An employee (R) waiting for customers in front of a night bar at Soi Cowboy, a red light district in Bangkok, Thailand, 21 June 2023. EFE-EPA/NARONG SANGNAK

Invisible in their visibility: Thailand’s sex workers push for legal protections

By Nayara Batschke and Nicharee Sarikapooti

Bangkok, June 28 (EFE).- “Everyone knows about it, everyone sees it, but no one talks about it.” This is how activist and lawyer Chatchalawan Muangjan describes sex work in Thailand, a country often seen as a tolerant and hedonistic destination to explore carnal pleasures, but where selling sex is illegal.

Paid-for sexual activities are no secret in Thailand and the sex industry generates revenues in the billions of dollars each year, according to estimates by various human rights organizations.

While in practice sex work is part of everyday life, the activity is illegal and unregulated, so tens of thousands of sex workers operate outside the protection of standard labor and business codes, although a proposed law seeks to change that.

Official statistics suggest that some 300,000 people sell sexual services in Thailand, although activist organizations say the figures are outdated and the real number is much higher.

“We all see the industry is there and it makes a great amount of money, but there’s the issue of corruption” and, to a lesser degree, “people perceive sex work as immoral,” says Chatchalawan, who has been advocating for the rights of sex workers for 16 years with Empower Foundation.

The practice was banned by the Thai government in 1996 in an attempt to end the country’s long history of prostitution, including during the Vietnam War and the stationing of American troops in the country during that time.

In addition, some intrinsic cultural components of Thai society come into play, such as that about 95 percent of the population is Buddhist.

“[Thai] society is conservative, but as long as people don’t talk about those things, it is as if they don’t exist,” explains Chatchalawan.

Now, Empower and other organizations are promoting the approval of a bill to legalize and regulate the profession, which could materialize with the formation of Thailand’s new government following May’s general election.

“The new bill aims to protect sex workers as part of the labor force. It will also regulate the places of entertainment as well as the customers,” says Chatchalawan.

One of the key points of the initiative is to establish a minimum working age to “prevent people from exploiting or coercing sex workers under the age of 18.”

It also seeks to put an end to, or at least minimize, the abuses to which workers are often subjected.

“There were many [bad experiences]. Working in this industry, you have to deal with men directly. The men who came were drunk, with different kinds of emotions. I had to respond to their sexual needs,” says Manow, who has worked for more than a decade as a sex professional.

“I met all kinds of customers. Some were sadists, some didn’t want to pay, or didn’t want to use condoms,” she recounts, adding that “those ones [who didn’t reach orgasm] would attack me, pin me down on the bed, and try to force me to have sex with them.”

Manow believes that the law could end, or at least mitigate, violence.

“I believe the law would bring lots of positive changes. It would protect sex workers like us, and we could work without worries. If there’s any problem, we could also report it to the police. Things would be much better,” she says.

Every night, exotic dancer Guest goes to work on the neon-lit Soi Cowboy, a lane about 150 meters long packed with bars, karaoke joints and massage parlours in the heart of Bangkok’s central business district.

Although she often offers “additional services” to her dances, she does not consider herself a sex worker.
“I’m not a prostitute. Sometimes I trade sex, but I choose who I do it with,” says Guest, who also works as a barista during the day.

However, Guest is enthusiastic about the possible new law, which would guarantee minimum rights to an industry of workers that remains “invisible despite all its visibility.”

“Sex trading is a business like any other and workers in that industry should have their rights assured as well,” she concludes. EFE


Tourists walk past the night bars at Soi Cowboy, a red light district in Bangkok, Thailand, 21 June 2023. EFE-EPA/NARONG SANGNAK
A transgender person prepares for work in front of a night bar at Soi Cowboy, a red light district in Bangkok, Thailand, 21 June 2023. EFE-EPA/NARONG SANGNAK
The entrance and exit of Soi Cowboy, a red light district in Bangkok, Thailand, 21 June 2023. EFE-EPA/NARONG SANGNAK