Sex workers wait for customers in a red light district in Bangkok. Pic: AP.

Sex workers wait for customers in a red light district in Bangkok. Pic: AP.

By James Austin

You could be forgiven for thinking if you were new to Thailand that prostitution was a market aimed solely at foreign tourists and fund-dumping expatriates. The garish lights, garish hook-ups, and garish whispers in the night have become iconic, a thing of holiday myths, books, films, and for many who don’t live here deceitfully representative of an entire culture. But Thailand’s lusty epithet of a land of salacious, often mendacious smiles, is a foreign concoction, and within these borders most citizens I think don’t taint themselves with that brush.

It’s said that about US$16 million from Vietnam War foreign soldiers’ pockets went towards the Thai sex industry, the catalyst of what gave Thailand its seedy image. But the industry, apropos tourism, is hardly even the tip of the iceberg.

A lot of women, and men, in Thailand sell sexual services for money. Siamese 50 satang brothels were popular in the early half of the 20th century, while the ragingly popular arb ob nuad (soapy massage) has been around since the 1940s. Only over the last few years has the full-body massage (no penetration) become extremely popular, with new houses of supposedly ill-repute opening and closing – as is often the case with the service orientated industry in Thailand – all over the country. There’s also now what is referred to as the business of sidelines, which is young girls, supposedly of a more pure status, selling themselves online. It’s no secret; in this report by the Kinsey Institute, “90% of the [Thai] male participants had had sex with a prostitute and 74% had lost their virginity with a female sex worker.” It’s no secret, but Thais tend to be discreet about the matter. You should know that prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960. Still, it’s estimated to be worth US$6.4 billion a year in revenue, a large part of the country’s GDP, according to black market research company Havocscope.

(READ MORE: Opinion: Sexual hypocrisy is alive and well in Thailand)

In 2004, Dr. Nitet Tinnakul, while working at Chulalongkorn University, said that the sex industry in Thailand involved 2.8 million people: 2 million women; 20,000 adult males, and 800,000 minors under the age of 18. Dr. Nitet explained that this number includes those indirectly involved in the industry, including cleaners at establishments, accountants, and even corrupt policemen receiving kickbacks from bars.

I interviewed Dr. Nitet a few years ago for a story I was writing for ‘Citylife’ magazine. He told me that women in Thailand, “become prostitutes for economic reasons, and lack of education…It can’t be legalised as society still doesn’t accept it. Women can’t admit they do it, it’s a loss of their dignity.” While much has been said about not making the women, the ones who choose this occupation, victims, it’s likely the case that economic hardship is the grounding for this kind of what I imagine to be difficult work. Thai women historically have been used as chattel. F.A. Neale’s book, ‘Residence in Siam’, written in the late 19th century, explains that he witnessed fathers taking their unmarried 13 year old daughters, “having reached their expiration date”, to their shops to be “ sold to the highest bidder”, or even “sold to Arab merchants”. Dok Kaew, the practice of selling off a daughter at a young age to a male buyer – although not available until she came of age – was evident in Thailand until the ’90s. Modern prostitution, while often decried by those a long way from ever understanding it, is at least empowering when we consider what befell many poor Thai women in the past.

Footage of a bargirl giving performing fellatio on a customer in Pattaya has upset a lot of people this week. Image via MCOT.

Footage of a bargirl giving performing fellatio on a customer in Pattaya has upset a lot of people this week. Image via MCOT.

So it really should come as no surprise to anyone in Thailand that many women’s bodies have been, and still are, a commodity. But this last week it seems the nation was shocked by a moment of lewd candidness after a Thai sex worker in the city of Pattaya was caught on camera fellating her Korean John. The aptly named Pol.Col. Sukthat Pumpanmuang, superintendent of Pattaya Police Station, said that the couple would be charged with public indecency, as was reported by Khaosod. In the same story the director of a hotel association, Sanpetch Suphabowornsatient, said that a government response should be to campaign and educate people, “about the good culture and tradition” of Thailand. He added that, “Right now, Thailand is trying to promote the Thai way of tourism, and Buddhist way of tourism… Thailand is a Buddhist country, yet nowadays men and women express themselves in a way that causes damage to image of the country.” The offending bar was shut down for 10 days, and life in Thailand’s worst/best tourist destination, even though “tarnished”, goes on as normal.

(READ MORE: Thailand anti-vice efforts target prostitution and corruption)

Whether a cash industry should be equated with Buddhism is something all Buddhists might ponder. Even so, Thai tourism and those that profit from it have banked on Thai women being poor enough to become part of a diaspora leaving the fields and doing the epitome of physical work in the city, and the fact there are enough virile, and non-virile, tourists coming to abate their sexual frustrations. There is a niche, and Thailand, like many other countries, fills it. Let’s not pretend otherwise. The shock is not because something has happened that we thought didn’t exist, it’s because the worst kept secret, for a lurid minute, was captured on camera and has caused some folks to blush.

It’s commonly known, from Chiang Mai to Pattaya, that establishments breaking the prostitution law must pay heavy kick-backs to the local police. This is another of Thailand’s worst kept secrets. Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has rhetorically stated time and again the need to address the moral fabric of the country. But what of the economic fabric of the country? A large percentage of the country’s revenue comes from tourism, and billions of that money is spent on sex tourism. Cracking down on women doing their jobs, often focusing on the meager foreign part of the business enterprise, only hurts the people at the bottom of the food chain. Thailand needs prostitution, as things are, because a lot of people are reliant upon it. Perhaps if a crackdown is deemed necessary, then it should not be a crackdown not on sexual morality, but on capitalist morality; a crackdown on the police cracking down; a crackdown on hypocrisy. Thailand must start to accept what it has become. Crackdowns and ethics rhetoric are facepalms to the real world. Prostitution was born out of poverty; if there’s anything that requires the great leader’s attention, it’s just that: lack of money for the majority. A paid-for blowjob is negligible in itself, but in the wider scheme of things, it’s a big deal.

About the author:
James Austin
is a journalist and fiction writer living in Thailand.