Thailand has had a long and complex relationship with prostitution that persists today. It is also an international sex tourism destination, a designation that began around the time of the Vietnam War. The industry targeted to foreigners is very visible, with multiple red-light districts in Bangkok alone, but there is also a more clandestine domestic sex industry and myriad informal channels of sex-for-hire.

An Illegal (and Vast) Industry

Prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand. However, anti-prostitution laws are often ambiguous and unenforced. Some analysts have argued that the high demand for sexual services in Thailand limits the likelihood of the industry being curtailed; however, limiting abusive practices within the industry is the goal of many activists and government agencies.

It is difficult to determine the number of sex workers in Thailand, the demographics of the industry or its economic significance. This is because there are many indirect forms of prostitution, the illegality of the industry makes research difficult and different organisations use varying approaches to collect data. In 2003 measures to legalise prostitution cited the Thai sex industry as being worth US$4.3 billion (about 3% of GDP) and employing roughly 200,000 sex workers. A study conducted in 2003 by Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University estimated 2.8 million sex workers, of which 1.98 million were adult women, 20,000 were adult men and 800,000 were children, defined as any person under the age of 18. A 2007 report compiled by the Institute for Population and Social Research at Mahidol University estimated that there are between 200,000 and 300,000 active female sex workers in Thailand at any given time.

Human Trafficking & Child Sex Victims

Urban job centres such as Bangkok have large populations of displaced and marginalised people (immigrants from Myanmar, ethnic hill-tribe members and impoverished rural Thais). Children of these fractured families often turn to street begging, which is a pathway to prostitution, often through low-level criminal gangs. According to a number of reports conducted by different research bodies, there are an estimated 60,000 to 800,000 children involved in prostitution in Thailand.

In 1996 Thailand passed a reform law to address the issue of child prostitution (defined by two tiers: 15 to 18 years old and under 15 years old). Fines and jail time are imposed on customers, establishment owners and even parents involved in child prostitution (under the old law only prostitutes were culpable). Many countries also have extraterritorial legislation that allows nationals to be prosecuted in their own country for such crimes committed in Thailand.

Thailand is also a conduit and destination for people-trafficking (including child-trafficking) from Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and China. As stated by the UN, human trafficking is a crime against humanity and involves recruiting, transporting, harbouring and receiving a person through force, fraud or coercion for purposes of exploitation. In 2015 the US State Department labelled Thailand as a Tier 3 country, meaning that it does not comply with the minimum standards for prevention of human-trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.

Economic Motivations

Regardless of their background, most women in the sex industry are there for financial reasons: many find that sex work is one of the highest-paying jobs for their level of education and/or they have financial obligations (be it dependants or debts). The most comprehensive data on the economics of sex workers comes from a 1993 survey by Dr Kritaya Archavanitkul, a demographer from Mahidol University. The report found that sex workers made a mean income of 17,000B per month (US$18 per day), the equivalent of a midlevel civil-servant job, a position acquired with advanced education and family connections. At the time of the study, most sex workers did not have a high-school degree.

The International Labour Organization estimates a Thai sex worker's salary at 270B (US$9) a day, the average wage of a Thai service-industry worker.

These economic factors provide a strong incentive for rural, unskilled women (and, to a lesser extent, men) to engage in sex work.

As with many in Thai society, a large percentage of sex workers’ wages are remitted back to their home villages to support their families (parents, siblings and children). Kritaya’s 1993 report found that between 1800B and 6100B per month was sent back home to rural communities. The remittance-receiving households typically bought durable goods (TVs and washing machines), bigger houses and motorcycles or automobiles. Their wealth displayed their daughters’ success in the industry and acted as a free advertisement for the next generation of sex workers.

History & Cultural Attitudes

Prostitution has been widespread in Thailand since long before the country gained a reputation among international sex tourists. Throughout Thai history the practice was accepted and common among many sectors of society, though it has not always been respected by society as a whole.

Due to international pressure from the UN, prostitution was declared illegal in 1960, though venues (go-go bars, beer bars, massage parlours, karaoke bars and bathhouses) are governed by a separate law passed in 1966. These establishments are licensed and can legally provide nonsexual services (such as dancing, massage or a drinking buddy); sexual services occur through these venues but they are not technically the businesses’ primary purpose.

With the arrival of the US military in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War era, enterprising forces adapted the existing framework to suit foreigners, in turn creating an international sex tourism industry that persists today. Indeed, this foreigner-oriented sex industry is still a prominent part of Thailand’s tourist economy.

In 1998 the International Labour Organization, a UN agency, advised Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, to recognise prostitution as an economic sector and income generator. It is estimated that one third of the entertainment establishments are registered with the government and the majority pay an informal tax in the form of police bribes.

HIV & AIDS

In Thailand in 1990, there were approximately 100,000 new cases of HIV. In the three years that followed, that number leapt to an estimated one million. A progressive-minded regional bureaucrat, Dr Wiwat Rojanapithayakorn, noted that the vast majority of these cases were among sex workers and kick-started a local campaign to encourage the use of condoms. This was a herculean task, as not only did most Thai men at the time eschew condoms, but the central government essentially did not acknowledge the existence of Thailand's sex industry. By collaborating with local authorities and venue owners, Dr Wiwat distributed free condoms and established a 'no condom, no sex' policy among sex venues that, within months, caused transmission rates to plummet dramatically.

Given his success and the immense threat that HIV/AIDS posed to Thailand in the early 1990s, Dr Wiwat proposed implementing his initiative on a national scale. The government enlisted the help of a charismatic family-planning advocate known colloquially as Mr Condom, Mechai Viravaidya. By 1993, the government budget for anti-AIDS programs was increased nearly 20-fold and a massive anti-AIDS public awareness campaign was launched, with frequent messages broadcast on TV and radio and free condoms distributed nationwide. In less than three years, condoms were essentially de-stigmatised in Thailand and their use among sex workers went from an estimated 25% to more than 90%; indeed, for a while, condoms were known as mechai in Thai. Between 1991 and 2001 new transmissions of HIV in Thailand dropped from 143,000 per year to fewer than 14,000, and Thailand's methods in tackling the problem became a model for other countries, both in the region and elsewhere.

Thailand's campaign continues to be successful today. According to the UN program on AIDS/HIV (UNAIDS), in 2000 there were an estimated 683,841 people in Thailand living with HIV; by 2014 this number had dropped to an estimated 445,504 and, during the same period, new transmissions of HIV plummeted by approximately 75%. Likewise, during the same period, the rates of HIV infection among female sex workers in Thailand continued to drop, and in 2014 was at an estimated 1.1%.

Indeed, some feel that Thailand's anti-HIV/AIDS campaign has been too successful, in effect leading Thais to believe that the disease no longer poses a risk and that they don't need to protect themselves. A UNAIDS report from 2010 estimates that only 50% of venue-based sex workers had undergone an HIV test in the last year, and after an alarming spike around 2005, Thailand's rate of HIV infection among men who have sex with men remains relatively high at an estimated 9.2%, according to a 2014 report compiled by the same agency.

Working Conditions

The unintended consequence of prostitution prohibition is the lawless working environment it creates for women who enter the industry. Sex work becomes the domain of criminal networks that are often involved in other illicit activities that circumvent the laws through bribes and violence.

Sex workers are not afforded the rights of other workers: there is no minimum wage; no required holiday pay, sick leave or break time; no deductions for social security or employee-sponsored health insurance; and no legal redress.

Bars can set their own punitive rules that fine a worker if she doesn’t smile enough, arrives late or doesn’t meet the drink quota. Empower, an NGO that fights for safe and fair standards in the sex industry, reported that most sex workers will owe money to the bar at the end of the month through these deductions. In effect, the women have to pay to be prostitutes and the fines disguise a pimp relationship.

Through lobbying efforts, groups such as Empower hope that lawmakers will recognise all workers at entertainment places (including dishwashers and cooks as well as ‘working girls’) as employees subject to labour and safety protections.

Other commentators, such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), argue that legalising prostitution is not the answer, because such a move would legitimise a practice that is always going to be dangerous and exploitative for the women involved. Instead, these groups focus on how to enable the women to leave prostitution and make their way into different types of work.

Pros & Cons

Women's rights groups take oppositional approaches to the issue of prostitution. Abolitionists see prostitution as exploitation and an infraction of basic human rights. Meanwhile, mitigators recognise that there is demand and supply, and try to reduce the risks associated with the activity through HIV/AIDS prevention and education programs (especially for economic migrants). Sex-worker organisations argue that prostitution is a legitimate job and the best way to help women is to treat the issue from a workers' rights perspective, demanding fair pay and compensation, legal redress and mandatory sick and holiday time. Also, according to pro-sex-worker unions, the country's quasi-legal commercial sex establishments provide service-industry jobs (dishwashers, cooks, cleaners) to non-sex-worker staff, who would otherwise qualify for employment protection if the employer were a restaurant or a hotel.