To understand why Thai prostitution is targeted on Westerners and Japanese people, Davidson and Taylor (1996) explained that when you get to the bottom of it, it’s the cost that matters. Comparing the cost of hiring a Thai prostitute to that of a sex worker, say for example in Britain, the former can be rented for a day for a fraction of what British prostitutes demand.
Although prostitution has been technically illegal in the country since 1960 through the enactment of the Prostitution Suppression Act of 1960 that punishes those who engage in the trade for US$50 and two months imprisonment, the creation of a newer law paved a way for the trade to flourish under different alternative fronts. The passing of the Entertainment Places Act of 1966 made it possible for prostitution to be conducted under legal means. Commercial sex dens can reinvent themselves into massage parlours, teahouses and karaoke bars where special services can be offered.
Special services are not defined under the law, thus, it can be of any form. Another law came into effect in 1996, the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act that says those who are under eighteen can’t engage in prostitution, meaning, older than that age can. In 2003, the Ministry of Justice held a public forum for the possible legalisation of the trade to increase government revenue and at the same time, protect sex workers better. To date, this proposal has not moved forward.
In Thailand, sixty-eight percent of the 64.6 million population lived in rural areas, and about thirty-nine percent work in agriculture, fishery and forestry. Cholthira Satyawadhna (2005) observed that Thai women are generally confined to agriculture and trade. In rural areas, women are considered breadwinners and must provide for the family, an offshoot of the Animism belief system, which predates Buddhism and Islam in the country, that postulates households should be inherited and run by women. In this regard, women disregard education in order to earn money. Some go to the more urbanised areas lured by promises of higher income and better lifestyles.
Devoid of any marketable skills, these women have only once choice for earning high: prostitution. Journalist Justin Hall (1994) highlights in a paper that the complacent and tolerant attitude towards prostitution in Thailand springs from the view that sex workers are sources of national revenue, just like any other kind of crop. Hall related that during orientation sessions, prostitutes are told to take pride in their work because they contribute a lot to their country’s tourism industry.
Part of their income is sent home to support their families. Thai prostitutes have to bear physical sufferings and humiliations in varying degrees. Those that are free to roam the streets generally suffer less that those who are kept in brothels against their wills. Majority, if not all, of these prostitutes are on drugs in order to keep servicing many men in one night. Without drugs, their bodies would surrender due to fatigue. A young prostitute quoted by Hall explained that without a shot of heroin, she wouldn’t be able to keep her body in a working condition.
Despite the hardships, some sex workers continue what they do because of the money they earn, the amount of which are often greater than what they can earn working in factories. Increased consumerism in the society contributes to this desire to have more earning power. Although women embrace commercial sex trade with open eyes, some were lured into it through deceitful means. Trafficking by organised gangs of women and children in Thailand is a serious problem. As of July 2007, the Library of Congress estimates that about 300,000 men, women, and children engaged in the country’s sex industry.
A report prepared by Asia Watch, a nongovernmental organization, on the plight of trafficked women revealed that sex workers in Thailand are not just coming from the rural areas. Often, they are young girls from neighbouring countries like Burma and Laos, who were recruited to do legitimate work. Once out of their relatives’ reach, these people are forced to have sex with paying customers. If they refuse or try to escape, they’d receive physical punishment, according to a young woman rescued by Asia Watch from a whorehouse in Bangkok.
With increasing pressure from the international community, the Thai government has stepped up its efforts to combat trafficking of young women and children. In 2006, a new bill was proposed that would aid law enforcers to deal more effectively with trafficking gangs. Another preventive measure that the government has taken is by increasing its cooperation with nongovernmental organisations. In particular, the International Organization for Migration ink an accord with Thai authorities to provide training and information campaign in the country to help combat human trafficking.