Thailand’s trillion-baht underground sex trade: challenges and a glimpse of hope

Thai sex workers and supporting organisations are petitioning for a legalisation of the sex industry. In the meantime, the illegal status of the industry leaves loopholes for corruption, human rights abuse, and inequality. 

A participant in the recent International Women's Day event holding a sign campaigning for the legalisation of sex work

“When the client discovered that I am a transgender, he hit me.  There were bruises all over my body, but when the police came I was the one who got charged because I am a sex worker,” said Anna, 36, a transgender sex worker in Pattaya.

“I was both the plaintiff and the offender.”

No matter how much sex workers are hurt or suffer, they will always be offenders in Thailand as section 286 of the criminal code stipulates that sex work is illegal. 

Anna entered the sex industry in Pattaya when she was 20. She started working in the local bar without knowing that she was expected to provide sexual services to customers. 

When she realised how much money she could make as a sex worker, she decided to pursue the career to support her family. 

Over more than sixteen years in the industry, she experienced many instances of physical and mental abuse. Rather than remain silent,  she joined a non-governmental organisation to reform the Thai sex industry.

She is not alone. Her story is representative of many transgender sex workers in Thai society. 

The industry, which produced more than 6 billion baht in 2021, is still not legal in Thailand. 

Unregulated and harsh working conditions of transgender sex workers

The best-known places for LGBTQ sex workers are centred around Nana, Soi Cowboy, and Walking Street in Pattaya. These places have agents or pimps who are responsible for scheduling sex workers’ working hours and making sure they get their pay. Some sex workers are freelancers who take control of their own working hours to reduce the risk of being taken advantage of. 

Freelancers have to sit in front of the bar, entertaining and making conversation with bar customers. They also make deals with customers under conditions stipulated by bar owners. The customers buy “drinks” to spend an evening with the worker. The rate is calculated by the number of  hours they spend together. 

Payment for sexual services is based entirely on the agreement between workers and their customers. 

“During the pandemic, all bars were closed. Many sex workers could not pay their bills and did not have a place to stay. Some became homeless,” said Anna. 

When freelancers do not go out to work, they have no income. After Covid-19 hit Thailand, the entertainment sector was one of the first to be ordered closed. Transgender workers were tremendously affected as most relied on the day-by-day income.

No social status, no safety, no pride

Anna has been fighting discrimination and social stigmatisation. She is the pillar of her family and has four family members to take care of: her parents, a sister, and nephew. It is what keeps her going.

“Some are afraid to tell others that they are sex workers because of the social stigma that the job is inferior, dirty, and worthless,” Anna told Prachatai.

Conversations with NGO and sex workers make it clear that many workers work to support families.

Although there is no statistical data on the percentage of LGBTQ sex workers who experience physical abuse or sexual assault while working their jobs, a number of the workers interviewed  claim to have been mistreated by  their clients. 

In such instances, it is nearly impossible for them to received compensation since sex work is not recognised as a work under 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act.

“I used to provide services to a BDSM customer. (a term used to describe a variety of erotic practices and roleplaying), Later the customer called the police and accused me, a transgender sex worker, of physically abusing him,” Anna told Prachatai. 

She explained that the customer did that to avoid paying her the agreed upon 3,000 baht service fee.

She couldn’t do anything. There were bruises on the customer’s body. She did not receive any compensation and got into trouble for doing her job.

Sex work is legal in the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, In Thailand, sex workers are treated as criminals and the sex trade remains underground. 

Support from local Thai group to decriminalise sex work

Service Workers in Group Foundation (SWING) is a non-governmental organisation that aims to protect Thai sex workers’ rights. It has offices in many locations around Thailand from Bangkok to Pattaya. The organisation provides a range of services from sex education to HIV test services.

Surang Janyam, 57, SWING’s Director, started off by working with the Empower Foundation, but in 2004 she noted the increasing number of transgender sex workers that were seeking help. 

“Back in the day when we talked about sex workers, most people would picture only female sex workers, I did not see any organisations helping with same sex education” she said.

SWING foundation also played a vital role in helping transgender sex workers during the pandemic. The foundation provided shelters and sent out survival bags to sex workers and their families. 

“Most sex workers have to take care of their families, so during the difficult times, their families were affected as well,” said Anna. 

SWING foundation also provides HIV rapid testing and prophylaxis medication like PrEP and PEP to transgender sex workers to improve the security of their work lives. 

Press releasing of “GIANT SWING” documentary (Photo from SWING)

According to Surang, SWING funding is mostly international with some from embassies, and some from the National Health Security Office. The institutions which fund SWING are mainly focused on human rights and believe that every human is equal regardless of their gender, career, or race. 

“Sex workers have been taken advantage of for a very long time. They should be recognised as citizens with full rights and be protected under​ the laws,” Surang explained.

According to Surang, there is a common misunderstanding that supporting the decriminalisation movement means inviting more people to join this industry. 

Decriminalise sex workers parade in central Bangkok, Thailand (Photo from SWING)

“SWING has been trying to get the government to see that criminalisation of sex work does not help anything. Worse, it amplifies problems and opens doors for people to take advantage of sex workers.”

The government response has been to suggest a legal amendment protecting the rights of sex workers.  The foundation disagrees; it wants instead for sex workers to have equal rights with other workers.

“In trying to promote the legalisation of sex work, we have received support from different sectors and political parties,” said Surang.

This includes corporations from different sectors. Corporate support has increased tremendously in the past three to four years. Many education organisations and private sector firms have campaigned and offered to assist in proposing a Constitutional amendment.

“Initially, I almost lost hope … that sex workers could have access to education and health care, but now I can see some lights at the end of the tunnel,” said Surang. 

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