The issue of prostitution in Thailand

Red light district in Bangkok
Red light district in Bangkok

Red light district in Bangkok

Usually, we like to inform you about the NGOs we meet during our travels. In this case, I want to address the overall topic of prostitution and sex trafficking in Thailand.

While in Bangkok and the South of Thailand, we tried to get in touch with NGOs which are dealing with the problems of the sex industry and help women to get out of this scene. Compared to other countries we have travelled through, we found it very hard to get interview opportunities here. Nevertheless, we tried to find out more by researching and talking to locals. A part of that research was to actually to go to the redlight district to get an idea of what the scene is like in Bangkok.

The general issue with the sex industry is well known and very big in Thailand. Many women work in this line of business, due to various reasons. Officially they chose to do this job, so the government can turn a blind eye to it. And aside from all the corruption which prevents effective laws from being enforced against this business, sex tourism also guarantees a major income for the whole country. It’s not just about the women, but everything that comes with it – all the restaurants, hotels etc. that the tourists pay for. It appears to be reason enough to not care about the women who often have to pay the price for it and therefore not even bother to ask why they are doing this work.

In the event that the police decide to get involved and conduct a raid for example, usually the women working in the facilities are getting hurt and abused, not the ones pulling the strings. Often an undercover agent disguises himself as a customer to gain evidence, which sometimes means having sex with the women. After that, the raid begins to “free” the women. Most of the time, “freeing” means that the girls are being taken into custody and later on being detained for an uncertain amount of time and sued in court for their “crime”. So even after getting out of the sex work, the discrimination and abuse doesn’t stop, whereas the men who are running the business and enslaving the women should be the only ones persecuted and imprisoned.

Raid on a brothel

Raid on a brothel

However, there are definitely two sides to be seen! Some people condemn the whole concept of prostitution and want to get rid of the industry, which would cause many problems for the women who chose this job from their own free will. They are often discriminated against and people trying to “save” them do more harm than good. From some of our local friends we have heard that a lot of girls start working as prostitutes to get some more pocket money. They may need it for their college fees or simply to buy their favorite high-end products. Other teenagers work in restaurants or supermarkets and ultimately there is no difference between all these jobs. A job is a job. But the problem arises when women are forced to work in the sex industry.

Many young girls who live in rural areas are sent to the cities to get jobs and provide their families with money. Most of the time having had little education, if any, they are left with only a few choices: Earn a small amount of money by selling things or doing other underpayed work (which usually isn’t enough) or sell their bodies to strangers to earn a lot more. The pressure is immense and most of the women choose to do whatever it takes in order to support their families. Once they involve themselves in this business though, it is hard to get out! Family members depend on the income, without proper education they can’t find a suitable alternative and the people employing the women do everything to keep them in place.

Girls from Thailand are not the only people forced into this industry. People from other countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam fall victims to human trafficking. They are promised a job and better life in Thailand and are lured into the country. Once there, they are forced into prostitution. In most cases their documents are invalid or confiscated by the traffickers. Without a legal way to leave the country and not being able to speak the language, it’s close to impossible for the women to escape. In some places human trafficking is booming and mafia-like groups are claiming the business. In Pattaya for example, the Russian mafia got involved and the women are sold within the city as well as trafficked in and out of the country.

No matter the reason people get involved, the sex trade is a harsh and violent business. Women are seen as objects to earn money. As long as the outer appearance is right, they can be “used”. Virgins are worth the most and the younger the better. Everything the customer wants is tried to be provided. Underaged girls are taken from their families and have no chance to escape. Once they start working, their bodies don’t belong to them anymore and they have to do what they are told to do. Sometimes you hear the justification: “But these women like what they are doing”. Although that might be true in some cases, most men have never asked the women and therefore have no idea whether it’s true or just a simple lie to get customers.

We can’t imagine the physical and mental pain many that these women are going through. The way it shapes their life and future. I personally have experienced being touched inappropriately and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. But many of the sex workers here in Thailand need to deal with it every single day, without a chance of fighting back! People who see a prostitute in the street might objectify them or just walk by and shake their heads because it’s something “impure and wrong” to them. These people are too ignorant to consider the reason behind a girl standing half naked out on a street in the middle of the night.

Luckily there are people trying to make a change and help these women get out of the sex industry. A lot of NGOs both in the country and abroad, focus on providing psychological help and education to show the women their real potential and value. With this they have a chance to get better jobs and gain independence while financially supporting their families.


Picture from the Empower foundation – a Thai sex worker’s union

Prostitution is usually seen as black and white. It’s either bad and needs to be stopped or a good business to earn money through women. It’s neither of that! For some women it is a profession they choose to do and every woman should be free to decide without having to fear exploitation and discrimination. Because of all the people taking advantage of the women’s situation and forcing them to do things they don’t want, it becomes an issue that needs to be changed. We should differentiate and help those who are unwillingly a part of the sex industry. On the other hand, we should be supportive and empower the women who want to work in this business, so they are able to work safely and independently. In the end we can only achieve that if we tackle the system behind prostitution. Stopping the people (mostly men) who are taking advantage of the women and earning money with their bodies, as well as changing the attitude of buyers who objectify the women and treat them like animals. Maybe we will talk more about this sexism and objectification of women in our society in another article.

Even though we haven’t spoken to NGOs yet, travelling through Thailand has given us a lot of new perspectives, especially surrounding the sex trade. We are looking forward to learning more about this topic and talking to NGOs in the future.