Prostitution in Thailand
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, although in practice it is tolerated and partly regulated. Prostitution is practised openly throughout 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. Sex with a prostitute under the age of 18 is prohibited.
Extent of prostitution 
Estimates of the number of prostitutes vary widely and are subject to controversy. A 1974 study put the number of prostitutes at 500,000 to 700,000. A 2004 estimate by Dr. Nitet Tinnakul from Chulalongkorn University gives 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. One estimate published in 2003 placed the trade at US$ 4.3 billion per year or about three percent of the Thai economy. It has been suggested for example that there may be as many as 10,000 prostitutes on Koh Samui alone, an island resort destination not usually associated with prostitution, and that at least 10% of tourist dollars may be spent on the sex trade. 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." A recent government survey 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.
Although centres such as Bangkok (Patpong, Nana Plaza, and Soi Cowboy), Pattaya, and Phuket (Patong) are often identified as primary tourist "prostitution" areas, with Hat Yai and other Malaysian border cities catering to Malaysians, prostitution takes place in nearly every major city and province in the country.
Chiang Mai and Koh Samui (Chaweng and Lamai) are also major centers. 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. Even karaoke style bars in small provincial towns have their own versions, with women, in addition to singing traditional Thai music, sometimes engaging in prostitution.
Foreign prostitutes 
In 1996, there are at least 5,000 Russian prostitutes operating in Thailand alone, many of whom arrive through networks controlled by Russian gangs.
The largest numbers of foreign prostitutes to Thailand are from Burma's ethnic minority.
- 19/11/2012 arrested two women on suspicion of human trafficking after freeing Burmese girls and a Thai woman from prostitution.
Legal situation and history 
Prostitution had been illegal in Thailand since 1960, when a law was passed under pressure from the United Nations. The government has 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).
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 the significance of these earlier texts on both the writ and spirit of modern legislation cannot be overlooked.
The current legal framework prohibiting prostitution is the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, B.E. 2539 (1996). Under the act, persons who solicit sex "in an open and shameless manner" or "causing nuisance to the public" are subject to a fine of 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. Prostitution is defined as any act done to gratify the sexual desire of another in exchange for money or any other benefit. The term prostitution establishment is not clearly defined, although it may be broadly interpreted to include any place where prostitution takes place, especially in cases involving child prostitution, which carries heavier penalties (up to six years if the prostitute is younger than 15). 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, higher if it involves underage or forced prostitutes.
The "Entertainment Places Act of 1966" is one of the modern laws regulating massage parlors, go-go bars, karaoke bars, bathhouses and similar establishments. Under this law such establishments are required to be licensed. The law does not expressedly permit prostitution, but allows for "service providers" and "bath service providers," differentiated from regular, non-sexual service staff. For example, there are massage parlours where men come and look at women, who are sitting separated by a glass wall (known as a "fishbowl"), and may choose whom they want. The women go to a room where they bathe and massage the customers, but in reality may do much more than that.
Legalization attempt 
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.
532,522 Thais were living with HIV/AIDS in 2008. 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 a study in 2005 found that the lack of public support in the previous several years had led to a resurgence of the disease.
Reasons for the prevalence and toleration of prostitution 
Social views 
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.
Government politicians and prostitution 
Chuwit Kamolvisit is 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 £1.5m 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, informing The Nation newspaper, "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".
Both politicians and police have been supporting and indulging in the prostitution industry openly. Khun Tavich, a veteran politician aged 76, was under fire in 2005 for impregnating a 14-year-old girl who worked across the street from the parliament.
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.
Organised Crime 
The red-light districts of Thai cities are home to Chinese-owned brothels, casinos, and entertainment facilities that function both as sources of income and as operations centres for trafficking in humans and narcotics and extortion. The Chinese organised crime groups engaging in human trafficking are called the “Piglet Gangs” by the Thai police.
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 equal 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 has manifested itself into an acceptance by wives about 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 to 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 expiation of sins from previous lives. Conjecturally, women may choose to believe that suffering as prostitutes is the result of their karma.
Forms of prostitution 
Ab Ob Nuat 
Ab Ob Nuat ("bathing and massage" in Thai) most often consists of 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.
Body massage 
Although Thailand is also known for a non-sexual traditional style of massage, known as Nuat Phaen Boran, several massage parlours provide customers erotic massage with additional costs including handjob, oral sex, and sexual intercourse. The difference between this type of massage and Ab Ob Nuat is that not all massage parlours are involved in prostitution.
Bars catering to foreigners 
The most prevalent form of interaction with Westerners is through the various forms of bars. Young 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 venues for the sex trade; some bars, while not employing staff to serve as bar girls, will allow women ("freelancers" in this context) to solicit clients.
Prostitution and crime in Thailand 
Child prostitution 
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.
The reasons why and how children are commercially sexually exploited by include:
- 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.
Human trafficking 
A proportion of prostitutes over the age of 18, including foreign nationals from Asia and Europe, are in a state of forced sexual servitude and slavery. Due to the circumspect nature of Thai culture, it is extremely difficult for anyone not fluent in Thai, a native Thai, and a trained researcher to obtain anything near accurate data. Because there are so few such researchers willing to study these issues, the data remains easily disputable.
Ethnic minorities such as northern hill tribe peoples, many of whom do not have legal status in the country, are at a disproportionately high risk for trafficking internally and abroad. Within the country women are trafficked from the impoverished northeast and the north to Bangkok for sexual exploitation.
According to the 2003 documentary Trading Women, most women trafficked into Thailand come from Myanmar; others come from Cambodia, Laos and China. The film cites as root causes of the trafficking problem the economic and political situation in Myanmar, the destruction of the traditional economy in Thai hill tribe regions resulting from development and opium suppression programmes, the inability of many members of Thai hill tribes to obtain proper papers and participate in society, and the rampant corruption among police and border guards.
It is known to happen that Thai and other nationalities of women are lured to Japan and sold to Yakuza-controlled brothels where they are forced to work off their price. 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 filed a civil suit in Thailand against the Thai perpetrators, who had previously been convicted in criminal court. The woman had managed to escape from the Yakuza-controlled prostitution ring by killing the female Thai mama-san and had spent five years in a Japanese prison.
Several 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 organization that works with women and children trapped in the commercial sex trade in Phuket Thailand. SHE offers a prevention programme that gives uneducated women FREE Hotel training that prevents women turning to bars through lack of choice and education. SHE also offers women working in the bars FREE housing and paid employment making jewellery within the SHE Center. www.shethailand.org
EMPOWER is a Thai NGO that takes a neutral stance towards sex work and offers educational and counseling services to female sex workers. It has been operating since 1985 and has offices in Patpong (Bangkok), Chiang Mai, Mae Sai and Patong Beach (Phuket).
SWING (Service Workers in Group) is a recent offshoot of EMPOWER, offering support to male and female sex workers in Patpong and Pattaya. It offers English classes, teaches safe sex, distributes condoms, and promotes health and safety with their gym and discounted medical examinations. The newly formed organisation SISTERS works with transgender sex workers in Bangkok and Pattaya.
Destiny Rescue, is an organisation that is focused on the prevention and rescue of girls involved in prostitution in Thailand.
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 around the country.
CPCR (The Centre for the Protection of Children's Rights Foundation) is a Thai NGO which concerns primarily with preventing and confronting the physical and sexual abuse, exploitation and neglect of children in Thailand, and was established in 1981.
International Justice Mission is a U.S.-based Christian human rights organisation which operates in Thailand to rescue brothel workers held in sexual slavery.
Fr. Ray Foundation in Pattaya provides care and housing where vulnerable children can find safety at the Children's Home, and homeless kids are offered a sanctuary from the dangers of the street at the Drop-In Centre for Street Kids. Exploited women and their children are helped and assisted through education and care at the Fountain of Life.
The Well is a US-based Christian organisation that has been reaching out to sex workers and others at risk since 2004. They provide alternative employment, educational opportunity and social services to help restore women and families to health.
The SOLD Project began in 2007 and is committed to stopping child prostitution through education. Their 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".
Books and documentaries 
- 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.
- 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 Ph.D. 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 fiction 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.
See also 
- http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/IES/thailand.html#2 section 8B: Prostitution - Commercial Sex
- 2008 Human Rights Report: Thailand, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; February 25, 2009, U.S. State Department
- "Prostitution: More Thais selling sex, study finds", The Nation, 3 January 2004
- Thailand mulls legal prostitution. The Age, November 26, 2003
- Paradise revealed, Taipei Times
- Bangkok Post
- Thailand, in The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, Volume I–IV 1997–2001, edited by Robert T. Francoeur
- See, e.g.: Andrew Huxley, ed., THAI LAW: BUDDHIST LAW
- Finch, James; Tangprasit, Nilobon (24 April 2011). "Criminal Law in Thailand Part LX: Sex crimes - the prostitute". Bangkok Post.
- Finch, James; Tangprasit, Nilobon (1 May 2011). "Criminal Law in Thailand Part LXI: Sex crimes - prostitutes and their customers". Bangkok Post.
- Finch, James; Tangprasit, Nilobon (8 May 2011). "Criminal Law in Thailand Part LXII: Sex crimes - underage prostitutes". Bangkok Post.
- Finch, James; Tangprasit, Nilobon (15 May 2011). "Criminal Law in Thailand Part LXIII: Sex crimes - the pimp". Bangkok Post.
- Finch, James; Tangprasit, Nilobon (22 May 2011). "Criminal Law in Thailand Part LXIV: Sex crimes - wrong place, wrong time". Bangkok Post.
- Jon Fox, Sex Laws in Thailand Part 2: Laws Regulating Commercial Sex and Entertainment Places Thailand Law Forum, November 2009
- More teenaged girls getting HIV infection
- Thailand's 'Mr Condom' makes comeback, The World Today (7 September 2005)
- Mechai renews crusade against the Aids threat The Nation, (September 5, 2005)
- Sara Peracca, John Knodel, Chanpen Saengtienchai (16 July 1998), "Can Prostitutes Marry? Thai Attitude Toward Female Sex Workers", Social Science and Medicine 47 (2): 255–267, PMID 9720644
- Elizabeth Monk-Turner and Charlie Turner (December 23, 2009), "Subjective Well-being Among Those Who Exchange Sex and Money, Yunnan, China and Thailand", Social Indicators Research 99: 13, doi:10.1007/s11205-009-9568-9
- The brothel king's revenge, The Guardian
- Thai MPs protest mistress ban BBC News 2003
- Thai law-maker & cleric exposed as illicit shaggers
- Chuwit Page, 2Bangkok.com
- PATTAYA VOLUNTEER POLICE INDULGE IN UZBEK STING OPERATION -> Pattaya Daily News : pattaya daily update news
- UC Berkeley, Institute of International Studies
- Bales, Kevin (1999). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Murcott, Susan (1991), The First Buddhist Women:Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha, Parallax Press, p. 16, ISBN 0-938077-42-2
- Soapy massage
- "UN highlights human trafficking". BBC News. 2007-03-26. Retrieved 2010-05-22.
- UNICRI Trafficking in Minors, Report on Thailand 2005
- Woman's Dying: Wish to punish traffickers who ruined her life The Nation, (January 23, 2006)
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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. Extensively referenced paper.
- 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, December 1994. Excerpts from the 1994 book Patpong Sisters (ISBN 1-55970-281-8) by anthropologist Cleo Odzer.
- Sexuality in Thailand, in The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997–2001
- "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
- "Paradise Revealed": British Girl Raped and Murdered in Koh Samui Taipei Times
- Child protection in Thailand TAT article
- Learning the Thai sex trade - Prospect (magazine)
- The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, B.E. 2539 (1996)