Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, and has been since 1960, when The Prostitution Suppression Act was passed due to pressure from the UN. However, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was perfectly legal, given how it is widely visible and tolerated, with police and government officials allowing it to operate in return for kick-backs from bars and brothels. The industry estimated to generate $6.4 billion in revenue annually. Asian Correspondent aptly called prostitution ‘Thailand’s worst kept secret‘.
With such a glaring contradiction between law and practice, you might wonder what it’s like for sex workers here. The mention of prostitution usually brings subjects like exploitation and trafficking to mind, especially for a Western feminist like myself, but Thailand’s Empower Foundation is working to combat that, along with many other aspects of treatment, rights and views of sex workers.
Empower Foundation was founded by Chantawipa Apisuk (nicknamed P’Noi) in 1985 after she had spent some time living near Patpong, which was Bangkok’s main red light district at the time. As a Thai woman who studied abroad (at Boston College), she was often questioned by people who assumed she was involved in prostitution or trafficking. While she wasn’t a sex worker herself, she saw the negative perception that others had of them and sought to change that, first by teaching English to help the girls communicate with their foreign clients. From there, Empower grew as a place where sex workers could come together, share experiences and learn new skills. P’Noi set up a sex worker’s health clinic in 1987 and registered Empower as an NGO in 1994. They now have several centres in Thailand, three of which sit close to the borders to Myanmar and Laos with the aim of helping sex workers from those neighbouring countries learn Thai. The following quote from one such woman was taken from their website:
“For those of us who are the family breadwinners,
who dream of buying land, building a house, owning a
business.. sex work offers us the best opportunities. In
order to live and work safely and avoid exploitation we
need to be literate in the local dominant language Thai.
Our bosses are Thai and most of our customers are
Thai. We also need to know about, and access Thai
health services, public transport, shopping, and
understand Thai law and culture”.
– Goy, Empower Thai student
Here are some more testimonials, taken from their 1991 newsletter.
In Mae Sai, Empower helped sex workers to set up and run their own coffee shop to supplement their income. In Chiang Mai, they offer education, counselling and health care as well as a child day care centre for working mothers. The video below explains more about what they do there.
The illegality of prostitution means that there is no protection or labour laws for sex work, and therefore employers aren’t obligated to maintain good working conditions and are able to exploit workers easily. Sex workers aren’t entitled to sick leave or health insurance, and can have their earnings cut by bar owners for things like gaining weight or arguing with customers. In 2006, Empower set up the ‘Can Do Bar‘, the first bar owned by sex workers for sex workers. This enabled them to take control of their working conditions and provide a safe working environment for others. Their regulations include the following:
“• All “Can Do” workers are paid at or above the minimum wage according to Thai Labor Law
• “Can Do” staff work a maximum of 8 hours per night and have one day off per week in
accordance with Thai labor law.
• Workers have 10 paid holidays plus a further 13 days Public Holidays per year
• Overtime is on a voluntary basis and fully paid
• There will be no staff salary cuts or withholding of wages for any reason
• “Can Do” staff are encouraged to form a worker’s association or union.
• All workers are entitled to paid sick leave and also enrolled in the Thai Social Security scheme
by “Can Do”
• Disputes over working conditions will be settled in Labor Court”
Another Empower centre is their museum in Nonthaburi, which recently opened to the public in a bid to challenge society’s perception of sex work and to give an education on its history in Thailand. I decided to visit, along with some friends, to see what it has to offer.
When we entered the building, we were lead into a waiting room where the walls where adorned with posters showing women wearing t-shirts branded with ‘sex work is work’ in Thai. P’Noi introduced herself and from there, took us upstairs to the museum, entitled ‘This Is Us’. She then went on to explain history of sex work in Thailand, starting from 1680, when an ‘elite brothel’ housing around 600 women was opened by a Thai official in Ayutthaya. The first exhibit explains that during that time, prostitution was legal and both sex workers and brothel owners paid taxes. Fees started from 50 satang, which was the cost of 15 kgs of rice and is the equivalent of 750-1,000 baht today. The massive influx of soldiers for rest and recreation during the Vietnam war generated huge demand and sex workers subsequently began to adapt to Western customers. From there, go-go and karaoke bars, massage parlours and spas opened up. The first half of the museum is dedicated to this, with mock-ups of each type of venue.
As we walked through to the second half, P’Noi stopped at a tool box tool and pulled out various types of condoms and lubricants, explaining that sex workers must carry these just as a workman carries his tools. She then pulled out a lacy red bra from the toolbox, held it up to her chest and said ‘this is what they wear for work. It’s their uniform. Most people wouldn’t consider this to be a uniform, but it is. Sex workers should feel proud to look nice and smart in their uniform, right?‘
P’Noi then walked us over to a boxing ring, which had been set up as part of their ‘Learning by Doing‘ campaign, whereby women learn new skills in monthly practical courses. My first impression was that they learned Muay Thai as part of this, but P’Noi explained that this was not the case. The art of Muay Thai was symbolic in their use of it and instead, they taught the philosophy of the sport as a tool for defending their work and fighting exploitation and stigma. In the ring sits an over-sized barbell to symbolize labour laws, and how they are pushing to raise them. On the right, there’s a hanging bag covered in derogatory labels that they are constantly trying to fight, such as ‘slave’, ‘disgrace to women’ and ‘easy money’. The bell hanging in front of it is not rung to commence a round of a fight, but to buy a round of drinks at the bar.
Empower’s use of Muay Thai philosophy caught my attention, but the museum didn’t tell me exactly what they did with it. Thankfully, I was able to find out more from Empower’s website, which states that in 2005, they held an ‘Empower Olympic Games’ performance at the ‘Thai People’s Congress on HIV/AIDS’, which highlighted the issues and obstacles for sex workers and had people ‘fight’ them by play sparring in a ring.
“Audience members are invited to choose an issue, put on the boxing suit that represents that issue, step into the ring and defend their issue by taking on a sex worker..and the result..laughter, mayhem and often new understandings”. – Empower
At the entrance to the museum, you can see an old wooden sewing machine with ‘no more sewing machine!’ painted across it in red. This has been placed to symbolise resistance to society’s pressure for sex workers to be ‘rescued’ and ‘rehabilitated’ and to leave the industry for more socially acceptable forms of work, which often includes being forced to sew garments in shelters. Under The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act 1966, sex workers can be detained in ‘primary shelters’ for up to two years in order to receive ‘protection and vocational development’. Empower has previously received donations of sewing machines in abundance, but they have no use for them, so they remain discarded at the entrance in protest against the human rights and anti-trafficking laws that are a hindrance rather than help to them. P’Noi expressed her disdain for such laws during the museum tour, explaining that they view sex workers as victims who need to be saved when that is not always the case, and fail to provide them with basic human rights or to even ask their opinion. At first, I struggled to fully understand this, but I later found a 2012 report by Empower called ‘Hit & Run: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Policy and Practice on Sex Worker’s Human Rights in Thailand‘, which provides a wealth of information on the subject. Here are some excerpts:
“Instead of respect for our basic human rights under the United Nations Human Rights Council we are given “protection” under the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. We are forced to live with the modern lie that border controls and anti-trafficking policies are for our protection. None of us believe that lie or want that kind of protection. We have been spied on, arrested, cut off from our families, had our savings confiscated, interrogated, imprisoned and placed into the hands of the men with guns, in order for them to send us home… all in the name of “protection against trafficking”. It’s rubbing salt into the wound that this is called helping us. We are grateful for those who are genuinely concerned with our welfare … but we ask you to listen to us and think in new ways.”
“Sex workers and others in the entertainment industry have limited knowledge of their rights and responsibilities… as there [has] been no effective awareness raising campaigns for this allegedly ‘high risk’ group. In fact sex workers are more likely to be targeted by state and non state punitive suppression strategies rather than capacity building and educational programs. No consultations have ever been undertaken with sex workers to seek their input, assistance, knowledge and experience in designing and implementing trafficking intervention and prevention strategies within their own industry. Instead sex workers are humiliated, raided, detained and punished, all in the guise of trafficking prevention.”
The video below, entitled ‘Last Rescue in Siam’ and created by Empower, shows how ‘rescue missions’ and police raids aimed at ‘saving’ sex workers can do more harm than good. It’s a parody in the style of a 1920’s Charlie Chaplin video depicting bumbling police officers, along with a social worker and caped ‘hero NGO’ entering a bar and capturing a sex worker, using the questionable method of dental examination to determine her to be underage. She then ends up working at as a seamstress only to escape and head straight back to work in the bar again.
While rescue operations may sound as though they are genuinely beneficial for sex workers in theory, that is not the case in practice. This quote from the Hit & Run report further explains why:
“Women who are classified as trafficked persons and also witnesses are held against their will in government and non-government shelters for periods of up to two years. The opinion of either group has never been sought or respected. Women are not consulted about their detention and have no choice about which shelter they go to and cannot leave once they are there. There is no independent complaints mechanism accessible to women in the shelters. They have their phones confiscated and are unable to contact family, friends or outside agencies until such time as the court case is completed – which can take over a year.”
P’Noi repeatedly said that people need to ‘stop looking at sex work as a moral issue‘. In a society where sex workers are seen as criminals who are void of dignity but rife with disease, that is certainly a challenge that they continue to face. She even said herself that in 30 years there has been ‘very little change‘. Despite that, her work seems to have had a hugely positive impact on the women she campaigns for. The Ministry of Education even supported Empower’s school to develop into an institute of non-formal education and therefore the first school for sex workers in Thailand, which then developed into Empower University. They estimate to have taught around 30,000 students since launching. Empower exists not only to provide education, protection, healthcare and community for sex workers, but to challenge our ideas about sex work and erase social stigma. They certainly made me think.
If you’re interested in visiting Empower’s museum, email P’Noi at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call her on +665268311 to make an appointment. The best way to get there is to take the MRT to Bang Sue station. From there, it’s a short taxi ride (around 70 Baht). Tell the driver to go to Big C Tivanond Road, and you’ll find the museum right at the next house over from the Big C supermarket.