What you need to know
Thailand wants to crack down on the rampant sex industry in the country, but the potential impact on its tourism and questions over the livelihood of more than 120,000 sex workers concern critics and advocates.
Thailand wants to wipe out the rampant sex industry in the country, but the potential impact on its tourism and questions over the livelihood of more than 120,000 sex workers concern critics and advocates.
Earlier today, Thailand’s Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul pledged to eradicate the sex industry in the country, according to a Reuters report.
“We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone,” she says.
The minister hopes the government’s push to rid the country of brothels could purify the country’s international image as a tourism destination.
She adds, “Tourists don’t come to Thailand for such a thing. They come here for our beautiful culture.”
Over the past few weeks, the police department in Thailand has conducted a spate of raids on some of the major sex services establishments in Bangkok, despite the fact that a police spokesperson says the raids were regular operations and unrelated to the minister’s statements.
According to the spokesperson, police were looking to clamp down on venues that employed underage and illegal migrant workers, but they have only managed to shut one of them down during the operations.
Thailand has a large sex industry that caters to local men as well as foreign tourists, although the country is predominantly Buddhist and considered conservative. Go-go bars, message parlors, tea houses and night clubs are venues that might provide sex services.
An AVERT (formerly also known as AIDS Education and Research Trust) report shows that Thailand is home to more than 123,000 sex workers. Havocscope, which provides data and information on global black markets, says the sex industry in Thailand employs 250,000 people with other reports claiming higher numbers.
Thailand has banned prostitution for more than 60 years, but the law is widely ignored. Experts say cracking down the sex industry could be very difficult because the industry is engrained in the society and involves many pay-offs for government officials and police to turn a blind eye.
According to World Outreach International, on average, about 10 million tourists visit Thailand each year, and 60% of them are male. Moreover, 70% of male tourists visit Thailand specifically for sex, which implies around 4.2 million men have gone to the country looking for sex tourism in the last few years.
Some are worried that eradicating the sex industry could decrease the income from tourism, which accounts for about 10% of the country’s GDP. The decline in tourism could mean a huge blow to Thailand’s frail economy that has been struggling to recover from the political turmoil in 2014.
While the military government denies prostitution’s contribution to the country’s economy and tourism, “there’s no denying this industry generates a lot of income,” says Panomporn Utaisri, country director of NightLight, a Christian non-profit group that helps women in the sex trade to find alternative work.
Surang Janyam, director of Service Workers in Group (SWING), which supports sex workers with free medical care and vocational training, says, “Wiping out this industry is guaranteed to make Thailand lose visitors and income.”
A former sex worker told Reuters that she became a prostitute at the age of 19 due to poverty, a reason that has driven many other people to sell their bodies in Thailand.
“No one wants to work in this business, but it’s fast and easy money,” says the sex worker, who earned up to 5,000 baht (US$143) a night, nearly 20 times the minimum wage of 300 baht per day.
NightLight and SWING say they would applaud the prostitution’s closure if the government promised a plan to make sure that sex workers were able to support themselves without plunging back into the business.
“If they want to close the sex industry, they must first have jobs ready to support sex workers,” says Surang.
First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang