Investigation into professionalism of Thai sex workers

 
Note from editor: At the mention of the Thai sex industry, sexpats may start spouting off about their expertise in establishments at Soi Cowboy, Nana, Patpong, and Pattaya. Much less-publicized, however, is the local sex industry catering to Thais. Prostitution establishments targeted at locals are usually “bathing-sauna-massage” parlours, or “ab ob nuad” in Thai. 
 
Services offered at these bathing-sauna-massage parlours, commonly found on Ratchadaphisek Road in Bangkok, are different from those for foreign tourists. Instead of showy stage shows or exoticized sexual acts, customers at these parlours bathe with the sex workers before intercourse. Sexual services also differ, for example with mouth-to-mouth kissing prohibited by most of the ‘masseuses’. 
 
Having existed for about 50 years, the industry has been part of the sex life of Thai men who go to get ‘special’ experiences with experienced women. The masseuses on the other hand require training and constant upkeep to succeed in a competitive industry. Moreover, just like any other service, masseuses are even reviewed by customers in web forums according to an established grading system. 
 
In the story, solely focuses on the sex workers who voluntarily entered prostitution, the profession is examined through interviews with mo nuad (massage specialists) in a parlour in the northern province of Phitsanulok. The women talk about their motivations for entering the industry, and their work/life separation, their “golden rule” of STD protection, as well as their aspirations for the future after leaving the industry. 
 
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In their book Superfreakonomics, Stephen D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner say that prostitution is an industry where historically women have held power.
 
By power, the authors mean that the sex workers are able to negotiate prices for their services, and that women are more prominent than men in this industry. In the finance industry, in contrast, the number of female administrators is much lower compared to male, as well as their pay. 
 
In her research paper “Prostitutes and Thai State Policy 1868–1960”, Dararat Medtarikanon provided evidence that there has been prostitution in Thailand for at least 653 years, ever since the reign of King Ramathibodi I from 1351 to 1369, and the first recorded mention of prostitution in 1361. In legal records, prostitution was included under martial law. 
 
In present-day Thailand, prostitution is a flourishing industry, with the bathing-sauna-massage parlours being the most successful business model.
 
A bathing-sauna-massage parlour is defined in the fourth draft of the 2003 Health Act published on 31 December 2003 as an establishment that offers massage services but not sexual ones. Prostitution is illegal under the Prostitution Prevention and Suppression Act of 1996, with punishment of up to a month in jail and/or a fine not exceeding 1000 baht.
 
Although prostitution is the oldest profession both in Thailand and worldwide, this career still carries a negative social stigma as being an easy, no-brainer, just-spread-your-legs job that does not require skills or know-how. It is also seen a dirty profession rampant with the chance of contracting STDs.
 
In actuality, however, present-day prostitution is a complex industry where jobs come in many forms. Prostitutes require skills, know-how and career planning just like in other career paths such as medicine, education, journalism and engineering. The writer has not only consulted academics and their research, but conducted interviews with four prostitutes in the industry. 
 
“Poi-sian,” aged 40, used to be a masseuse and nightclub singer before entering the bathing-sauna-massage industry due to its high wages which she can use to support her two siblings and one child.
 
“Khem,” aged 37, used to be an assistant nurse before entering the industry to support her two children from a previous marriage. 
 
“Phikul,” aged 38, is from a higher socioeconomic standing and used to be a businesswoman. However, due to her business failing about a decade ago, as well as her divorce leaving her to support her two children by herself, she started working as a karaoke bar girl in Chiang Mai. Due to the low wages, a friend recommended her to work in the bathing-sauna-massage industry.
 
“Fa,” aged 38, said she is good with maths and used to work at a famous clothing department store. However, the wages were not enough since she had to support her parents, younger sister, and her child from a previous marriage, so she entered the bathing-sauna-massage industry. Her child is currently studying at a higher education institute.
 
All four of these women work in a higher-end establishment located in Phitsanulok province. This establishment has 22 rooms and 30-40 women working there a month.
 

Prostitution = Unskilled, easy job?

 
Most people view prostitution as an unskilled job because they assume the job just calls for sexual intercourse with clients. 
 
Although it’s true that being a prostitute does not require a degree and any woman can enter the industry, for a woman to be considered a professional in the field requires the accumulation of a great deal of skill and experience. In such a competitive field as prostitution, a prostitute needs to establish customer loyalty among clients to create repeat sales. Professional prostitutes also need to strengthen their survival skills, especially when clients are violent or refuse to wear condoms. 
 
“Imagine going into a room with a strange man and he closes the door. A prostitute can use her accumulated skills to get out of violent situations that could arise if an agreement was not reached before. Normal people like us who haven’t attained the skills she has would probably not know how to get out of such a situation,” said Chutimas Suksai, a freelance researcher. 
 
Chutimas states that prostitution is an unobtrusive small business, whose entrepreneurs can be well-off or educated. She states that in fact, she once met a prostitute with a Master’s degree who chose to enter the industry due to its good wages.
 
The woman’s skills determine the prices she can charge, says Chutimas. “The better service and satisfaction she offers, the more negotiating power she has, just like in any other industry. The client has to pay these prices if he wants high-quality services.”
 
Poi-sian said that her secret in winning repeat clients is to build a fantasy of intimacy so that the client feels like she knows them. “I don’t pretend to be their girlfriend, I just act natural around them. I say things like ‘I’ve missed you so much, where have you been?’ and then hug, kiss, squeeze, and massage them. I want my clients to feel like I know, understand, and care about them.” 
 
Each sex worker has different attitudes and opinions towards pleasing clients. Some will do anything for client satisfaction whereas others have limits in what they will do.
 
Khem says she has no limits or restrictions on what she will do, because she wants the client to feel like they got their money’s worth. Her willingness has resulted in a large number of regular clients. 
 
“I can do whatever they want. To me, they’re out on the town, and they come to me to spend their money. It’s their right as a customer, and we’re in this business anyway. Most importantly, my regulars tell me that they don’t want to get business from anywhere else because they feel like I know what they want and how to give it to them, so I can’t just suddenly stop providing.”
 
Phikul added that a natural atmosphere was essential to getting clients to become regulars. She often bathes and gets in bed with clients in an unhurried fashion, but ironically she often finishes her service rounds faster than other workers.
 
“I don’t hurry the clients along, but let whatever comes naturally. For example, one of my regulars loves to take his time in the tub, so I let him touch, grope, squeeze, or press whatever he wants on my body. I set my limits by asking if he’s had enough and if he has, we get into bed. Letting things progress naturally is a sign of my professionalism. Even better, when I let things progress naturally, the client finishes even quicker. Penetrating me just two or three times before finishing is great for me because then I can take on another client and earn more for the night. If I want more tips from that client, I just massage him after he finishes. I get tips, and the client feels like he’s getting really good service.”
 
Even with this “let things progress naturally” attitude, the sex workers keep in mind that the clients are not their lovers, so they let limits on actions that denote love or other actions that might pose a sanitary risk. 
 
For instance, although Poi-sian invests in creating a fantasy of intimacy with her clients, she does not let clients kiss her on the mouth. “If they try to kiss me, I immediately kick them. I can’t stand their stench of their breath or the smell of cigarettes. I don’t see kissing as part of my job description.”
 
Phikul, who places importance on creating a natural atmosphere, also draws the line at kissing. She sees kissing as a sign of love, not something to be done for a bathing-massage client. “Kissing a client means you secretly love the client. I’ve met some flirty, playful clients before who wanted to kiss me. I had to calmly negotiate a refusal for any sort of face kissing. I told them to either go home or choose another girl.”
 
Fa refuses to kiss clients because it shows love, but also due to sanitary concerns. “I don’t even kiss my boyfriend. There are other ways to show love, like hugging, holding onto his arm, looking into his eyes, and showing him how I feel. As for clients, I don’t kiss them because of their smelly breath. Lots of clients are really dirty, but even if they shower I still don’t kiss them. We’re not husband and wife.”
 
 

Servicing the client

 
Due to the large number of establishments, clients and prostitutes in the bathing-sauna-massage industry, both legal and freelance, prostitutes must constantly improve themselves to draw in customers in this competitive field.
 
Web forums and websites that specifically review bathing-sauna-massage establishments are a main factor in developing the industry. Clients review their experience at establishments on these websites, which gather bathing-sauna-massage enthusiasts who exchange tips and opinions. Of course, sex workers also go onto these websites to view feedback on their service for self-improvement.
 
The sex workers cannot always choose their clients, and may often end up with an untidy, rough man. The client, however, is able to view the webboards, look at the reviews on each worker, and choose one who has received good reviews. If a woman receives bad reviews, on the other hand, her flow of clientele often drops. Web forum reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations, therefore, have a large impact on bathing-sauna-massage establishments. 
 
These webboards even have their own code. “Handing in homework” is writing a review right after getting serviced. “Dropping money” means receiving a bad service and feeling disappointed with the money spent, like it has been “dropped”. “Getting change” means getting service so good that the client feels like they “got change” in return after the service. “Jingle-jangle” means the service did not meet expectations, but it was not nearly as bad as “dropping money,” like they got a tiny bit of “change” in return.   
 
Each review is very thorough. Reviewers cover every facet of the experience, from their first step into the establishment, the figure, face, skin, breast size, and colour of the genitals of the prostitute, the sexual techniques used, how caring the woman is in her service, the price, overall satisfaction, and whether they will repeat the experience or not.
 
Each review also has a scoring system based on four factors: “GF,” “body,” “face,” and “service.”
 
“GF,” or “Girlfriend Factor,” is scored based on how much the experience is like being with a girlfriend, as in how happy and satisfied the client feels. 
 
The “Chiang Mai Nightlife Society” webboard (www.cmxseed.com) defines GF as “a feeling of being fulfilled and happy, like you get with a girlfriend. She will have good people skills, flirting and acting naturally with you so you don’t feel like you’re with a stranger. It’s a specific skill that only some nong masseuses have.” GF is scored on “care for clients and good people skills. A high GF score guarantees that she will take care of you as if you were her boyfriend.” 
 
The appearance factors, “body” and “face” amount to half of the overall score. Women with smooth, pale skin are scored higher, and breast size and nipple shade are also important factors. In fact, these webboards have even invented specific vocabulary to describe breasts, such as “lightbulbs,” “headlights,” and “Xenon.” Genitals are also reviewed and categorized on factors of colour, smoothness, and amount of pubic hair. 
 
Points for “service” are given according to how much effort the prostitute put into her sex acts, as well as eroticism. For example, extra points are given for repeated bouts of intercourse or oral sex without the use of a condom (called “fresh sucking” on the web forums). Even more points are given for anal sex (“off roading”) and underwater oral sex in the tub. “Diving” is viewed as a very difficult act that requires a girl with lots of “endurance.” 
 
A score sheet for a masseuse sex worker could look like this:
 
Service 10
 
GF 10
 
Face 8
 
Body 7 (skin neither white nor smooth)
 
This client wrote that he really liked her service because she gave a 100 per cent. She allowed him to have sex several times. She wasn’t picky about hygiene either, performing oral sex on him even before they bathed. He also wrote that her service was so lavish and selfless that she “felt like his girlfriend,” so much so that he would definitely come back for another visit. However, he also said that her breasts were a little too small, and her skin was neither white nor smooth. 
 
Another client wrote in another review that he liked her because she was “white-skinned and thin, like an heiress”, had a familiar way of talking with him, and had beautiful genitals. He also liked her moans and bodily responses to sex. He believed that the sex worker’s responses were genuine. Her vaginal canal was also pleasantly tight, so he felt like he was having sex with a recently deflowered woman.
 
A third client said that he liked how pretty his girl was, since she had a flat stomach, pink, soft nipples, and an overall good physique. She was also willing to let the client touch and lick wherever he wanted with no complaints, which helped to arouse him further. 
 
From this sample of client reviews, we can see that it is very important for a sex worker to take very good care of her appearance. If any sex worker lets herself go, then clients may disappear very quickly. The importance of sexual responses to her client cannot be underestimated. She must make the client feel like she is engaging in genuine, simultaneous arousal.
 
However, from our interviews with sex workers, all of them have stated that “faking it” is essential to their professionalism.
 
Fa says that faking arousal and orgasm is essential, especially when the client has penetrated her since it leaves a strong impression on him, so he is likely to come back for a repeat visit. “Of course I have to fake that I’m aroused with the client. You can’t just lie there wiggling and letting him do everything.”
 
Poi-sian, however, views her “faking it” as indulging in the client’s fantasy that makes him feel like she understands and cares for him. “I don’t think of the client as a boyfriend, but I try to make the atmosphere casual. I don’t think deeply about the client, so I imagine I’m indulging in the client’s fantasy.”
 
Lavishing attention on and making their best efforts for their clients is also important. Any sex worker who does not seem too concerned about hygiene, and indulges in acts like “fresh sucking” receives high points since it arouses the client more than using a condom.
 
Sex workers run a high risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases not only through vaginal sex without a condom, but also through oral sex and swallowing semen. Therefore, there are limits to how much “effort” may be given when servicing a client. Avoiding STDs is a golden rule of sex workers if they want to ensure a long career. 
 

How sex workers protect themselves from STDs

 
Sex work runs high risks of STDs, so the prostitutes have to take precautions so that they may take care of their bodies for a long career, earning money for retirement and for supporting their families. 
 
STDs are usually known to Thais as venereal disease, men’s disease, and women’s disease. STDs are transmitted from one person to another through blood or semen, and are often found among people with multiple sexual partners or those who do not use protection during sex. 
 
To reduce the risk of STDs, one can practise abstinence, reduce the number of sexual partners, or use a condom during intercourse. Of course, in their business, sex workers choose the third option.
 
Suphap Keawgla, specialist nurse at the Office of Public Health in Phitsanulok, explains how masseuse prostitutes protect themselves against STDs. “Due to their job, they can’t be abstinent of course. In each encounter the masseuse must make sure the client uses a condom. Masseuses should also take care of their health by eating a diet full of beneficial fruits and vegetables, and exercising regularly.”
 
Suphap goes on to say that the Office of Public Health in Phitsanulok has also received international funding to develop their STD aid network across 32 provinces. The funding is coordinated by the Bureau of Epidemiology and the Office of Public Health coordinates the network. Phitsanulok has been chosen by the network to enhance management of STDs. Officials go into the field to disseminate knowledge on STDs to sex workers, and give out free condoms every six months. These activities constitute the first stage of the programme. 
 
The second stage of the programme, also implemented, is checking the sex workers for STDs. Any STDs found are immediately treated. Both preventive and curative treatments proceed in the same way, that is, by checking blood samples for HIV and syphilis, and checking urine samples for gonorrhoea. 
 
It costs 2,000 baht to monitor each person participating in the 32 provinces STD prevention program, but the sex workers can get a check-up for free. Sometimes, the Bureau of Epidemiology does not have enough funds so field check-ups are reduced from twice a year to once a year. 
 
“The costs of treating STDs are quite high, so we should focus more on prevention. Compared to treatment of STDs by ordering lab tests of blood and urine, the cost of distributing condoms and STD information is much lower. In fact, the cost of producing a condom is only one baht per condom. For distributing STD information, we don’t even need to hire a specialist because our officers are already experts on STDs,” said Suphap.
 
Poi-sian, who is usually easy-going with her customers, is able to rake in quite a bit of money. However, the one issue she will not budge on is wearing condoms. Some men have even used violence to force her to have sex without a condom. Poi-sian has had to rely on her quick wit to get herself out of such situations. 
 
“There was a customer who didn’t want to wear a condom, he wanted to ‘stick it in fresh.’ I tried to dissuade him but he wouldn’t listen, and grabbed my arm and pushed me down on the bed. I waited for the moment when he was distracted, kicked him off the bed, and ran out of the room. 
 
I always have to think about my survival. I’m not young anymore, and the symptoms [of STDs] will show much clearer than if I’m young. Some clients even offer me more money for unprotected sex, but I tell them that I won’t agree even if they offer me millions. I tell them that money can’t buy me, and they should go find someone else.”
 
Phikul takes great care to take health and safety precautions as a sex worker so she can have a long career and life to take care of her two kids. She says that she makes her client wear a condom even during foreplay, and she isn’t worried if he is dissatisfied about her “golden rule.” 
 
“My clients must wear a condom even during foreplay because it’s a preventative measure for hot-headed guys. If one of them says that they’re allergic to condoms I immediately fire back ‘Then just go home and stick it in your wife ka.’ I don’t worry about being kreng jai to customers or worry that I won’t get repeat customers, since wearing a condom is my golden rule.”
 
Fa says that when clients ask for unprotected sex, she uses rhetoric to convince the man otherwise. “I’ve had some customers who ask me if they can do it without a condom. So I have to use tact, diplomacy, and reasoning to make them rethink their request. For example I can say, ‘Aren’t you scared that I’m infected? I work all day every day and service so many men, not just you.’”
 
Prevention of and protection from STDs, as well as tact in negotiating with customers, are clearly crucial for sex workers. 
 
In the research series HIV and Sex Workers, published in July 2014 on the Lancet, researchers found that sex workers, who run a high risk of HIV and other STDs, are barred from STD care and prevention by the illegal nature of their jobs. The stigma, discrimination, and social, legal, and financial “injustice” against prostitutes makes it more likely that they will contract STDs. 
 
Source: The Lancet
 
Meanwhile in Phitsanulok, sex workers are taking precautions against STDs by using condoms as well as getting regular check-ups at the provincial public health office, a service offered by the 32 provinces network programme. A free STD check-up is offered there every January and June, if funding allows. If not, check-ups are only available in January. Blood samples are tested for HIV, syphilis or HPV. Gynaecological exams are also offered. Urine, semen, and vaginal fluid samples are tested for chlamydia. 
 
The following statistics were gathered by the provincial public health office from female sex workers who went for check-ups in 2013 and 2014 in the 32-province STD aid network. 
 
In 2013, two prostitutes out of the 325 who came for STD check-ups had STDs, or 0.61 per cent. In 2014, 12 out of 255 had STDs. These 12 are divided into two groups: eight are prostitutes new to the business who had contracted syphilis, making a 1.56 per cent out of the 255, and four, or 3.14 per cent, are prostitutes who had contracted HIV. 
 
As you can see, the occurrence of STD in sex workers who participated in the check-up program increased from 2013 to 2014. The number of women infected with HIV increased by two people, and syphilis was found in eight more people. Suphap said that sex workers most likely caught these STDs from their lovers, not their customers. “Masseuses and sex workers always use protection when with their clients, since they don’t want to catch STDs from them.” 
 
The sex workers we interviewed also talked about how they protected themselves from STDs and AIDS by getting check-ups at the public health office.
 
Not only does Fa meticulously use condoms and prohibits kissing with her clients, she also gets a gynaecological exam and a blood test every three or six months. The public health office comes to do health check-ups at the bathing-sauna-massage parlours. The sex workers are called into the check-ups by an assigned number instead of by their names. Free condoms are also given out, but when not enough are given out, Fa purchases condoms herself. “I don’t use condoms that clients bring with them, because they could’ve poked holes in them, and that’s unsafe for me.”
 
Therefore, always having a condom at hand is essential for sex workers, like a pen is for a journalist. That is why free condoms are not always sufficient to meet the demand of the masseuses. 
 
Poi-sian says that the standard condoms given out by the public health office aren’t always appropriate for her clients, who may have larger or smaller penises that the standard condom does not fit. That’s why she uses her own money to buy condoms. “I have to buy the condoms with my own money, of course. I don’t trust the clients who bring their own condoms, since they may be torn. But if the customer opens a new wrapper in front of me, I’m willing to use it, since it saves me from buying one.”
 

Towards the end of a sex worker’s career

 

Careers that depend on looks, like modelling or sex work, start at a young age, such as 16-25, and end when the workers reach an older age. Sex workers of course enter the industry at a young age since it earns them more money than many other jobs, and quit to pursue other jobs as they get older, because clients turn to younger girls. 
 
From our investigation, we have found that many bathing-massage workers quit their jobs after a certain age, and use their savings to start their own businesses. Such businesses include imported Korean cosmetics shops or Thai massage and spa parlours. If they’re “lucky”, a man could help take care of them by pooling funds to open a beauty salon, and the women will live a comfortable life. 
 
“We’ve been doing this for a long while, so we want to rest our bodies and be sabai for once. We’ll have to rely on our luck and our collected merit and money for that, as well as a good man. Being a masseuse isn’t unlucky in itself, but since society doesn’t accept this career, that makes the job more unlucky. But for us, this is a lucky job. We reduce the number of rapes as well as help support other related jobs in the industry, such as bar girls, maids, even the waitresses,” said Poi-sian.
 
Both Phikul and Poi-sian said that they did not plan to work in the sex industry until they were old, but were currently looking for other careers.
 
Phikul said that she was saving up for her retirement from the business. “I’ve been doing this since I was 30 going on 31, as an on-and-off job. This past year is the first one I’ve been doing it as a full-time job. I’m almost 38 now, so I’m saving up to start my own business. My dream is to be a saleswoman for imported Korean cosmetics. That way, I get to use the products as well as sell them, and I want to be beautiful until I’m old. So I could be a rich saleswoman, or I could go and learn how to do Thai massage. I’ve been thinking that I’ll quit this job in three years or so, depending on my savings and funds. When it’s enough, I’ll quit immediately.” 
 
Poi-sian talks about the importance of age in the sex industry. An older body is less likely to be able to make as much, or what the prostitutes call “unable to sell out.” After retirement from this career, Poi-sian wants to start a massage and spa parlour. “I’m getting older, and I’ve saved up some money. I’ve dreamed of taking this money to learn Thai massage, because I want a stable job. Since I’m already in the massage career track, I might as well learn massage seriously since I already have the skills. As for a dream goal, I’d like to open a spa.”
 
Chutimas Suksai, an academic, said that quitting the sex industry does not mean that the sex workers dislike their jobs, but they must “retire” out of necessity since Thai men prefer to have sex with younger women rather than women in their forties.
 

Conclusion

 
Although the sex industry is presently illegal in Thailand, it flourishes because of demand from customers. Sexual urges are normal and human, and the sex workers’ jobs satisfy these urges.
 
The sex industry is very competitive, so the proprietors must continuously improve their technique, knowledge base, and expertise, just like in any other industry. Continuous improvement leads to better service as well as increased protection against STDs. 
 
Not only is being a prostitute hard work, it requires constant upkeep of their looks and health in order to both draw in customers and protect against venereal disease.
 
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Last note from author: 
After the story was published on Prachatai and received very favourable responses (the story received more than 85,000 views), I went back to the parlour and gave the four sex workers the printout of this report. They said they feel great that people paid attention to their stories and that the article help foster an understanding of prostitution to the Thai society. 
 
About the author:
Pimkamol Phijitsiri is a fourth year student, majoring in anthropology, from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Naresuan University. Her interest in prostitution will continue as she is planning to conduct research on the career prospects of sex workers after they quit and on sex workers at the Thai border. In this translation, the words prostitute, masseuse, and sex worker will be used interchangeably
 
Editor: Thaweeporn Kummetha
Graphics: Wasin Pathomyok
English translation: Asaree Thaitrakulpanich
 
This report, originally written in Thai and published on Prachatai, is part of a grant from the Foundation for Community Educational Media (FCEM) for investigative report by young journalists.