The issue of prostitution in Thailand is, I believe, a complex one.
It's important to realize, first of all, that prostitution is not synonymous with sex tourism. The prostitution industry is deeply rooted in Thai culture, as it is in many others. Prostitution has existed in Thailand for centuries, long before westerners visited there in any significant numbers. Farang visiting Thailand today might be forgiven for thinking that all Thai prostitution is aimed at foreigners, for it is very visible in tourist areas, but domestic prostitution is much more common and employs many more people than tourist-oriented prostitution.
Then too, in many ways prostitutes who work with foreigners are the elite of the business. Women and girls who service Thai men are often quite literally locked in brothels and unable to escape until they pay off some huge debt that is virtually impossible to eradicate. Such unfortunates make very little or no money at all. They are often not allowed to leave the brothel, even for medical care, which is horrifying considering the prevalence of AIDS in domestic-oriented brothels. Women and girls who service farang men usually have much greater freedom of movement. They either work set hours for a bar or restaurant, or work freelance. In either case they have a home to go to when they leave work. If they're employed by a bar or restaurant, they generally receive a small wage. Both employed and freelance sex workers pay a fee to the establishment's owner for the "privilege" of leaving the premises with a paying client, after which whatever they negotiate for, they keep. These women are actually able to make some money. (Pimps are rare in Thai prostitution, though boyfriend-leeches are not.)
It's important to realize too that for Thai women and girls, prostitution is a job. It's hard for westerners to fathom the extent of child labour in poor countries like Thailand, but for the majority of the population, child labour is necessary for survival. A boy or girl with a good job can support their parents and younger siblings, and feels proud and happy to be able to do so. A girl in a half-decent position as a prostitute can make as much money in one day as my young friends - 12, 13, 14 years old - did in six months working as waiters or maids. That doesn't make prostitution right, but it does make it a rational choice for a poor girl or woman.
Incredible though it may seem for anyone who's visited Thailand, prostitution is illegal. It's just rarely prosecuted. However, in the last decade Thailand has cracked down, quite hard, on child prostitution. When cases of child prostitution are brought to the attention of the authorities, the police force their way into brothels - almost always brothels that serve Thai men or farang who have been in the country long enough to speak Thai and know how to gain access to such places - and remove the girls. The owner may be fined. The business isn't closed, no, but the underage workers are removed. It is a significant change.
Finally, let me return briefly to tourist-oriented prostitution. Many women spend several weeks with their farang clients, travel around the country with them, receive visits from these men year after year. There is no set fee associated with this: the man buys her "gifts", pays for their vacation together, maybe sends her money every month or so. One day they may marry, and in fact, many do. It makes me wonder what the difference is between this dyad of Thai woman and farang client and that other dyad of poor and rich partner. It makes me wonder what exactly a prostitute is. Unfortunately for Thai women, the answer comes too easily: a prostitute is a woman, a child, an Asian, a Thai. Any Thai woman who is seen is public with a farang man in Thailand is assumed by Thai and farang alike to be a prostitute. Even if the two are married. Even if they have a life together, a home, a family. This damning assumption is one of the biggest difficulties Thai women and their farang partners face in their lives together.
If you find yourself in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, volunteer at Empower, a drop-in self-help centre for sex workers. I learned more from the sex workers I worked with there about the reality and the ambiguities of Thai prostitution than any book could have taught me.
But if you do want to do some reading, I can recommend:
- Pasuk Phongpaichit (1982) From Peasant Girls to Bangkok Masseuses Geneva: International Labour Organization (a brief but informative discussion of how women come to be prostitutes, written by a prominent Thai academic)
- Chatsumarn Kabilsingh (1991) Thai Women in Buddhism Berkeley: Parallax Press (interesting little book on Buddhism and gender which touches on prostitution, again by a Thai academic)
- Malee (1982) Tiger Claw and Velvet Paw London: Arlington Books (fascinating autobiography by a Thai prostitute who got into the business young and never looked back; will make you think twice about labelling a prostitute a "victim")