This article is based on conversations with more than 20 active and former Thai sex workers held over a 6-month period. The article refers to narratives collected as part of a research project undertaken in conjunction with a Thai University.
WHEN the issue of sex workers in Thailand is brought up, any discussion is usually characterized with words of ‘exploitation’, ‘coercion’, and ‘human trafficking’. However this is only part of the story. Not all feel suppressed and that they are undertaking a degrading occupation. Some of the girls interviewed felt that sex work was a means of emancipating themselves economically, and as a consequence felt more optimistic about their futures.
One interviwee, ‘Som’, summed up what many of the girls felt. “This is our chance to work for our future back in our village one day,” she said.
If one visits some of the many bars, karaoke joints, and massage parlours around Phuket, Bangkok, and Pattaya, and listen to the many stories from the sex workers themselves, feelings of exploitation, depression, and coercion are not always necessarily the stories you hear.
For many within the group, sex work had been an adventure of moving around and trying different things, to eventually finding a place to work that best suits their needs.
The more adventurous ones who have been able to pick up a smattering of foreign languages tend to ‘settle’ in the areas where foreign clients predominate over locals.
“Sometimes the customers aren’t so good to us, we have a hard time, but the money is great.”
Those who have travelled through the tourist areas of Thailand and spoken to sex workers will find that most of the stories they hear have common themes and elements to them.
Many girls come from Issan, a vast rural area northeast of Bangkok, or up-country from Bangkok all the way past Chiang Mai into the highlands. They often from areas that don’t have education or employment opportunities locally. University and vocational education in Thailand is not free.
The girls are either very young, unable to continue schooling or go to university, or from broken marriages, usually with a child who the family looks after. Some come from broken families as well.
Their journeys are primarily in search of an income, and to get out of the home environment they have been brought up in. They travel to particular places on advice and recommendations of others who have made the trip before them. A few see the journey as a chance to find a ‘farang’ (Western) partner, while others see it as a means of earning an income.
As ‘Dow’ said during one of the interviews, “Coming to Bangkok is a way I can look after my parents at home by sending them some money every month”.
They travel with the responsibility and hope of being able to support their children, parents, and siblings still at home, having the dream of being able to build a better house and maybe even buying some land for the family to farm.
Stories from the mature sex workers vary in their life successes. Many have been able to build a house back home and buy up more land. Some have brought home a foreign husband to their village who has built a home, while a select few have gone to the country of their spouse to live.
Out of those who leave Thailand, some continue sex work in their new countries. Often, these sex industries are structured differently, focusing on short time clients, where a girl may service up to 30 clients in a single shift in the brothels, many face great psychological trauma. They get introduced to drugs to help them cope, and discover gambling as an outlet, physically and emotionally going downhill.
Some send money back home and if a sister or mother invests it well, bring great benefits to the family. Others find out their hard earned money has been squandered on alcohol and gambling in the village by the parents.
A number of sex workers contract hepatitis or HIV and end up returning home to die, or going off to some remote temple with carers to help them pass away peacefully. HIV is the tragedy of sex work in Thailand.
“Coming to Bangkok is a way I can look after my parents at home by sending them some money every month.”
Some don’t have the luck of finding a partner, or saving enough to return home, and thus end up in jobs like a masseuse until they are in their 60s. They may travel down to Malaysia, Korea, or Singapore to do short time work in many of the massage parlours springing up in the region.
It’s not a great option, as ‘Lily’ told the writer, “Malaysia is full of police ready to arrest us, if we are not lucky”
The successful sex workers appear to share a thrill of earning relatively easy money. Some of the young savvy sex workers told the writer that in good times they are able to earn up to 4,000 baht (US$113) per day by taking three to four short time clients daily. Others like to build up a list of regular clients, who holiday in Thailand at certain times of the year and become their companion for the duration of their stays. They develop friendships, which in some cases allow them to travel and feel some luxury.
‘Dow’ said, “Sometimes the customers aren’t so good to us, we have a hard time, but the money is great.”
However the majority struggle, earning anything between 2,000 to 4,000 baht per week, if they are lucky, taking whatever clients they can get.
The status symbol for the sex worker is the type of mobile phone they own, with iphones being highly prized.
A prevailing attitude that came from the sex workers interviewed suggested that they feel better being paid for the sex they provide, rather than providing sex to a husband in a dead end relationship that they get nothing for. This was most prevalent in those who had been married before. To some, this justified what they were doing.
Some even talk about providing sex as helping clients with a basic need, which in a way shows the compassion behind some of the hardness that develops over the years.
What was most common with those sex workers who had been prudent financially, was a satisfaction with their career as a sex worker. It was not about the sex, however many enjoyed some of the fun party times they had. Some of the mature workers even proudly took out old photos of when they were young. They spoke of relationships they had with ‘farangs’, and the good times they occasionally had. It was about what their work brought for them in life.
Equally, they spoke of what they managed to do for their families. None overtly showed any regrets, some even saying they would have started younger if they had of known how lucrative sex work was when they were young.
‘Katz’ said, “….I remember the days I was beautiful with long flowing hair, and the money came in”.
Almost universal among the sex workers interviewed was the feeling that they had fulfilled a sense of duty in bringing up a child, caring for an ailing parent, sending a sibling through school, or building a family home.
It’s the chance of having the above successes that seems to lure young girls to Phuket or Pattaya in the hope of being able to make it too. They see the successful ones returning home with gifts, having the latest iPhone, and proudly building a house in the village. It’s an alternative to going to university, or working in a factory, which may not be possible still in many rural parts of Thailand. Until sound economic and educational opportunities exist at village level, the drift to the tourist areas in search of a livelihood through sex work will continue.
This is just one cross-section of the sex industry in Thailand. Not all are as lucky as this group. Sex workers still come from the poorer rural areas of Thailand both because of need and hope. There is no denial that trafficking and coercion does exist for others.
Education and employment opportunities in Thailand are still not available to all, keeping sex work as a viable alternative for many. Facilitating economic and educational opportunity at the village level should be a major objective.