Thai Sex Industry Looks for Legitimacy

On the edge of Bangkok, Thailand, a 68-year-old woman runs a private “sex museum” that tries to establish legitimacy, as well as some respect, for an industry that is both universally loved and loathed. Moreover, an industry that has helped to make Thailand one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, and has put the country on the map for being one of the most exotic travel and cultural adventures around.

Since the Great War in the Pacific, Asia has had a prickly relationship with its sex industry. Asian countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, and even Japan and South Korea have been heavily invested in the sin industry for decades—even hundreds of years in some cases—but are seemingly embarrassed to admit it even exists. Prostitution is certainly not unique to Asia, but the abundance and style of the industry certainly is uniquely Asia, and credit (or scorn depending on where you sit on the issue) for this should definitely be given directly to both the Japanese and American military, as it is the many wars in Asia that have clearly inspired its development and its evolution.

Thai sex industry

Ironically, Americans have played both friend and foe to the industry through the decades. On one hand is the U.S. military’s reputation for being the “Johnny Appleseed” of sex industries around the globe (wherever there happens to be a military base or a port), while on the other you have U.S. human rights groups circumventing the globe trying to organize and stop it.

This forces governments, especially in Asia, to pretend as if they are against it by passing bizarre laws that never really seem to be officially enforced. It’s not that dissimilar to what has been happening in the United States with regard to the marijuana industry—a sort of vast grey area that is starting to invisibly arm lock the government to the industry being built around it.

Ultimately, the people hurt the most by this intentional ineptitude—by governments and by these noble liberators trying to stop it—are the lower classes everyone claims to be trying to protect. Sure, every once in a while an organization makes an ambitious and thoughtful documentary about certain darker aspects of the industry to enact change, but this inevitably just ends up temporally crippling all the economic players downstream—the people who need the industry and its economic benefits the most. As with any vice industry, there is a whole lot of truth, lies, hyperbole, and hypocrisy flying around at the same time with very little hard evidence to back any of it up. What is definite, though, is that there is a hell of a lot of money being made, directly and indirectly. Economists have well documented this fact for years.

Chantawipa Apisuk, founder of the charity Empower, certainly believes the economic benefits of the sex industry to be true. It is the reason why she runs the private sex museum and charity, in hopes of creating some sort of awareness and acceptance. She also wants to see sex workers get treated fairly and to earn equal rights under the law.

As in other societies, Thailand might have brothels, massage parlors, and strip clubs, but it isn’t exactly “accepted.” Nor is it free from judgement. It currently exists (predominantly) in tourist areas in cities throughout the country, and the locals tend to tolerate it only for the fact that it generates commerce that certainly would not be around without it.

Apisuk, an irreverent fellow of Harvard Law School, is pushing for decriminalization like it was not so long ago. One of the first exhibits in her museum is a painting of a 400-year-old Chinese trade ship in Thailand with wooden buckets of rice sitting out front of it, which sailors supposedly used to barter for sex. Apisuk says that sex work was legal back then and that the going rate for sex was 15 kilos of rice—an amount that, factoring in inflation, etc., would amount to 1,050 Thai baht (US$30) today. She notes that this is more or less the standard going rate today, and that the price has not deviated much in 400 years.

Thailand sex industry

This battle for legitimacy is not just happening quietly in some quirky museum in Thailand either. Last year, Amnesty International—to the horror of many women’s rights organizations—approved a policy that endorses the “full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.”

The debate pitted the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) versus Hollywood A-list actresses, known for their outspoken liberal politics, with former sex workers. Amnesty apparently sided with the latter, and argued that its research points towards decriminalization as the best way to defend the rights of sex workers. Amnesty International will now use its power to lobby governments to adopt similar policies.

It is astounding to think that an industry so old, so prevalent, and so entrenched in Thailand’s culture is not only still illegal but also still shunned by so many different people. Looking at the matter dispassionately, it seems that legalization would stop human trafficking, curb drug use among sex workers, decrease the spread of diseases, generate new taxes for governments (not advocating here), and help to defuse other black market industries that tend to take root in the illegal sex industry.

Ideally, many that have worked in this industry will finally be acknowledged for turning a sleepy fishing monarchy like Thailand into the economic powerhouse it is today. Let’s hope that the government of Thailand listens to groups like Amnesty International and takes the steps necessary to legitimize the industry that already flourishes, putting a stop to all the ridiculous pretences in the process.

H/T: The Guardian