Anyone who has spent even the smallest amount of time in Thailand will have noticed that it is a country with a prostitution problem. All countries, even those with the most sanctimonious records, have the skin trade. Many of these countries have a strong connection between prostitution and organized crime.
While organized crime has its fingers in many pies in Thailand it is remarkable to discover how many women work free lance. They might be attached to a bar, but once the punter or John has paid what is commonly called a ‘bar fine’ the women are free to set up their own price. Many of them will in fact refuse payment. This is not because they necessarily like or love the man, but because they are looking at the long con. This is such an obvious trick, but where emotions are involved it is one that has proved very successful for many years. In essence the woman persuades the client that she loves him and that she is with him only for this reason. She might adamantly refuse money on such grounds.
Naturally when the foreigner returns home the begging emails and letters will start arriving saying that a relative needs an operation or that she needs an allowance to keep her off the streets. It is remarkable how successful this ploy is. A woman can keep several such long distance remittance arrangements going and still take casual customers.
It is thus not surprising that many young women who originally came from poor rural areas such as Isaan in the north under duress from poverty and family pressure and moved to Bangkok, Pattaya and Koh Samui and other hot spots for prostitution end up opting to stay on as prostitutes rather than taking normal paid work. The money a prostitute is able to make in Thailand is much higher than the wages of say a factory worker, even someone working in a Japanese factory.
Fees for a woman vary from 500 Thai Baht for a go to 2,000 THB. In comparison a teacher makes just 16,000 THB a month (source: http://www.worldsalaries.org/thailand.shtml). Considering more than one client can be handled per night it is easy to see how the income of a prostitute makes the profession an attractive one. And of course there are no taxes to be paid, and often no ‘protection money’ deductions are necessary.
Naturally, a Thai woman or man (for that matter) working primarily for a Thai constituency does not make as much. You can often go to the proverbial middle of nowhere in Thailand where agriculture is the main economic pursuit and you will find a small shack selling cigarettes, bottled petrol and cold drinks. Next door will be a karaoke bar with one or two females of the night plying their trade.
Thailand is a very traditional and conservative country with strong Buddhist beliefs, but at the same time they will tolerate open prostitution and the outrageous flaunting of sexual ambivalence shown by lady boys. It is a country which is not exactly permissive like places in the West but they do have a live and let live philosophy that can be hard for outsiders to understand.
Many people mistakenly think that it is tourism that created the massive prostitution business in Thailand. They are wrong. It was actually the Chinese that introduced the idea centuries before Sukhimvit, Pattaya and Chaweng became popular with foreign sex tourists. The notion of official marriage is still very much an urban phenomenon. Thais are reluctant to pay taxes and wish to declare as little as possible to the authorities. People are thus free to move from one relationship to the next without having to trouble about child benefit payments for example. It is not to say that Thais are more promiscuous than other nations, but it is to say that the situation is normally not hampered by any legal frame work or for that matter societal condemnation.
In such a situation it is easy to see how prostitution can thrive in Thailand. To some this might not seem like a bad thing, especially if the contract is consensual and both parties benefit. However, there is a dark side to prostitution in Thailand.
The most obvious facet of this is child prostitution. NGOs and foreign governments have continually pressured successive Thai governments and juntas to do something about the large amount of under-age sex workers in Thailand. The government is reluctant to intervene and many suspect it is incapable of intervening. At times the army runs Bangkok with an iron hand but that hand does not stretch so authoritatively to other parts of the Kingdom. For example in the southern provinces they have been fighting a decades long war with muslin insurgents with few visible successes. Corruption has weakened the will of the authorities to take any action on child prostitution.
The Thaksin and the recent pro-Thaksin government have made few noises on this issue, but they have identified yaba or methamphetamine as a major area of concern in Thai society that needs to be tackled. Sadly, the last Thaksin government dealt with the problem by allowing a number of extra-judicial slayings by the police that have still gone unpunished.
Yaba is one of the pitfalls for sex workers in Thailand. Originally invented by the Japanese during the last World War, methamphetamines have spread like an epidemic across Thailand. Construction workers, taxi drivers and sex workers have found that they can stay up for several days at a time with little food and double their incomes by using the drug. It is cheap and readily available. Much of it is made on the Thai and Myanmar border that is controlled as much by warlords as it is by the junta in Rangoon. No doubt many well placed officials in both countries are seeing massive financial rewards from the methamphetamine trade in Thailand.
In the case of sex workers, methamphetamines are causing addiction, risk taking and long term physical and psychological problems. It does nothing to help curb the ever-present threat of massive HIV infection.
Finally, the drug addiction just compounds the other dark side of prostitution in Thailand, and that is paranoia, schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness. As Carson McCullers pointed out, ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ and playing the game of pretend love over and over again has often a devastating impact on the sensibilities especially combined with the warped perspective provided by methamphetamines.
So think carefully before you sit down in a bar in Soi Cowboy, Pattaya or Chaweng. That beautiful and smiling young woman that will inevitably come and sit down next to you might seem full of joie de vie, but the chances are that she is heading down a road that will make her a casualty of a laissez faire economy, and you in your own small way by paying for sex will be an accomplish in her tragedy.