Shunned and Left Behind: Thai sex workers want recognition from society and the government

Whether weekend or weekday, 7 pm on Silom Road was rush hour. Office workers, tourists, and commuting families amalgamated into a perfect blend of controlled chaos. Car horns, loud conversations, and the smell of street food made sure that none of the senses felt left out.

But since the pandemic started, there is one street that has lost its luster. Dull and empty and devoid of Neon, it is hard to imagine the life and energy that was Patpong – one of Thailand’s most famous and busiest red-light districts.

For the past year, the coronavirus pandemic forced the majority of the world to stay indoors, with Thailand closing its borders to international flights since March of last year. Since then, entertainment venues remain closed, and the country’s once-booming tourism industry has collapsed, with more and more people out of work. Thailand’s red-light districts were not spared. From Patpong to Patong, the alternative entertainment industry is suffering.

And while the government continues to step up its efforts to boost domestic tourism and launch various state programs to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic, Thailand’s sex worker industry continues to be overlooked and ignored by the state.

Sex work, according to a 2015 report by Havocscope, makes about $6.4 billion a year, accounting for 3 per cent of the country’s national GDP – but it remains illegal, exploited, and frowned upon. Thailand’s sex workers have not been, and will not be receiving support from the government.

As a Thai Enquirer article stated last year, “in more ordinary times, sex workers deal with state harassment with a combination of compliance and fear. In this current crisis, they feel desperately left behind.”

According to a community-led survey of sex workers published by the World Health Organization’s South-East Asia Journal of Public Health in September 2020, 91 per cent of 255 respondents said they had become unemployed and lost their income due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Seventy-five per cent or 191 of the respondents could no longer make enough money to cover their daily expenses, and 18 per cent had to move out of their homes or no longer had anywhere to live.

A problematic mindset

The view on the women (around 70 per cent of all sex workers are female) employed in the industry remain problematic and misogynistic. According to Dr Porranee Singpliam, a lecturer on gender and cultural studies and deputy director of International Affairs at the Faculty of Arts, Language, and Culture, Chulalongkorn University, these conflicting views on Thai womanhood are a consequence of “rigid and rigorously embedded socio-cultural norms.” in Thailand.

“Women who work in this business consider this their career, their job,” said Dr Porranee. “But, because of the discursive knowledge that constructs the concept of “femininity” in Thai society or the concept of something akin to “a good Thai woman,” this creates a bifurcation between what is socially sanctioned and what is not.”

“Effectively, some jobs that are deemed outside of the societal norms become a taboo, a stigma,” she continued.

Women working in the sex industry, unfortunately, fall outside of the expected cultural norms in Thailand.

Nuch (pseudonym), a 37-year-old sex worker and performer in one of Patpong’s S&M bar, said she felt the same thing before coming to work in the industry.

“I used to think that sex workers were mai dee (bad) – selling their bodies for services and money. Everyone in my life, from men to women, thought of sex workers as homewreckers who liked to make easy money,” Nuch told the Thai Enquirer.

“But now I have been in the industry for the past 15 years, and everything in my life has been better,” Nuch discloses. “I used to never have anything from working at the factory, and now I have so much more money. I am not harming anybody – I have the money to take care of my children, family, and parents.”

“This is just a part of my job.”

Pat (pseudonym), who worked as a bartender in Nana before becoming a bar owner in Patpong, finds no shame in her line of work. “I have never been embarrassed about my background to anyone,” she said. “I have the same dignity and ability as anybody else does.”

Pat now has four children, all of whom are going to an expensive international school in Bangkok. Despite the societal views around her industry and line of work, she can “arrive at the same destination” that most Thais dream of.

“But because I am in this job, deemed as a sex worker who sells service for sex, it does not look good for others,” Nuch added. “But these [sexual activities] are things that people do regularly. So are those things not wrong? Just because this is my line of work?”

These views that prostitution, or sex work, are deemed immoral “vices” have perpetuated a culture based on prejudice and intolerance in Thailand. These same views have contributed to the current lack of government support at a time when the industry needs it the most.

A long time coming

Prostitution has been interwoven within the fabrics of Thai society for at least the last six centuries, with periods where it was legalized and taxed – such as during the Ayutthaya Kingdom and reign of Rama V.

Though there are efforts to normalize the sex worker industry, there is still a general stigma surrounding it from society at large. There have been numerous efforts by many governments to abolish the industry. Back in 2016, former tourism minister Korbkarn Wattanavrangkul even said that “tourists don’t come to Thailand for [sex], they come here for our beautiful culture” and emphasized how the government wanted Thailand to be of “quality tourism” and “the sex industry gone.”

“I believe that there is a need to grapple with the Thai society’s rigid discourse of Thai women, of how to perform femininity that is expected by the society,” said Dr Porranee. “Only then, we will see that the stigma and taboo that clouds over this business as a construction – it is constructed the way it is now.”

And as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the tourism industry, with as many as hundreds of thousands of sex workers out of jobs and on the streets, perhaps it is time for the government and public to start acknowledging sex work as a part of the economy and Thai society.

“What we truly want is for the government to decriminalize prostitution,” said Chantawipa Apisuk, the Program Director at EMPOWER Foundation, a Thai non-governmental organization that provides counseling, health, and educational services to female sex workers in Thailand. “Sex workers are just doing their job and not harming anybody. They have dignity and are empowered, and they are the same citizens that need to be protected by the law.”

“Thais are quick to censure what is appropriate and what is not, especially when it has the potential to taint the fundamental ideological institution such that of the nuclear family or that of the nation,” said Dr Porranee. “But, if we were to think about other developed countries where this type of business is legal, their labors can receive state-supported welfare, just societal treatment – and even dignity.”

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