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Sex Tourism and Prostitution in Thailand

hpolak's picture
Hilary Polak
Intro to Critical Feminist Studies
November 11, 2008

Sex Tourism and Prostitution in Thailand
Prostitution, sex trafficking, and sex slavery are all activities that have existed for most of recorded history all over the world, despite laws instated in attempt to control them. In Thailand, prostitution was outlawed in 1960. However, it remains an integral part of the country’s economy, contributing to the booming tourism industry. The prostitutes are mostly young women, but there are some men and a third gender known as kathoeys who also work in the bars, massage parlors, eating establishments and other venues that provide sexual favors on the menu. Some of these individuals choose this form of employment, and others are recruited against their will. While the act of sex trafficking can generally be interpreted as purely wrong and unjust, the idea of voluntary prostitution has been more difficult to understand. The common assumption, especially that of most feminists, is that prostitution is premised upon a universal principle of male violence to women, especially colored women. However, there are many other factors that must be considered before making this statement. In order to understand how prostitution works in Thailand, it is necessary to examine the aspects of colonization, economic concerns, and local culture histories.
Legacies of racism, colonialism, and imperialism have created some of the basis for prostitution in Thailand. “Troops at various times in history has produced particular forms of prostitution where the military, often in collision with the local state or government, tolerated, regulated or encouraged the provision of sexual services by local women to the troops” (Kempadoo 30). During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Department of Defense had a contract with the Thai government to provide “Recreation and Relaxation” for the American soldiers. With money from the United States, the Thai prostitution industry flourished. In 1975, the World Bank helped the Thai government develop an economic plan that was heavily dependent on the sex industry. The government encouraged prostitution, and to this day Thailand is notorious for being a sex tourism destination. The government relies upon the racist stereotype of Asian women as being erotic and exotic to attract tourists who pour money into the country’s prostitution industry.
The number of male tourists in Thailand outnumbers female tourists three to one. This is because there is actually a network of services that specifically advertise to men- particularly from Japan, the Middle East, Australia, North American and Western Europe- to purchase the sexual services of local women in Thailand. While prostitution has existed in Thailand for centuries, “for the first time in history you can book a trip to Thailand with exotic pleasures included in the price” (Enloe 37). In order for sex tourism to succeed, it depends on multiple factors. There needs to be an alliance between local governments in search of foreign currency, as well as foreign and local businessmen who desire to invest in sexualized travel. These men also need to envision Thai women as more available, submissive, and exotic than white women. Both of these concepts seem to be true. Finally, sex tourism requires Thai women to be economically desperate enough to participate in prostitution.
This last concept is the most difficult to understand and explain. In Thailand, prostitution is often seen as one of the only options for women. “In a world where the highly unequal distribution of wealth and power on an international scale, as well as the agencies and classes that defend this inequality, induce poor people and nations to seek alternative, sometimes underground, strategies for survival” (Kempadoo 33). Prostitution offers higher wages than most other forms of employment, so some women participate in the industry to complement other meager wages or it can be the sole form of income for the woman’s household. If the woman has children, she can pay for their education, clothes and food. It will cover electricity bills, or she can use the money to purchase a plot of land. Becoming a prostitute can even hold the promise of finding a secure marriage relationship.
Another important fact to consider is that many of the girls who become prostitutes are sold into labor by their desperate parents at a very young age. Most of these families live in rural areas, where agricultural development is the only source of income. The money generated from these projects is usually very little. Individuals who run prostitution establishments in cities like Bangkok will take advantage of these situations. Men dressed in expensive suits will arrive in these villages and either recruit or simply purchase girls from their parents with the promise that they will make good money and live in good conditions. While the girls do make a better living than most other women, they probably will not live in good conditions and will slowly become more cut off from Thai society.
In addition to these economic concerns, there are also social factors that are connected to women in prostitution. Especially in Southeast Asia, there is the tradition that women are responsible for financially supporting the household. Girls are also expected to “earn money to repay the care and protection given them by their parents in raising them” (Kempadoo 38). These customs are deeply rooted in Thai culture. The significance and importance of these expectations can cause women to look toward more lucrative forms of employment, like prostitution, that would fulfill these obligations. It would also provide a more comfortable lifestyle for them and their household.
After conducting my research, I have discovered that ignoring these issues would be looking at an incomplete form of prostitution in Thailand. To reduce the act of prostitution to male violence against women ignores the woman’s side of the story, as well as the economic, legal, colonial and racial aspects of the situation. Some feminists today believe it is important to view prostitution as a form of labor like any other. “It is all the more necessary to recognize prostitution as work and improve working conditions for these women” (37). It is important to realize that the situation will not go away by Western feminists telling these Asian women that they are victims. Instead of trying to abolish prostitution altogether, Western feminists should attempt to make conditions better for these women.
It can be difficult for a Western feminist to truly understand prostitution among women of color. “Postcolonial Literature often embraces the prostitute as an integral part of village life, yet she is invariably represented as an outcast and tragic figure, worshipped and highly desired by men and taunted and despised by other women” (Kempadoo 41). As a Western woman, it was not easy for me to understand the conditions of young Thai women that work in the prostitution industry. Although after researching and delving deeper into the topic I realize that it is not black and white. There are many shades of gray, and many elements of the situation that are often overlooked. I understant now that it is necessary to observe the local traditions and cultures, economic concerns, and the impact of colonialism when examining prostitution in Thailand.
Although I have a more complete understanding of prostitution in Thailand, I still have questions left unanswered. I want to understand, from a man’s point of view, exactly what is the intrigue of colored women in prostitution. I can understand that the “exotic” appeals to them, but I still want to know why they consider engaging in sexual acts with women in different countries to be acceptable. It seems hypocritical that in their homelands they support the illegal status of prostitution, and probably would not pay for the same sexual favors if the women were white or Western. Also, I would like to explore the policies of the Thai government further. How can the government have laws that explicitly contradict each other regarding prostitution? I see how prostitution affects the economy in areas like sex tourism, but how does it specifically affect the general social order and what can the government do to improve the situation? These are topics that I will have to investigate further.


Paulie Webster's picture


Unfortunately it seems like an ongoing issue - . Used to donate to UNHCR while I was there, but not sure they have a systemic plan in place.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Why men go to thailand for women:

You ask about "the intrigue of colored women in prostitution", well, knowing thailand and its women, men come here because,
it is very cheap, you can have a woman every day for a little amount of money compared to western countries,
for 25 euros the girl stays all night.

Good looking women are numerous, and they act as girlfriend with their customer, making him feel he looks like Brad Pitt.

Being exotic is attractive for sure but not the main reason, many men go to germany or spain to find eastern and cheap women too.

About the fact that illegal prostitution in their own country, prostitution is legal in many western countries so thats not really the problem here and in thailand or in any part of the world, there is prostitution, the oldest job in the world.

So, cheap life, good looking women, good food, sun, a perfect destination for lonely men.

An important fact to me in thailand is that women are not forced to do this but sometimes have no choice...
Sometimes her family sends her to do this, it sadly happens too.
But most women are free to leave when they want to or to refuse
to go with someone they dont want, and they do.

From a buddhist point of view, as long as you don't hurt people, you are free to do what you want with your body.

Thailand is changing, getting richer, hopefully the growth will be shared as life getting more and more expensive, it will be harder for country side people to make it...

Serendip Visitor's picture

Where can I find the full

Where can I find the full reference list for your article? I am interested in reading the Enloe and Kempadoo sources you mentioned.

Serendip Visitor's picture

good job hilary

i read your analysis about prostitution in thailand, you tell certain things that will maybe help some people understand better prostitution here in thailand.
The fact that some women have to financially support the parents is an heavy responsability for them, with a basic salary around 7000 bahts, 216$ a month, many do not have any other choice than go to prostitution...

I would also add domestic violence, thai men having sometimes a serious problem with alcohol and becoming violent with their vife, many decide to leave this violent environment and therefore do not have too many choice to make a living and supporting their kids as thai men easily do not support them anymore or have to support their new wife...

Serendip Visitor's picture

Great stance, I do agree that

Great stance, I do agree that alcohol is a major issue in Thailand and domestic violence. Prostitution also degrades the image of women.

Anonymous's picture

A stated but unproven assumption

You state: 'I want to understand, from a man’s point of view, exactly what is the intrigue of colored women in prostitution. I can understand that the “exotic” appeals to them, but I still want to know why they consider engaging in sexual acts with women in different countries to be acceptable. It seems hypocritical that in their homelands they support the illegal status of prostitution, and probably would not pay for the same sexual favors if the women were white or Western.'

There are a lot of assumptions in there you seem to have taken as fact, but never really considered. What makes you think these men support the illegal status of prostitution in their home countries? What makes you think they would not pay for the same sexual favors if the woman was white?

As for these assumptions, with regard to the US, have you looked at a phone book? How many "escorts" or "massage services" will you find. There is a substantial sex industry in the US that simply is meant to be unseen.

Second, along this same line you really need to perhaps look at the world, even the Western world, beyond your narrow zone of comfort. Prostitution is legal in the bulk of countries outside the US. You will find legal brothels in countries including Australia, Holland, Germany, etc. Thus saying, for example, Australians are visiting Thailand to engage in behavior they wish to criminalize in Australia is obviously false.

Furthermore, I'd suggest spending time looking at the sex industry in, for example, Eastern Europe, a place where, like Southeast Asia, the financial rewards often far exceed what might be earned elsewhere. You will find many a young Brit traveling to, for example, Prague for a "lad's weekend." In case you didn't notice, Czechs are quite white, so it seems race and colonial history doesn't have nearly as much to do with the sex industry as current economic situations.

Finally, while you mention Japanese and Middle Easterners (both people of color) as clients of these women, you ignore the much larger domestic prostitution industry. The majority of clients for Thai prostitutes are other Thais. Put together I would venture to guess Western men make up not even 5-10% of the customers of Thai prostitutes. Your selection bias of subject matter is obvious.

With all due respect, Ms Polak, you seem quite a naive individual with a very America-centric world view. As a fellow Yank, I know it is very easy to look at the whole world through the lens of Americans as the center of the world. However, this sort of view of the world, beyond obviously being myopic and imperialistic in nature, is downright false.

American Male's picture


The question, "I still want to know why they consider engaging in sexual acts with women in different countries to be acceptable" and the unsubstantiated assumption that dark skin color is a factor, show the author's feminist bias. I assume that the availability of women and not their skin color is the driving factor of men engaging in sex acts with Thai women. But it's an easy way for the author to inject race/national origin into her argument as a mask for a general attack on men. The question of whether having sex with foreign women is considered acceptable simply shows the author's feminist bias. Is the author assuming the problem is that they are foreign women or is the problem that men are engaging in sex acts. I think the author dislikes the idea of men engaging in sexual acts with women, period. The author may see the sex act itself as an act of violence against women. It's either that or the author is against men engaging in sex acts with dark skinned foreign women.

Reading the questions at the end makes it appear to me that the author is less concerned about the welfare of the women involved in the sex trade and more concerned about the men's motivations behind their involvement in the sex trade and men's access to the sex trade. More American men are finding that American women are undesirable as partners and wives for reasons that are beyond the scope of this discussion. American feminists want to limit men's options with regards to sexual relations and finding a wife from abroad. Feminists successfully tacked on the International Marriage Brokers Act (IMBRA) to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). IMBRA considers any online dating site to be an International Marriage Broker. IMBRA makes it illegal for an American Male, using an online dating website, to send an email, call on the telephone or otherwise make an initial contact with a foreign women without taking some ridiculous steps first. Before contacting a foreign female the law requires the man to undergo a criminal background check, a sex offender background check, complete several pages of questions about their criminal and socioeconomic background. This information must then be translated into the woman's language and a hard copy sent to the women. When these documents are sent to the foreign women the package also includes pamphlets which educate the women about men's domestic violence against women. The foreign women then needs to sign a document giving permission for the man to contact her. This document is sent back to the online dating site company who is required to keep it on file. The dating company then notifies the American man that he can contact the foreign woman. I'm not making any of this up! The American man, now fully emasculated, can send her an email.

Feminists ultimately want to find a way to limit the American male's ability to have choice when it comes to his sexual activity as they did with IMBRA with the ability to find a wife. Considering this knowledge you can see that the author's actual question is most likely, "I still want to know why they consider engaging in sexual acts with women to be acceptable."

The author makes an interesting argument but the real issue is protecting children caught up in the sex trade. Our energies, focus and efforts should be to protect these children and not on wondering why men like to get laid on holiday. The harshest penalties possible should be imposed on men who are involved with children in the sex trade. Resources need to be committed. This problem is what the public discussion should focus on. The penalties need to be severe enough to dissuade these perverts from engaging in this activity. Convicted offenders need to be hung, drawn and quartered in public.

Mr Big Dog's picture

As a man, I get tired of

As a man, I get tired of reading "feminist" views, that all seem to entirely depend on the notion that all prostitutes are somehow forced into the life by a faulty upbringing or male oppression. I cannot speak on the subject of Thailand, but in Brazil where prositution is legal, and the country does the worst job of sharing wealth than perhaps anywhere in the world, you will find favela's (beehives), impoverished neighborhoods in close proximity to very wealthy neighborhoods. About half of those people living in the poor favela's are women. They can work 9 hour days, all month long in a factory and take home 4 to 5 hundred Reais, (about $275 US) or they can put on some makeup, a short skirt and earn the same thing working the local men in a boite (nightclub) in a single Friday or Saturday night. Really ladies, is sex with strangers all that terrible? Do you think all these men want to hurt the women? Do violence against them? No, the vast majority simply want to give and receive pleasure. We want a girlfriend without all the emotional baggage and committment. I was friendly with a Madam in the south of Brazil. She used to have women she never met come up to her in the ladies room (she was quite famous in the community for her nightclub) and beg her for work at her club. If you want to stop prostitution you should see to it that wealth is distributed equally, the poor stop having too many children, and that men stop wanting sex with strange women. As for men wanting exotic women of color, I say red, brown, black or white, they are all pink on the inside. Good luck with the crusade.

Anne Dalke's picture

understanding prostitution

You ended your last paper, Hilary, by concluding that you "still had much to learn" (in that case, about transsexuality). You conclude this one similarly, with quite a catalogue of unanswered questions.

I have one to add, which you don't address. You explain that male tourists far out-number female ones, because of "a network of services that specifically advertise to men." But why is it that, worldwide, more men than women use the services of prostitutes? You end by asking why Western men are willing to engage Thai prostitutes, when they would never go to a prostitute @ home, but I'd invite you to step back a bit further: why do men engage prostitutes @ all? Prostitution Education and Research argues that, in order to understand prostitution, it is necessary to understand
  1. lethal gender inequality
  2. incest and other childhood sexual assault
  3. poverty and homelessness
  4. the ways in which racism and colonialism are inextricably connected with sexism in prostitution
  5. domestic violence, including rape
  6. posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, mood and dissociative disorders as consequences of prostitution
  7. drug and alcohol addiction
  8. the fact that prostitution is a global business which involves interstate and inter-country trafficking as a necessary part of its profitable operation
  9. in nondominant states - the ways in which economic development programs erode traditional ways of living
  10. the need for culturally-relevant treatment
  11. the ways in which diverse cultures normalize and promote prostitution
  12. stripping, exotic dancing, nude dancing, table dancing, phone sex, trafficking, child and adult pornography, lap dancing, massage brothels, and peep shows as prostitution/li>
You focus almost entirely on item #4; as you acknowledge, there's plenty more to learn about! You have a fine start on a bibliography--do you want to go on with this project for your final work in this class?