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GoGo bars and neon signs- but what darkness is behind the bright lights of Thailand's sex industry?

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

To feed tourists and Thai nationals' hunger for sex work, thousands of men, women and children are trafficked into Thailand's sex industry every year. According to the Global Slavery Index, Thailand is home to about 610,000 human trafficking victims, with most of these being women. Many victims are Thai nationals, but countless are abducted from neighbouring countries of Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia or deceived/ coerced into the human trafficking market.

For nearly thirty years, labour migration to Thailand has been increasing and doesn’t seem likely to stop any time soon. This is mainly due to Thailand’s relative wealth compared to other countries nearby, making it appealing to migrant workers who are attracted into the country by the prospects of new and better employment opportunities, often

before being kidnapped and trafficked. So, why Thailand, and why is this industry only getting bigger?

Why Thailand?

In order to enter Thailand legally, migrants have to go through an ‘MoU process’. This is an agreement between the governments of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar that establishes a channel for legal labour migration from these countries. However, the longevity and complexity of this process means migrants are more likely to use illegal channels to enter the country, and thus are more vulnerable to human trafficking. These migrant workers, other ethnic minority groups and stateless persons are the most at-risk. They experience various abuses, such as withholding of identity and work documents, debt bondage and illegal salary deductions. Language barriers, lack of access to social and official ‘safety nets’ and low economic and social status contribute to how susceptible they are to being taken advantage of.

Children are another group who are extremely vulnerable. Children in the southeast-Asian region are trafficked for jobs such as domestic servitude, factory work, agriculture, fishing, construction, begging, forced marriage and adoption. Sadly, however, the most common reason for child trafficking is still for child sexual exploitation. Children are commonly recruited online with false promises of well-paid work abroad with better working and living conditions. Parents often have no idea what is happening or encourage them to take the jobs for the supposed economic benefits.

Due to the amount of trafficking that occurs into Thailand, the routes into the country are now well established. This makes the transport of victims easier, allowing the cycle to continue and grow.

Sex tourism is also a major factor that continues to increase the demand for trafficking victims for sexual exploitation. It also fuels corruption, limiting the progress of anti-trafficking efforts.

What is sex tourism and why is it so prevalent here?

Prostitution in Thailand has been documented as far back as the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351-1767). At this stage, brothels were run by the state, and it was legal and documented- but it has been illegal in the country since 1960. There are now three different acts in place to prevent prostitution:

· The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act (1996)- This act places responsibility on the ‘client’, with punishments consisting of fines or jails terms, getting worse as the age of sex worker gets younger

· Penal Code Amendment (1997)- This act punishes the sex workers themselves, with fines and jail terms provided as punishments again

· Entertainment Places Act (1966)- Focuses on punishing owners of certain establishments who are responsible for prostitution occurring on or within their premises

So, if it’s illegal, why does it keep happening?

For women who choose sex work, it’s usually because there are not always a lot of jobs for women in the country, and sex work pays considerably more than many jobs in Thailand. Plus, there is a large and constant flow of customers- This is also the reason why trafficking victims is so popular and keeps growing, because there’s lots of profit to be made off the victims. Although the statistics are difficult to confirm, it’s estimated that 60% of tourists who enter Thailand are men- and of this 60%, a shocking 70% are sex tourists.

The Entertainment Places Act states that profiting from prostitution is illegal, but often this behaviour is tolerate and goes un-prosecuted as many law officials have economic interests in the trade, hence why it fuels corruption. An example of this is the so-called “Victoria’s Secret” massage parlour, raided in 2018 for conducting illegal sexual service provision. The police officers involved found 113 female sex workers at the parlour. They also found a list of ‘special guests’; among the, officials from the Royal Thai Police and Revenue Department who allegedly received discounted or free services at Victoria’s Secret in exchange for protection. The list also included officers from virtually every department at Wang Thonglang police station near the parlour, ranging from patrolmen to investigators and a superintendent. Other bureaus on the VIP list included crime suppression, immigration, metropolitan and, ironically enough considering the charges that followed the raid, human trafficking police. This example paints a clear picture of the corruption that continues to fuel this ever-growing industry and begs one key question- how can the victims of human trafficking hope to escape it when the very people who should be rescuing and protecting them are the ones abusing them?

The sheer physical size of the industry is another reason why it’s hard to stop, even if the police and government officials wanted to. In Bangkok alone, there are three main Red Light Districts- Patpong, Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy. Soi Cowboy is one of the most famous red-light districts here and does little to conceal the illicit trade conducted on its street. Go Go Bars – a form of strip club popular in South East Asia – compete for customers using a combination of bright neon lights and scantily clad women, some of whom stand outside and wave at passers-by. Sex work may have been illegal in Thailand since the 60s, but government officials and law enforcement officers have long turned a blind eye. “No, I’m not worried [about the law]” said the manager of one bar, who asked to remain anonymous. “If we are here [on Soi Cowboy] then we are safe.” According to a member of her staff, the manager pays nightly bribes to the police in return for their cooperation and protection.

For women who have chosen sex work, they’re supporting their families and allowing their children more opportunities than they maybe had. One sex worker names Jantawong said “You have to understand that we are the head of the family, the main providers. If we are arrested or lose our jobs, then it affects the whole family and the whole community. We are the drivers of development in this country, if you lock us up then you will have more people in poverty and more people without homes.”. If the country receives so many benefits, such as economic growth and employment provision, from sex work/tourism, then it should legalise it. That way, they can continue to improve their economic profile, provide jobs for sex workers and establishment owners, and regulate the industry so as to protect those who are forced into it.

While most of the areas that conduct this business are seen as legitimate, despite conducting illegal business, and employ many women willing to partake in sex work, the question has to be asked at what cost? Without legalising and regulating the industry, the statistics of forced child and adult prostitution and human trafficking will remain unknown but inevitably high. To decriminalise the industry is to support those who rely on it and protect those who don’t.

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