Though no Thai government has ever conducted a formal survey, UNAIDS estimated in 2014 that some 123,530 sex workers operated in Thailand, with the sex industry contributing 10 per cent of the revenue that the country generates from tourism. Another study in 2003 estimated that Thailand’s sex industry generates an annual US$4.3 billion dollars.
While the sex industry is evidently a pillar of the country’s economy and touches the lives of a great number of people, sex work remains outlawed in Thailand. This contradiction makes sex work precarious; sex workers are excluded from government welfare services and have no legal recourse if exploited by law enforcers or clients.
In this investigative report, Prachatai spoke with sex workers, government officials and NGO representatives to find out how sex workers navigate their grey status under the law. How do they maintain their dignity in a society that attributes little value to their work and lives?
“Prostitutes just sell themselves”
The portrayal of sex workers in the Thai mainstream media is of lazy women who easily earn money merely by having sex with their customers.
Such a prejudiced view overlooks the fact that sex workers who work the market best rely on well-practiced skills like any other career, be that in negotiating, bargaining or advertising themselves well. All these factors are crucial in enticing customers to return.
Freelance workers who do not have fixed employment must find a way to make themselves attractive. The majority of their clients are low-income earners such as taxi drivers, labourers, and young adults.
One session may earn only 500-800 baht. Some sex workers operate in multiple locations to maximize client numbers, for example by moving to other spots when their usual patch is quiet. Aged sex workers might reduce their fee to 300 baht to compete with younger and prettier ones.
Kaem, a 24-year old independent sex worker, waits for clients at her usual spot in Bangkok from early evening until 3 am. On a good night, she makes between 3000-4000 baht. But on a quiet night, when she may have only one or two clients — or none at all.
Young and beautiful, Kaem could likely find steady employment at a massage parlour or even a high-class bar. But she explains that operating as an independent sex worker provides freedom.
“It’s liberating. If on any given day I’m busy, or I’m on my period, or if I’m feeling lazy, I just won’t come. I don’t have to ask anyone for leave. I don’t have to have my pay cut. Nobody else is directing my life. I keep every single baht that I make from clients. Nobody else gets a cut.”
But with this freedom comes a certain insecurity. While images of police officers raiding brothels have repeatedly made headlines in the Thai media, officials usually do not obstruct the industry. But at irregular intervals each year, public pressure on the police to show the fruits of their work escalates crackdowns on independent sex workers.
Sex workers themselves have no way of knowing when these crackdowns will come — that is, when they may inadvertently appear in front page news.
Another inescapable risk in sex work comes in the form of undesirable clients. Sometimes a client may be intoxicated, refuse to use a condom, or refuse to pay the fee. In dealing with these situations, workers sometimes risk physical danger. Without legal protection, the best sex workers can do is spread warnings of such individuals by word of mouth.
In the face of the risks of working independently, many sex workers trade their freedom for the relative safety of fixed employment in businesses such as karaoke bars or massage parlours.
Sex workers with fixed employment can be safe from undesirable clients as their employer usually provides security staff to protect them but the threat from state authorities still exists.
Illegal trade and ‘legal’ operation
So-called karaoke bars are a form of modern day brothel which commonly feature fake karaoke machines as décor. No customers visit these venues to sing, but rather to buy sex services. Why the farce?
While prostitution is prohibited under Thai law, karaoke bars and massage parlours can be legally registered as normal businesses. When sex workers are arrested there, the authorities usually treat the act of prostitution as an exchange between the sex worker and the client, in which the owner of the premises was not involved.
Even so, cases of clients being charged are few and far between. It is a business where ‘the employer is legal, the worker is illegal, and the client gets off scot-free.’ Brothel operators are only accused of crimes when they also breaking other laws, such as employing underage workers or illegal migrants.
In June 2016, a police raid on Nataree, a Huai Khwang district massage parlour, resulted in the arrest of 119 employees, seven of whom were underage (of this seven, six were migrant workers from Myanmar). While the employees were accused of engaging in prostitution, the brothel owner was accused of crimes related to human trafficking.
Security officers raid Nataree massage parlour (Photo from PPTV)
Prior to the raid, undercover police officers posed as customers and actually had sex with prostitutes. This operation drew criticism for being hypocritical, if not itself being illegal. Questionable behaviour has included inviting the media to photograph sex workers during sting operations, and officials themselves initially asking sex workers to engage in intercourse.
Decha Kittivittayanan, a lawyer and academic, has documented cases where police officers have used deception to buy and fully utilise the services of sex workers, and then used condoms filled with semen as evidence that the sex worker is guilty.
“The Supreme Court gave as a reason that sleeping with sex workers was a necessary and appropriate action in the search for evidence of the offence of the suspect in a criminal case and pointed out that officials had to do this because there was no alternative.”
Chantawipa Apisuk, Director of the Empower Foundation, an organisation that has promoted the rights of sex workers in Thailand for more than 30 years, points out both the cruelty and lack of reasoning behind sting operations.
“Officials claim that if they don’t [go undercover], how will they make arrests? But that makes me ask, why do they need to make arrests? Everybody has sex. I have sex. If anyone has sex at home, that’s not wrong. So why is having sex at work wrong?”
Jaet (pseudonym), a former bar girl in Chiang Mai turned volunteer at the Empower Foundation, tells a harrowing story where one official went so far as to solicit an underage sex worker.
“Once a police officer posed as a client and asked the brothel owner whether there were any children under the age of 18. When the owner said there weren’t any, the officer told him to find one for him. The owner found one. At first, the girl didn’t dare to go [have sex], not because she was afraid that he was the police. She was afraid of meeting a nasty client.
“But the officer persisted, kept flirting, acted sweet to her for months until finally the girl began to trust him, began to feel that, ‘This guy is a good person. He probably wouldn’t hurt me’. Simply, she grew fond of him and in the end, she decided to go with him. Then she was arrested.
“But do you know the saddest part? The man that she trusted was the one who himself investigated her. He took notes on the investigation right in front of the girl’s face.”
Arrests of sex workers can have far-reaching complications for their careers. Jaet recalls that most sex workers who are implicated in sting operations choose to leave the industry as the experience has left them traumatised. Those who wish to continue working also struggle to find work since employers fear they will be a spy for the authorities
Jaet added that sting operations at brothels have increased in frequency ever since the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report ranked Thailand among those countries with the worst human trafficking situation. She also warns the government against confusing sex workers who voluntarily enter the industry with victims of human trafficking.
Chantawipa argues that if the junta was committed to suppressing human trafficking, it would invest funds into exposing the networks of influential people and even state officials who benefit from the market — rather than chasing and arresting petty actors who may not even be victims of human trafficking, but who rather sell sex voluntarily.
However, the Thai Royal Police have proved unresponsive to criticisms of their sting operations against sex workers. During a meeting with the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a representative of the Royal Thai Police went so far as to deny the existence of the operations.
“In the case of sting operations, I wish to insist that the Office of the Royal Thai Police has never had a policy, and has never supported officers who use such measures,” claimed Pol Lt Gen Kraibun Suadsong.