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Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, although in practice it is tolerated and partly regulated. Prostitution is practised openly throughout the country. Local officials with commercial interests in prostitution often protect the practice. The precise number of prostitutes is difficult to assess; estimates vary widely and are subject to national and international controversy. Since the Vietnam War, Thailand has gained international notoriety among travellers from many countries as a sex tourism destination.
Estimates of the number of prostitutes vary widely and are subject to controversy. A 2004 estimate by Dr. Nitet Tinnakul from Chulalongkorn University gives a total of 2.8 million sex workers, including 2 million women, 20,000 adult males and 800,000 minors under the age of 18, but the figures for women and minors were considered to be grossly inflated by most observers, and to have resulted from poor research methods. One estimate published in 2003 placed the trade at US$ 4.3 billion per year, or about three percent of the Thai economy.
It has been suggested for example that there may be as many as 10,000 prostitutes on Koh Samui alone, an island resort destination not usually associated with prostitution, and that at least 10% of tourist dollars may be spent on the sex trade. According to a 2001 report by the World Health Organisation: "The most reliable suggestion is that there are between 150,000 and 200,000 sex workers." A recent government survey found that there were 76,000 to 77,000 adult prostitutes in registered entertainment establishments; however, NGOs believed there were between 200,000 and 300,000 prostitutes.
Although centres such as Bangkok (Patpong, Nana Plaza, and Soi Cowboy), Pattaya, and Phuket (Patong) are often identified as primary tourist "prostitution" areas, with Hat Yai and other Malaysian border cities catering to Malaysians, prostitution takes place in nearly every major city and province in the country.
Chiang Mai and Koh Samui (Chaweng and Lamai) are also major centers. In Bangkok, the so-called Ratchadaphisek entertainment district, running along Ratchadaphisek Road near the Huai Khwang intersection, features several large entertainment venues which include sexual massage. Even karaoke style bars in small provincial towns have their own versions, with women, in addition to singing traditional Thai music, sometimes engaging in prostitution.
In 1996, there were at least 5,000 Russian prostitutes operating in Thailand alone, many of whom arrived through networks controlled by Russian gangs.
The documented history of prostitution in Thailand goes back at least six centuries, with overt and explicit references by the Chinese voyager Ma Huan (1433) and subsequently by European visitors (Van Neck, 1604; Gisbert Heeck, 1655 and others). It is certainly not a new phenomenon, though it may have been exacerbated by the Japanese occupation during World War II and by the extensive use of Thailand as a "Rest and Recreation" facility by US forces during the Second Indochina War (c.1963-1973)
Prostitution had been illegal in Thailand since 1960, when a law was passed under pressure from the United Nations. The government has instituted a system of monitoring sex workers in order to prevent their mistreatment and to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The 1960 Law was repealed by The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, B.E. 2539 (1996).
Thailand has an ancient, continuous tradition of legal texts, generally described under the heading of Dhammasattha literature (Thai pron., tam-ma-sat), wherein prostitution is variously defined and universally banned. The era of traditional legal texts came to an end in the early 20th century, but these earlier texts were significant in regard to both the writ and spirit of modern legislation.
As of June 2012, the legal framework governing prostitution in Thailand is based upon three acts:
The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act is the central legal framework prohibiting prostitution. Under the act, a definition of "prostitution" is provided: “Sexual intercourse, or any other act, or the commission of any other act in order to gratify the sexual desire of another person in a promiscuous manner in return for money or any other benefit, irrespective of whether the person who accepts the act and the person who commits the act are of the same sex or not.” However, a clear definition of the phrase “in a promiscuous manner” is not provided.
Under the act, persons who solicit sex "in an open and shameless manner" ( a phrase that is not clearly defined), or who are "causing nuisance to the public" are subject to a fine of no more than 1,000 baht, while persons mingling in a "prostitution establishment" face a jail term of up to one month and/or a fine of up to 1,000 baht. The term "prostitution establishment" is not clearly defined; although, it may be broadly interpreted to include any place where prostitution takes place, especially in regard to cases involving child prostitution that carry heavier penalties (up to six years if the prostitute is younger than fifteen years of age)—otherwise, the law is not usually enforced against prostitution in private places. The act also imposes heavier penalties against owners of prostitution businesses and establishments: A jail term of three to fifteen years, or longer in the case of underaged or forced sex workers. The Criminal Code also stipulates penalties for procuring or using money earned from prostitution.
The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act was written with a particular focus upon child prostitution and trafficking. Section 8 penalizes customers who engage in sexual intercourse with sex workers under the age of 15 years with a prison term of two to six years and a fine of up to one hundred and twenty thousand baht. For sex workers between the ages of 15 and 18 years, the prison term is one to three years, and the fine is up to sixty thousand baht.
In regard to trafficking, Section 9 of the act states:
Any person who procures, seduces or takes away any person for the prostitution of such person, even with her or his consent and irrespective of whether the various acts which constitute an offence are committed within or outside the Kingdom, shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of one to ten years and to a fine of twenty thousand to two hundred thousand Baht.
Additionally, any offense under Section 9 that is committed “by means of fraud, deceit, threat, violence, [or] the exercise of undue influence or coercion,” results in a penalty that is “one-third heavier.”
The Act does not explicitly state that prostitution in Thailand is illegal, but Title IX, Section 286 of the Penal Code states: “Any person, being over sixteen years of age, [sic] subsists on the earning of a prostitute, even if it is some part of her incomes [sic], shall be punished with imprisonment of seven to twenty years and fined of fourteen thousand to forty thousand Baht, or imprisonment for life.” While penalties are not specified, the same section of the act penalizes any person who (i) is found residing or habitually associating with a prostitute, (ii) receives boarding, money or other benefits arranged for by a prostitute or (iii) assists any prostitute in a quarrel with a customer.
The Act was also written to address child prostitution, but lacks complete clarity, as it does not define what an "indecent act" is. Title IX, Section 279 of the Penal Code states: “Whoever, commits an indecent act on a child not yet over fifteen years of age, whether such child shall consent or not, shall be punished with imprisonment not exceeding ten years or fined not exceeding twenty thousand Baht, or both.”
The Entertainment Places Act places the onus upon the owner of certain types of entertainment establishments if prostitution occurs on the premises, thereby making them criminally liable. According to the act, sex workers must also undergo rehabilitation for one year at a reform house upon the completion of punishment for practicing prostitution.
In 2003, the Ministry of Justice considered legalising prostitution as an official occupation with health benefits and taxable income and held a public discussion on the topic. Legalisation and regulation was proposed as a means to increase tax revenue, reduce corruption, and improve the situation of the workers. However, nothing further was done.
532,522 Thais were living with HIV/AIDS in 2008. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Thailand, and especially among sex workers, has been the subject of significant media and academic attention, and Thailand hosted the XV International AIDS Conference, 2004.
Mechai Viravaidya, known as "Mr. Condom", has campaigned tirelessly to increase the awareness of safe sex practices and use of condoms in Thailand. He served as minister for tourism and AIDS prevention from 1991 to 1992, and also founded the restaurant chain Cabbages and Condoms, which gives free condoms to customers.
After the enactment of the Thai government's first five-year plan to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country, including Mechai's "100% condom programme", as of 1994, the use of condoms during commercial sex probably increased markedly. No current data on the use of condoms is available. The programme instructed sex workers to refuse intercourse without a condom, and monitored health clinic statistics in order to locate brothels that allow sex without condoms.
Thailand was praised for its efforts in the fight against HIV/AIDS during the late 1990s, but a study in 2005 found that the lack of public support in the previous several years had led to a resurgence of the disease.
Thai society has its own unique set of often contradictory sexual mores. Visiting a prostitute or a paid mistress is not an uncommon, though not necessarily acceptable, behaviour for men. Many Thai women, for example, believe the existence of prostitution actively reduces the incidence of rape. Among many Thai people, there is a general attitude that prostitution has always been, and will always be, a part of the social fabric of Thailand.
According to a 1996 study, the sexual urge of men is perceived by both Thai men and women as being very much stronger than the sexual urge of women. Where women are thought to be able to exercise control over their desires, the sexual urge of men is seen to be "a basic physiological need or instinct". It is also thought by both Thai men and women that men need "an occasional variation in partners". As female infidelity is strongly frowned upon in Thai society, and, according to a 1993 survey, sexual relationships for single women also meets disapproval by a majority of the Thai population, premarital sex, casual sex and extramarital sex with prostitutes is accepted, expected and sometimes even encouraged for Thai men, the latter being perceived as less threatening to a marriage over lasting relationships with a so-called "minor wife".
Another reason contributing to this issue is that ordinary Thais deem themselves tolerant of other people, especially those whom they perceive as downtrodden. This acceptance has allowed prostitution to flourish without much of the extreme social stigma found in other countries. According to a 1996 study, people in Thailand generally disapprove of prostitution, but the stigma for prostitutes is not lasting or severe, especially since many prostitutes support their parents through their work. Some men do not mind marrying former prostitutes. A 2009 study of subjective well-being of prostitutes found that among the sex workers surveyed, sex work had become normalized.
Chuwit Kamolvisit is the owner of several massage parlours in Bangkok and considered by many "a godfather of prostitution" in Thailand. In 2005 he was elected for a four-year term to the Thai House of Representatives, but in 2006 the Constitutional Court removed him from office. In October 2008 he again ran for governor of Bangkok but was not elected. He revealed in 2003 that some of his best clients were senior politicians and police officers, whom he also claimed to have paid, over a decade, more than £1.5m in bribes so that his business, selling sex, could thrive.
Although Thailand's sex trade aimed at foreigners can be considered overt, the industry that caters exclusively to Thai men had never before been publicly scrutinised, let alone the sexual exploits of Thailand's unchallengeable officials.
Support of prostitution is pervasive in political circles, as BBC News reported in 2003. "MPs from Thailand's ruling Thai Rak Thai Party are getting hot under the collar over plans by the party leadership to ban them from having mistresses or visiting brothels" … "One MP told The Nation newspaper that if the rules were enforced, the party would only be able to field around 30 candidates, compared to its more than 200 sitting MPs."
Attitudes towards women were exemplified by MP Thirachai Sirikhan, informing The Nation newspaper, "To have a mia noi (mistress) is an individual's right. There should be no problem as long as the politician causes no trouble to his family or society".
Both politicians and police have been supporting and indulging in the prostitution industry openly. Khun Tavich, a veteran politician aged 76, was under fire in 2005 for impregnating a 14-year-old girl who worked across the street from the parliament.
After a police raid on some Bangkok parlours where policemen had sex with prostitutes, "Acting Suthisan Police chief Colonel Varanvas Karunyathat defended the police action, saying that the (police) officers involved needed to have sex with the masseuses to gain evidence for the arrest." Apparently, this is standard practice as a separate police force did the same in Pattaya in May 2007.
Kritaya Archavanitkul, a Thai human rights activist, interviewed by UC Berkeley Institute of International Studies, said,
This is sad to say, that the Thai social structure tends to accept this sort of abuse, and not only to accept – we have laws, we have bills that vitally support the existence of these sex establishments. That's one thing. And also, we have a Mafia that is also involved in the political parties, so this keeps the abuse going. The second reason is a cultural factor. I don't know about other countries, but in Thailand the sexual behaviour of Thai men accepts prostitution. Every class of Thai men accept it, although not all Thai men practise it. So they don't see it as a problem. So when it comes to the policymakers, who are mostly men, of course, they don't see this as a problem. They know there are many women who are brought into prostitution in Thailand. They know that some are treated with brutal violence. But they don't think it's a terrible picture. They think it's just the unlucky cases. And, because of the profit, I think there are many people with an interest involved, so they try to turn a blind eye to this problem.
|This section's factual accuracy is disputed. (November 2013)|
According to a US Federal Government report published in 2003, Chinese-owned brothels, casinos, and entertainment facilities are located in the red-light districts of Thai cities. The report states that a number of the entertainment facilities are operation centres for human and narcotic trafficking and extortion, in addition to their function as sources of income for their owners. The Chinese organised crime groups engaging in human trafficking are called “Piglet Gangs” by the Thai police.
In the book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Kevin Bales argues that in Thai Buddhism, women are viewed as naturally inferior to men, and that Buddha told his disciples that women were "impure, carnal, and corrupting." This is also supported by the belief that women cannot attain enlightenment, although this view is disputed by other Buddhist scriptures such as the Vinaya Pitaka in the Pali Canon. The current Dalai Lama has repeatedly asserted that women can attain enlightenment and function equal to men in spiritual matters, but his branch of Buddhism is not the one practised in Thailand, which has its own particular agglomeration of beliefs. Bales also points to the fact that ten kinds of wives are outlined in the Vinaya, or rules for monks. Within these rules, the first three are actually women who can be paid for their services. In present day Thailand, this has manifested itself into an acceptance by wives about prostitution. Sex with prostitutes is viewed by wives as empty sex, and thus women may allow their husbands to have meaningless sex with prostitutes rather than to find a new spouse.
Buddhism also prescribes “acceptance and resignation in the face of life’s pain and suffering", in accordance with belief in karma and expiation of sins from previous lives. Conjecturally, women may choose to believe that suffering as prostitutes is the result of their karma.
Ab Ob Nuat ("bathing and massage" in Thai) most often consists of either an oil massage, nude body massage or a bath treatment which includes sexual services. In this type of establishment, male clients can engage in sexual activity with female prostitutes, similar to soaplands in Japan.
Although Thailand is also known for a non-sexual traditional style of massage, known as Nuat Phaen Boran, several massage parlours provide customers erotic massage with additional costs including handjob, oral sex, and sexual intercourse. The difference between this type of massage and Ab Ob Nuat is that not all massage parlours are involved in prostitution.
The most prevalent form of interaction with Westerners is through the various forms of bars. Young women ("bar girls", or men in the case of gay bars, or transsexual "kathoeys") are employed by the bars either as dancers (in the case of go-go bars) or simply as hostesses who will encourage customers to buy them drinks.
Apart from these sorts of bars, there are a number of other venues for the sex trade; some bars, while not employing staff to serve as bar girls, will allow women ("freelancers" in this context) to solicit clients.
The exact number of child-prostitutes in Thailand is not known. According to the US-based research institute “Protection Project”, estimates of the number of children involved in prostitution living in Thailand ranges from 12,000 to the hundreds of thousands (ECPAT International). The government, university researchers, and NGOs estimated that there are as many as 30,000 to 40,000 prostitutes under 18 years of age, not including foreign migrants (US Department of State, 2005b). Thailand’s Health System Research Institute estimates that children in prostitution make up 40% of prostitutes in Thailand.
The reasons why and how children are commercially sexually exploited by include:
Children are exploited in sex establishments and are also approached directly in the street by paedophiles seeking sexual contact. Child sex tourism is a serious problem in the country. Thailand, along with Cambodia, India, Brazil and Mexico, has been identified as a leading hotspot of child sexual exploitation. Paedophiles, in particular, exploit the lax laws of the country and attempt to find cover to avoid prosecution.
A proportion of prostitutes over the age of 18, including foreign nationals from Asia and Europe, are in a state of forced sexual servitude and slavery. Due to the circumspect nature of Thai culture, it is extremely difficult for anyone not fluent in Thai, a native Thai, and a trained researcher to obtain anything near accurate data. Because there are so few such researchers willing to study these issues, the data remains easily disputable.
Ethnic minorities such as northern hill tribe peoples, many of whom do not have legal status in the country, are at a disproportionately high risk for trafficking internally and abroad. Within the country women are trafficked from the impoverished northeast and the north to Bangkok for sexual exploitation.
According to the 2003 documentary Trading Women, most women trafficked into Thailand come from Myanmar; others come from Cambodia, Laos and ethnic minorities from Yunnan province of China. The film cites as root causes of the trafficking problem the economic and political situation in Myanmar, the destruction of the traditional economy in Thai hill tribe regions resulting from development and opium suppression programmes, the inability of many members of Thai hill tribes to obtain proper papers and participate in society, and the rampant corruption among police and border guards.
It is known to happen that Thai and other nationalities of women are lured to Japan and sold to Yakuza-controlled brothels where they are forced to work off their price. It is easy to lure these women from neighboring countries because Thailand has 56 unofficial crossover points and 300 checkpoints where people can cross the border without paperwork.
In a landmark case in 2006, one such woman filed a civil suit in Thailand against the Thai perpetrators, who had previously been convicted in criminal court. The woman had managed to escape from the Yakuza-controlled prostitution ring by killing the female Thai mama-san and had spent five years in a Japanese prison.
Numerous support organisations for sex workers exist in Thailand. Most of them attempt to discourage women from taking up or continuing the trade.
SHE Foundation (Self Help & Empowerment) is a Christian charity organisation that works with women and children involved in the commercial sex trade in Phuket. SHE offers a prevention programme that provides women with free hotel training, free housing and paid employment making jewellery within the SHE Center.
EMPOWER is a Thai NGO that offers health, educational and counseling services to female sex workers. The organisation seeks to empower sex workers and has been operating since 1985, with offices in Patpong (Bangkok), Chiang Mai, Mae Sai and Patong Beach (Phuket).
SWING (Service Workers in Group) is an offshoot of EMPOWER, offering support to male and female sex workers in Patpong and Pattaya. It offers English classes, teaches safe sex education, distributes condoms, and promotes health and safety with an in-house gym and discounted medical examinations. The newly formed organisation SISTERS works with transgender sex workers in Bangkok and Pattaya.
The work of the Destiny Rescue organisation is focused on preventing girls from being involved in prostitution in Thailand, as well as the assisted removal of girls from the industry.
FACE is an organisation that focuses on child prostitution and trafficking, and is the main partner of the United Nations in the country. DEPDC is another organisation that works to prevent the trafficking of women and children.
The Population and Community Development Association (PDA), headed by Mechai Viravaidya, pioneered family planning and safe sex strategies in Thailand over thirty years ago. The organisation no longer focuses expressly on safe sex issues, but continues to provide information, condoms, and prevention programmes throughout the country.
The Fr. Ray Foundation in Pattaya provides care and housing for vulnerable children at the Children's Home, and the Drop-In Centre for Street Kids for homeless children. Exploited women and their children are provided with education and care at the Fountain of Life facility.
The Well, a US-based Christian service that is part of the Servantworks organisation, has been working with sex workers and at-risk people in Thailand since 2004. The Well provides alternative employment, educational opportunities and social services to assist women and families.
The SOLD Project began in 2007 and is committed to stopping child prostitution through education. The organisation's mission is "to prevent child prostitution through culturally relevant programmes for vulnerable children and to share their stories to empower creative, compassionate people to act".
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