Change Yourself…Change The World.

The Sex Industry in Thailand
November 17, 2008, 10:53 pm
Filed under: Thailand


This is originally a reflection paper I did while attending Global College’s CRC Program. This post was not originally associated with this blog, but I have put it up here around the estimated date written. I thought readers would find these informational, educational, and entertaining. Please note that these posts are much longer than the usual ones, since they are papers.

Names have been changed for this particular post to protect the privacy of certain individuals.

I hadn’t heard much about sex tourism or sex trafficking before I got to Thailand. I had no idea it was the largest industry in Thailand, surpassing even the export of rice; I had no idea that some people came to Thailand JUST for sex; and I had no idea that on top of this sex industry, there were sex slaves that were being taken from surrounding areas of Thailand and forced to sell their bodies without their consent.

Dave and Laura’s presentation opened my eyes to such atrocities. Dave and Laura are Americans who have had much experience in the law and legislation and public health sectors. They had been living in Thailand for the past ten years, and continued their work in Chiang Mai. Dave and Laura’s presentation on the social issues in Thailand astounded me. I was in complete awe of them and in complete disgust of the presentation they showed us. I learned a lot about human trafficking in Thailand. It is generally expected for the female to take care of the family, so poor Burmese girls are told from human smugglers that they can find work in Thailand like babysitting or washing dishes, and they’ll be able to send the money back to their families. Once these girls get across the border, however, they are sold into sex slavery and locked up unless sold to tourists for sex. Most of these girls are then told that they’re in ‘debt’ to the sex shops, and that they have to pay them back. They get a substantially low income that usually covers the bare minimum cost of their survival, and they don’t have the opportunity to send back money to their families. If a woman absolutely refuses to sell her body for payment, the shops then send a ransom to their family demanding that they pay an indecently large sum of money for these girls to be returned. If the family can even come up with the cash, usually the girl is just left outside the border and has to find her way back.

I was shocked to hear of this, and my immediate thoughts were of ways that I could personally help these girls. Along with learning about institutionalized corruption, statelessness, and the pedophilia problems in Thailand, I came away with an urgent sense of need to help these people. I felt so much respect for Dave and Laura, who had seemingly dedicated their lives to get these people out of such situations. I felt whole-heartedly convinced that Dave and Laura’s presentation was true, because they had done case studies themselves, taken pictures as evidence, and given specific examples of the things they personally encountered in their jobs that showed how serious this situation was.

But the next day turned out to be incredibly confusing. We had another class at an organization (which will remain unnamed)- an organization that helps ‘sex workers’ (as they called it) learn about HIV/AIDS, teaches them English, gives them a place to relax, and essentially lets them know what their rights as sex workers are. The organization was incredibly up front with us about the sex tourism industry, and portrayed sex tourism to be an industry where all of the girls ARE willing to work, and AREN’T victims. The organization came from an experiential side- they meet with around 2,000 sex workers a week, and told us that RARELY are there underage or over-the-border sex workers. They asserted that a law was passed in 1996 that essentially helped institutionalized corruption, but demolished underage and over-the-border sex workers. The law was that a police officer had a right to come to a bar every month, and if he found an underage sex worker, they could fine the bar 50,000 baht per person. If they found a sex worker without an I.D. (an over-the-border prostitute), they could fine the bar 100,000 baht a person. It immediately became unprofitable for any bar to have an underage or over-the-border sex worker, and the numbers for these reduced DRASTICALLY and are essentially nonexistent now.
It was completely contradictory to what Dave and Laura had asserted. It was strange too, because Dave and Laura came to Thailand in 1998, and this law had been passed in 1996. I was overwhelmed with two different sides of information from very reputable resources. Which one was right? Who was I to believe?
A few weeks later Dave and Laura took us on a tour of the prostitute bars in Chiang Mai. We drove by high-end prostitute bars designed to look like movie theatres, prostitute bars staged as massage parlors, bars you could go to pick up prostitutes, curtain-car places to bring prostitutes, and used Jeff and Kerry (two members of our group) as an example that you can ask any tuk-tuk driver to take you to prostitutes. It was a really eye-opening experience, to see all of this right in front of me rather than just hearing about it. Dave and Laura thought that a few of the prostitutes we saw were underage prostitutes. I asked them about the bill passed in 1996, and they said that the organization was inaccurate in that it cut down over-the-border and underage prostitutes to basically nothing. They said that a lot of policemen themselves own prostitutes. They said that in 2003 there was a huge raid in Chiang Mai where underage prostitutes were found under lock and key, that the situation was not under control, and that I had to be really careful with any group that is an advocacy group, because they’ll spin the truth to fit their needs.

But I was confused and angry at this news. I was definitely apt to believe Dave and Laura, but both of them and the other organization advocate the same thing, although in a different way; human rights. If the sex worker’s organization claimed to be meeting with 2,000 prostitutes a week, was an organization for human rights, and wanted to make a positive change in society, why WOULDN’T they be honest about the situations going on? Why would they lie and say that there are basically no underage and over-the-border prostitutes when there clearly are? And if I’m a young, naïve person going to learn information about prostitution, I would’ve just believed them and had a totally skewed viewpoint of the problems with prostitution. People who want to change things need to know ALL of the facts, so why would they lie about it?

It was a really hard thing to wrap my head around. It made me feel really lucky that I had met Dave and Laura, who had been able to not only tell me the truth about it, but show it happening right in front of my face. I feel completely indebted to their services to us. But I also learned an important lesson: we have to be incredibly careful of the information we’re getting, whether it’s from the Internet, from books, or even advocacy groups.

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