Sex Tourism In Thailand

by Shelley Anderson

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In the early 1980s, embarrassed by the blatant advertisements some Western travel agencies were using to attract male customers to Thailand, Thai tourism authorities asked tour agencies to emphasise Thailand’s beautiful temples and countryside rather than the country’s beautiful women. But many critics believe that while Thai authorities publicly condemn sex tourism, they privately condone and profit from it. Sex tourism is booming all over southeast Asia, but no where more so than in Thailand. Tourism itself is big business. By the mid-19805 the global tourism industry employed more people than the oil industry, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization predicts that by the year 2000, tourism will be the single most important international economic activity. Tourism is the biggest foreign exchange earner in Thailand, one that brought in some $1.5 billion in foreign currency in 1986. The ratio of male tourists to female tourists in Thailand is 2:1, according to a report by the International Labour Office entitled “From Peasant Girls to Bangkok Masseuses”.

Although there has traditionally been a local market for prostitution, Thailand did not become synonymous with sex in many peoples’ minds until the Indochina war, when the country became a favourite rest and recreation area for American GIs. At its peak, there were 93 US military bases in Thailand during the war, and tens of thousands of American military men.

Prostitution flourished, with an estimated 70,000 prostitutes in Bangkok alone. Today sex tourism has filled the void the soldiers left—and the number of prostitutes is anybody’s guess. According to a conservative estimate from the Thai Police Department, there are some 500,000 prostitutes in the entire country—of which 100,000 are thought to be girls age 15 and under. Thai non-governmental agencies like the Friends of Women believe at least 800,000 women make their living as prostitutes—with 200,000 under the age of 16. The Bangkok-based Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights estimates there are 800,000 child prostitutes—perhaps ten percent of them boys—in Thailand.

Many prostitutes in Bangkok’s booming sex industry come from either the North or Northeastern part of Thailand, the two most economically underdeveloped parts of the country. Researchers have discovered that many communities in the North now have special feasts when a girl baby is born—because the parents know that when the girl is old enough, she will be sent to Bangkok to work as a “hostess” or “bar girl”, and be able to earn twenty to thirty times the salary she could make selling vegetables or fish in the village. “Parents are seeing their daughters as commodities—valuable products that will soon bring the family wealth,” said Siriporn Skrobanek of the Foundation For Women, a women’s rights organization. She states that in some northern villages, almost 100 percent of all girls from 12 to 15 years old, will enter into prostitution after they finish their compulsory education.

In Thailand, women are expected to contribute financially to the household. According to UN figures, the country has one of the largest numbers of women engaged in work outside the home in the world-and some of the lowest salaries for women workers in the world also. Most prostitutes consider it their duty to send their earnings back to their parents. Given the increasing difficulties in making a living in rural areas and their general lack of education and skills, rural women turn to prostitution, or are pressured into it by families, as a way of sustaining their families.

In the Northeast, where many ethnic minorities, gangs of Thai and Burmese criminals kidnap women and sell them directly to brothels. In the North, most prostitutes are recruited by older women, who look for farming families who are in debt. They offer to find their daughters jobs as maids or in factories, and loan the parents 2,000 to 5,000 baht (between $80 to $200), which the young woman is expected to pay back from her wages.

Investigative journalist Sanitsuda Ekachai interviewed the mother of one 15-year-old girl who was recruited by the wife of a brothel owner. The mother refused to name the recruiter, who is the village money lender, because she may need her help in the future. Sobbing, the mother insisted to Ekachai, “I didn’t sell her. I just borrowed money. She is working to pay off the debt. She’l1 come home soon… My daughter is still very tiny. They told me they only needed her to help wash dishes and clean the house. I only asked her boss for 2,000 baht ($80). That’s all I needed to buy rice and food. They offered 10,000 baht ($400) for her. But I didn’t want her to have to work too long to pay off the debt. I want her to come back home.” Ekachai discovered that the recruiter had made a commission of 2,000 baht on the girl’s sale. Girls like this 15-year-old are called “bonded” labour. Knowing their parents cannot afford to pay back the debt, and often brutalized into silence, few dare to speak out. They end up in places like Bangkok’s busy Patpong district. There, in bars with names like Pussy Galore and Paradise, they sit in glass cages, numbers pinned to their see-through blouses. The tourists—often Japanese, but Australian, Jordanian and American also—pick a number and then take them to a small cubicle upstairs. Or they learn to dance for the customers, perhaps enlivening their act by blowing up a balloon with their vagina.

“I can no longer go into the bars,” said Niramon Prudtatorn of Friends of Women (FOW), a Thai non-governmental organization (NGO) that was founded in 1980. One of a number of groups that works with prostitutes, FOW won an important victory recently when a Thai court ordered a brothel owner to pay damages to the parent of a prostitute (see related story).

“People always focus on the women,” Niramon continued. “Now we know so much about prostitutes: where they come from, their ages, their educational level—but we don’t know anything about the men. Why do men do this? Only now, because of AIDS, have other NGOs started talking about men’s promiscuity and ethics. We have five precepts (a Buddhist code of conduct)—and the third precept is about no adultery. What about the men?”

Her question was echoed as a conference on child sexual exploitation that was held last year in Thailand. There, a woman village leader from Chiang Mai, a city famous for brothels that cater exclusively to Japanese men, shocked participants by stating that young girls are now being sold to recruiters by weight. “What is in the minds of these men who love to have sex with young girls who do not enjoy it at all,” asked one organizer. Aware that among the Chinese community there is a belief that a man who sleeps with young girls will add years to his life, she continued, “I think this is a more complicated matter rather than just one of simple sexual behaviour.”

Some men are attempting to deal with this question themselves. In 1988 Kazunori Taniguchi, a Japanese businessman who had himself been on company-sponsored sex tours, started the group Men Against Prostitution in Asia. The group has produced a slide show and a 52-page pamphlet against sex tourism and the mail-order bride business (an estimated 700 marriage brokers import Asian women into Japan, where—for prices up to US $20,000—they are married to Japanese men). The group is small, but dedicated.

At least one other former customer also struggled with this question. The Thai public was shocked when a letter from an anonymous American tourist appeared in a major English-language daily in Bangkok. The writer explained how, after he was diagnosed with AIDS, his friends began to encourage him to have one last fling. He described how, during a week’s vacation in Bangkok, he had unprotected sex with several dozen women. He wrote the letter, he explained, out of guilt and sorrow—and because he wanted the Thai public to know how easy it was.

There are many positive developments in the struggle to stop sex tourism. The women’s group Foundation For Women, founded in 1984, has developed a comic book designed to raise awareness among children about the danger of being lured into prostitution. The comic book, called “Kamla” and based on the life of one of the young women who died in the Phuket brothel fire, has been introduced into primary schools in nine Thai northern provinces. The self-help group EMPOWER is using theatre to help prostitutes gain self-respect, and providing English-language classes so the women can have more bargaining power with their customers.

But prostitution, and in particular child prostitution, is spreading throughout Asia. Sex tourism in Thailand has many causes—a land boom which is robbing peasants of traditional land, social values which emphasize a daughter’s duty to her parents, among them. A major part of the problem is also the education of Western men, which allows them to use women of color in ways they might not think of using white Western women. Tour agencies use this in promoting sex tourism.

Some people involved in tourism are trying to be more responsible. The following paragraphs are from a travel book called Thailand (published in 1988 by CFW Publications, Ltd, 1602 Alliance Building, 130 Connaught Road Central, Hong Kong, and written by Frena Bloomfield): “Sex is what Bangkok is famous for all over the world, and there is plenty of that for sale around the city of fallen angels. No one will stop you going to massage parlours, brothels, clubs and cheap hotels with a person of whichever sex you choose.

“However, you might care to give an occasional thought to the fact that very many of the girls working in massage parlours have been sold into bonded labour by their parents and are unable to get out. They are slave prostitutes because their families were too poor to feed them, and they are too poor for any man to marry them. If enjoying yourself at the price of other people’s misery is what turns you on, go ahead. Patpong Road is the canter of most of this.” Unfortunately, however, there is still a long way to go until most travel agencies follow suit. The following organizations offer information for travellers who want to be respectful of the cultures they are travelling through:

Tourism Concern, Froebel College, Roehampton Lane, London SW15 5PU, UK. Tel. 071 272 1749.
Centre for Responsible Tourism, 2 Kensington Road, Anselmo, CA 94960, USA.
Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism, P.O. Box 24 Chorakhebua, Bangkok 10230, Thailand.
Equitable Tourism Option (Equasions), 96, H Colony, Indiranagar Stage, 1 Bangalore 560038, India.

Code of ethics for travelers

The Center tor Responsible Tourlsm promotes the following Code of Ethlcs tor Tourists:

  • Travel in a spirit ot humility and with a genuine desire to meet and talk with local people.
  • Be aware ot the feelings of the local people; prevent what might be offensive behavior. Photography, particularly, must respect persons.
  • Cultivate the habit of listening and observing rather than merely hearing and seeing or knowing all the answers.
  • Realize that other people may have concepts of time and have thought patterns that are different from yours — not inferior, only different.
  • Instead of only seeing the exotic, discover the richness ot another culture and way of life.
  • Get acquainted with local customs; respect them.
  • Remember that you are only one among many visitors; do not expect special privileges.
  • When shopping through bargaining, remember that the poorest merchant will give up a profit rather than give up his or her personal dignity.
  • Do not make promises to local people or to new friends that you cannot keep.
  • Spend time each day reflecting on your experiences in order to deepen your understanding. What enriches you may be robbing others.
  • You want a home away from home? Why travel?