My Essay on Prostitution in Thailand.
In this essay I examine the value that films such as “The Good Women of Bangkok” has in explaining the problem of prostitution in Thailand. Whilst the film plays a role in understanding why a female turns to prostitution, the continual focus on foreign sex tourism allows the Thai government and society to accept the continuation of the real problem present, that the majority of disadvantaged females work in Thai brothels cater for the local male population. I intend to show that a sex worker who works with foreign customers has more choices and a better lifestyle compared to prostitutes who work in local brothels. When attempting to find solutions it should be remembered that the women in local brothel industry require extensive support and help.
Thailand, like every country in the world, has a long history of prostitution. Prostitution was legal from the 1300’s until 1960 when the Prostitution Prohibition Act was introduced. The Act was not endorsed out of concern for the females involved but for the image of Thailand that was being presented to the world.
Thai women were involved in a polygamous system and were often part of a harem or were mistresses to richer Thai men, so justifiably were not considered to be prostitutes. Thai men who wished to show high status would have polygamous relationships with either two or more women or as in the case of royalty hundreds of concubines. In the early 1900’s Thailand abolished the western notion of slavery and therefore Thai harems. This led to a sharp rise in prostitute numbers as women who were uneducated and used to the maintenance they received under the old system were forced to support themselves.
The presence of American soldiers during and after the Vietnam War is often noted as the birth of high finance prostitution in Thailand due to the increase shown in prostitute numbers.
In 1981 the World Bank gave Thailand a Structural Adjustment Loan that boosted the growth of Thai industry. The shift from agriculture to industry led to a wider economic gap between rural and urban peoples. The poorest from the north and north-east of the country migrated to larger urban areas but mostly Bangkok. This process has affected females more than males, as fewer jobs meant that the males in the rural communities received employment opportunities first. Migrants to the urban area are predominantly female who face low paying employment that gives them enough to live on but not enough to send back to their waiting families. This is considered an important factor in females entering prostitution. It is important to remember that the majority of prostitutes in the city may be from rural areas but the majority of migrants to the cities do not become prostitutes.
There is a strong and admirable expectation that the daughter will contribute to the support of her parents. Many females who choose prostitution do not see themselves as victims and believe they have an element of choice; they see themselves as breadwinners for their family and in that context are not immoral. There is no other industry that allows young, uneducated females to send such large amounts of money back to their families.
Many estimated Thailand prostitute figures appear distorted. A figure, still quoted today, was provided in 1990 by the Centre for the Protection of Children’s Rights who estimated there were two million prostitutes of whom 800,000 were children. While the government denied these figures, the result was a heightened international awareness of Thailand’s prostitution problem, which was perhaps the goal in citing such high data. It is agreed that exact numbers would be difficult to determine but using logic and estimations from known research the number of prostitutes is generally accepted at 200,000, which is 0.7 % of the total female population or four percent of females between 15 and 29. This figure is accepted by the National Commission of Women’s Affairs and the Thai Government.
In attempting to establish who uses prostitutes it is widely acknowledged that Thai males use of prostitutes far exceeds the foreign tourist by nearly eight times.
There is a double standard in Thai society that believes that men need sex but women of high virtue and standing should remain virgins until married. The answer for the Thai male is prostitution. The Thai government in 1991 estimated that 90% of males had visited a prostitute.
Thai men show their wealth in one way by increasing their sexual contact with women. The tradition of minor wives is now rarely applied but with the increase of the middle class in a stronger economy this has led to a higher use of prostitutes in elaborate clubs and smaller brothels run by influential people, however there is a well founded point that while Thai consumption of prostitutes far overshadows international consumption, the local sex industry would not be so potent without the economic participation of westerners.
The difference in the earning power between a foreign client provider and a local provider are evident. A female who works in a local brothel has been shown to earn 50 baht per customer, often without further tips, for a median income of 5000 baht a month requiring her to work with up to 100 customers a month. My personal research in 2002 included questioning twenty bar girls and fifteen go-go dancers in Pattaya who worked with foreigners in the month of May 2002. A bar girl’s average wage for the month was 9400 baht seeing 4 customers. A dancer averaged 14500 baht and saw six customers a month. The typical Thai wage in legal employment in Thailand is averaged at about 6000 baht per month.
Thailand is continually criticised for child prostitution and females being forced into prostitution. In attempting to understand the difference in western and Thai beliefs of what constitutes an adult it needs to be understood that the support of the family is of high importance for a daughter and in performing this role she is not viewed as child but as an adult. In Thailand maturity is viewed in a different perspective to those in the West. Heather Montgomery states;
“A girl could be an adult at eleven by having a child and taking care of it, or still be considered immature at twenty because she did not take care of her offspring.”
In developing countries, such as Thailand, the view that a female under the age of eighteen is a child and cannot work is unsound. As Montgomery expresses, “Such extended childhoods are a luxury of the twenty-first-century, Western thinking.”
Government supports this theory with laws that make it compulsory to go to school until twelve years of age. The youth can then work part-time until fourteen when they are then allowed to take on full time work.
The number of child prostitutes is open to much debate. Figures have ranged from two hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand child prostitutes. The Thai government in 2001 challenged UNICEF to provide proof of their estimation of 200,000 child prostitutes. The Health Ministry and the Thai Red Cross put child prostitution figures at 30,000 to 60,000. UNICEF declined to respond.
Child prostitution appears to allow Thai society to outwardly condemn their fears of foreign influences by making this an anti-foreigner campaign not involving direct criticism of Thais. As Montgomery states, the idea of punishing Thai parents or men means that Thais would have to accept some responsibility, to focus resources on a few foreigners and not the Thai people involved would seem to unhelpfully limit the process of solving the problem.
Forced sex is an issue, but Thai males frequenting local brothels emerge as the major users of women forced into sex labour. It is not suggested that all women working with foreigners are there by choice but females paying off forced family debts or being sold into a brothel environment to a brothel owner is a problem more associated to the local sex industry.
In a 2002 questionnaire, Steinfatt shows that not one respondent who worked in foreign bars had been enslaved, kidnapped or forced into sex work by being threatened or abused or sold into “indentured servitude”. Out of the 547 women surveyed 6% had been told by another bar worker of a personal story of indentured servitude and in those cases the object of the story was someone the teller knew. In contrast, out of a small core of fifty two sex workers in a rural brothel interviewed by Boonchalski and Guest, 13.5 % reported being personally forced into sex work whilst out of the fifty four Bangkok massage parlour workers, servicing foreign males, not one reported that they were working because they were forced to. It would seem therefore that forced servitude does not play a role in the recruiting of workers in the foreign sector but does play some role in the local sector. It should not be overlooked that the extremely high majority of workers are free to come and go as they please.
Due to the continued interest in Thailand’s sex industry the HIV infection rate has been closely watched and documented. 1989 was the first reported case of a Thai female sex worker carrying HIV and now having peaked, the figure is expected to remain at about 90,000 new cases a year. In the year 2000 there were under one million total HIV carriers across the country. A study conducted with 230 prostitutes at 11 local brothels in the Chiang Mai area in 1994 found a 65% overall HIV positive rate. Another study in Northern Thailand in 1997 of 500 workers gave a result of 32% positive with workers who were employed in local brothels marked at 47%. In stark contrast a 1999 report of 500 Bangkok prostitutes, frequented by foreigners, who were tested between 1997 and 1998 a result of 8.7%. The disparity in figures may just come down to the fact that girls in local brothels see more clients than females in foreign areas.
I have shown in this essay the inequality between sex workers working in local Thai brothels compared to those working with foreign clientele. Thai males are more frequent users of prostitutes than foreign tourists showing that females catering to the local population earn less but work more. Females forced into prostitution are shown to be more likely found in local brothels as are child prostitutes. The danger of HIV is also shown to be higher for females working in local brothels. I have shown that a documentary like “The Good Women of Bangkok”, while useful in highlighting a small segment of an independent prostitute’s plight, mainly deflects the focus away from understanding that it is the prostitutes working in the local sex industry who require stronger social, medical, and legal support than those who work in foreigner frequented bars.
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Ghosh, Chitra. 1990: The World of Thai Women. Bani Art Press, Calcutta.
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Sokn, Chris: http://students.bradley.edu/~csokn/index.html.
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