Thailand ("Land of the Free") is the only Southeast Asian country that has avoided being colonized by a Western power. It is known for its rich culture and hospitable inhabitants. Unfortunately it also has the dubious distinction of being the leading country in sex trade and has even been given the demeaning title of "the whorehouse of the world." Tourism has played a significant role in Thailand's economic growth, particularly in the 1980s. Even now, revenues from tourism make up the largest single component of Thailand's export earnings, with about 10 million tourists visiting the country every year. Most surveys show that a vast majority of the tourists to Thailand are men and many of them are attracted by the country's nightlife. This paper gives a short history of prostitution in Thailand, the historical and current causes behind the widespread prostitution in the country, gives a profile of the sex-workers in Thailand, discusses the health issues of the sex-workers, analyses the effect of prostitution on Thai society, solutions to the problem and the barriers that prevent easy solutions.
History of Prostitution in Thailand
Contrary to popular perception, the history of prostitution in Thailand is a lot older than the Vietnam War and the advent of the U.S. marines to Thailand for "R&R" (Rest and Recreation) during the 1960s. The earliest record of prostitution in Thailand go as far back as 1433 when a Chinese voyager to Siam, Ma Huan, recorded in his writings, instances of married local women getting intimate with the visitors from China with the tacit approval of their husbands.
Other references to prostitution in Siam were recorded by the first European travelers to the country in the early seventeenth century. A Dutchman who visited Pattani in 1604, wrote that "when foreigners come there from other lands to do their business... men come and ask them whether they do not desire a woman" (Quoted by Wilson and Henley, 1994) which is not much different than the present situation in Thailand -- when most visitors to Bangkok are solicited by taxi drivers with offers of exotic sex right at the airport.
In 1680s a Thai official was licensed by the state to run a monopoly of the prostitution business in Ayutthaya in order to earn revenue for the government through taxes. The taxation of prostitutes and brothels was called "tax for the road."
When Rama V abolished slavery at the turn of the century (1900), some female slaves who were previously kept as "slave wives" entered the "oldest" profession. The situation led to the uncontrolled spread of venereal disease and prostitution was legalized in 1934 by Rama VII. The law allowed prostitutes to be registered so that they could receive regular medical care.
At the end of World War II, prostitution was already thriving in Thailand. There were a number of cabarets, strip-clubs, dance halls, and brothels in Bangkok to cater to the Japanese soldiers as well as the local population. The city, in the late 40s, even had the reputation of being one of the blue movie capitals of the world and boasted of one of the biggest brothel houses in the world -- a nine story building. (Wilson and Henley, 1984)
Prostitution in Thailand, nevertheless, got a major boost during the Vietnam War the scale and character of Thai prostitution dramatically altered with the U.S. military presence in the 1960s and 1970s. A 1957 UN report estimated that at the time there were 20,000 prostitutes in Thailand (total population of 22 million). By 1964, the police estimated there were 400,000 prostitutes in Bangkok; the total population of Thailand had only increased to 27 million by then. (Hill, 1993)
Thailand's main role during the war was to serve as a rest and recreation area for American military men. In 1967, a formal treaty between the United States and Thailand permitted the U.S. military to send its men to Thailand for "R & R" (rest and recreation). As a result, about 70,000 U.S. soldiers were flown to Bangkok every year to recover from the stress of warfare and it is estimated that an average of 700,000 American GIs took their R & R. In Thailand between 1962-76 (Ibid, p. 134) The influx of such huge numbers of "tourists" had an equally significant impact on the "services" industry of Thailand as the American soldiers expenditures at restaurants, bars, and brothels exceeded 40% of Thailand's export earnings at the time. (Ibid.)
Hence, while the American soldiers' influx in Thailand during the Vietnam War cannot be blamed for the start of prostitution in the country, it certainly helped to diversify and expand the sex industry. Moreover, the publicity that prostitution in Thailand received as a result, helped to bring in the "sex tourists" in droves after the end of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s -- not only sustaining it but expanding it to the present levels.
Causes of Prostitution in Thailand
The reasons for the continuing "boom" in Thailand's sex industry can be attributed to the patronage of the "sex tourists" as well as the social tolerance for the institution in the country. Another major underlying cause for prostitution in Thailand is the fact that prostitution is still the highest paying job available to most women in Thailand and successive governments have disregarded the development of women's opportunities for economic independence. (Shahabudin, n.d.) The perpetuation of prostitution in Thailand can, therefore, be viewed as a "supply and demand" problem. Let us look at the supply side first.
Poverty and Effects of Globalization
The single biggest cause of prostitution in Thailand is without doubt poverty. Poverty is, as Mr. Shahabudin notes, "a vicious force that drives families to sacrifice their daughters to prostitution." Most surveys of "massage girls" in Bangkok show that over 70% of the girls come from poor farming families and almost all of them send part of their earnings home to feed their families. Many of them come from refugee families who have lost their land on which they farmed previously; now these families have little choice but to send their children out for work in order to survive. The incentive for making income through prostitution in Thailand is overwhelming for poor peasant girls: Catherine Hill (1993) quoting Pasuk Phongpaichit, author of From Peasant Girls to Bangkok Masseuses (1982, 8) writes that prostitution in Thailand offers "wages up to twenty-five times the wages to women in other industries."
Urbanization and the effects of Globalization have created great inequality between the incomes in the rural and urban areas. For example, it is estimated that the income levels in cities such as Bangkok are at least nine times higher than in the northern countryside that provides the bulk of its sex-workers. (Shahabudin) Globalization and government policies have served to perpetuate this inequality. As part of government policy to increase exports and earn precious foreign exchange, the price of rice (the main crop in Thailand and in most of rural areas, the only source of income) is kept artificially low. (Ibid) This results in the flow of capital from the rural to the urban areas, making the countryside even more impoverished. This vicious cycle is further perpetuated by the nature of economic "globalization" that seeks to look for cheap labor around the world -- which again is mostly provided by the rural poor. Moreover, most of the MNCs make investment in industries located in the urban centers of the developing countries such as Thailand -- further accentuating the rural and urban income differential.
Age-old gender bias against the females in Asian societies including Thailand results in low-levels of female education. For example, lack of investment in education in the rural areas of Thailand by the government means that most of the education is provided by traditional pagoda education conducted by monks which is not available to girls. This results in lop-sided development of literacy levels leaving most girls illiterate and with little choice in choosing a way of living for themselves.
Religious practices of Theravada Buddhism perpetuate the contradictory role of women in the country. Buddhist monks are held in the highest esteem, and over 40% of all Thai men (only men can become monks) spend some portion of their life as a monk in order to accumulate "merit." (Hill, 1993) Buddhist philosophy teaches that those who accumulate enough merit shall be reborn into a higher life and birth as a woman is the result of insufficient merit owing to shortcomings in a past life. Moreover, like most other the other major world religions, Buddhism considers women less spiritual than men. Many Buddhists believe that men are more spiritual and that women are more materialistic and a logical outcome of this tradition is that women are encouraged to engage in the materialistic pursuit of providing for the family while the traditional Thai men pursues the spiritual goal of "earning" merit. (Ibid.) Such religious teachings, coupled with the general belief that the Lord Buddha…