2002: 27-37).
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TIME Asia, Sept. 2, 2002

The sex industry in Bangkok has grown and evolved a great deal during the past half century. There has been a constant movement of women in and out of the industry: often motivated by the potential earnings, but not wanting to live the life of a sex worker forever. The types of businesses involved in the industry and the organization of the industry is varied and has changed over time. Foreign tourists coming to take advantage of the relatively cheap sexual services make up a large portion of the industry. The prostitution that occurs in Bangkok and the rest of Thailand will continue to be a key global issue as the influence of globalization increases.
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