Redlight District in Bangkok

By Derek Lu
Contributing Writer

Underneath the shiny surface of “post-card perfect Thailand,” with its “lithe coconut trees lazily swaying under a lapis lazuli sky” lies a deep, dark secret – one of Southeast Asia’s top tourist destinations is also known as the “Sin City of Asia”. Thailand’s racy nightlife, where almost all bathhouses, massage parlors, and bars offer prostitution services, has led the nation to be characterized as “the world’s sex tourism capital,” attracting wealthy, mostly male clientele from all over the world – America, Europe, and Asia. To demonstrate the extent to which this conception of Thailand has been embedded in society, in 1993, the “Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture” defined Bangkok as a city where “there are a lot of prostitutes”. The success of Thailand’s tourism industry, which generates 6% of the nation’s GDP, has largely been fueled by the exploitation of local Thai women. Consequently, Thailand has consistently failed to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goal #3, which strives to promote gender equality and empower women. The lack of governmental incentive to create equal job opportunities for Thai women has consistently forced them to pursue work in the informal sector as sex workers. Simultaneously, the dominant narratives of the First World place the blame entirely on Thailand itself in order to absolve themselves of any complicity in exacerbating Thailand’s development problems. These narratives need to be challenged.

The Prostitution Prohibition Act of 1960, introduced in Thailand during the military rule of Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat, officially outlawed prostitution [1]. It defined prostitution as the “indiscriminate acceptance of sexual intercourse…or the performance of any act for the satisfaction of the sexual desire of another for hire” [2]. On the surface, this definition is indiscriminate because it punishes both the perpetrator and recipient of prostitution, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. However, this legislation clearly singled out prostitutes as the source of the problem, revealing the inherently gendered biases within the legal system, since prostitutes are overwhelmingly female [3]. This also set a precedent for future policies that similarly pushed the blame on the victims.

More than fifty years later, prostitution is still rampant in Thailand; in fact, it has gotten significantly worse. To provide some perspective, back in June 1992, there were approximately 120,000-150,000 people involved in sex work., But according to Huffington Post by 2009, the number of prostitutes in Thailand had increased to anywhere between 800,000 and two million. This unequivocally begs the question: why does prostitution continue to pervade society? One contributing factor is the government’s complacency and complicity in the practice. For example, many Thai law enforcement officials are involved in running prostitution rings, so they often turn a blind eye to prostitution to preserve their economic and legal interests. Furthermore, Thailand has an international reputation as a sex tourism destination, and tourism is its top source of revenue, so government officials have little incentive to change the status quo. This has led to a myriad of health and social problems that are undisputedly consequent of its “economic growth,” including rising rates of HIV/AIDs, the commodification and exploitation of Thai women, and unequal power relations between Thailand and the rest of the world.

Policy options proposed by the Thai government in the past were marked by a hesitation towards assuming formal institutional responsibility for the problem of prostitution. For example, even as the paranoia surrounding the AIDs epidemic grew to a fever pitch in the early 1990s, the Thai government remained silent on prostitution. This spurred Europeans and Americans to threaten to boycott buying Thai products, as well as visiting Thailand [4]. It was this potentially devastating drop in tourist-generated revenue that finally propelled the Thai government to break its silence, resulting in stricter legislation in the mid-1990s that for the first time mandated the punishment of clients of prostitution, especially those who engage with child prostitutes [5]. However, it is important to note that this was proposed with an ulterior motive: helping Thai men (and the nation-state) reclaim their masculinity. Government officials subscribed to the patriarchal thinking that “a properly masculine state must protect and provide for the (feminine) nation by protecting Thai culture and national identity…rather than selling them to foreigners or abusing them” [6]. Thus, part of the reason the policy failed was because the government did not have the right intentions. Instead of creating structural change that would empower women and provide them with viable job prospects other than prostitution, their main concern was to salvage the remnants of their emasculated national reputation. The reforms they implemented, such as punishing offenders, were merely a slap on the wrist intended to appease international watchdog groups. The reforms did not address the larger, systemic issues at play, such as the complicity of police officers who refuse to enforce anti-prostitution laws or the investment of the government in maintaining the tourism industry and preserving their image.

The response of the international community has been equally abhorrent, and an article in a 1991 issue of Rolling Stone perfectly exemplifies this. The article posed the question: “Why is Thailand the whorehouse of the world? The ‘land of smiles’ is famously compliant, a crossroads country that has survived and kept its independence by accommodating itself to the vagaries of power” [7]. While it is true that Thai government is guilty of facilitating prostitution, such an overly simplistic prescription ignores the forces of globalization that undergird international industries like sex trafficking and tourism. The basic contention of many Western critics has been that Thailand “lacks the strength to stand up for itself” and what is worse is that it has been willing to subject itself and its female citizens to feed the sexual fantasies of men in First World countries [8]. What we have to ask ourselves is: what is missing from this picture? This explanation completely ignores the direct role that First World countries play in the exploitation of Thai women. After all, those citizens are the main contributors to and benefactors from this commodification of women. Consequently, blaming the entirety of the prostitution problem on Thailand’s alleged disregard of human rights and inability to protect its citizens is a blatantly lazy prescription that allows complicit foreign powers to blissfully ignore the realities of their own involvement. As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango”. There would not be such an extensive market for prostitution if there were not a market for such illicit sexual services. It is imperative for Western governments to start taking responsibility for the actions of their citizens and critically thinking about both the consequences of the unequal power relations between white males and racialized, gendered others.

Much of the scholarship to date has painted women as the perpetually unassuming victims incapable of actively exploiting others [9]. This is problematic because it not only deprives women of agency but also belies the facts of the situation. Popular discourse has too narrowly defined sex tourism as the explicit use of prostitutes, which limits the possibilities for understanding women’s involvement in the matter, since they hire prostitutes at much lower rates [10]. That is why Sanchez Taylor encourages her readers to think about sex tourism in terms of the “global economic and social inequalities that underpin the phenomenon of male sex tourism” [11]. Her critical lens deconstructs sex tourism as an industry predicated upon unequal class and race relations among participating countries and provides a broader framework that allows us to better understand how Western women fit in the picture.

Many female tourists visit red light districts for the voyeuristic purposes but do not actually pay for sexual services [12]. The commodification of Thai female bodies, then, is not limited to sexual exploitation but can (and should) also include visual consumption. Taylor adds that “consuming difference is a critical component of the tourist experience, and that exotic Others are positioned as markers of cultural authenticity” [13]. As tourists in Thailand, Western women consume the natives’ racial difference through the sexual spectacle generated by tourist attractions such as ping-pong shows, in which local Thai women use their pelvic muscles to shoot ping-pong balls, razor blades, and other objects from their vaginal crevices. From the Western point of view, these acts of sexual deviancy are proof of the hypersexuality of women of color and render them culturally authentic experiences. As the feminist cultural critic bell hooks argues, “There is power in looking”. In these acts of voyeurism, Western women are offered an escape from what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey would call the traditional “male gaze” in which women are cast as the objects of desire to be looked at – and nothing more. Instead, they are adopting the male gaze for their own touristic purposes and simultaneously generating revenue for businesses that hire and entrap prostitutes, thereby showing their complicity in the suffering of local Thai women. There needs to be a concerted effort to dedicate focus on the role of gender in the socio-political growth of developing countries.

The interrelated issues of sex tourism and prostitution largely stem from the sexist and racist views of both domestic and international actors. Accordingly, the solution will entail attempting to change the way people conceptualize race, gender, class, and sexuality – not as distinct categories but as intrinsically inseparable facets of life. While this is easier said than done, education has the power to enlighten people and produce progress in all aspects of society. Domestically, there needs to be a concerted effort to curb the sexism in Thailand that has essentially relegated women as second-class citizens. For example, marital status is a mandatory category on most job applications, with the implication that women who are married are deemed unsuitable candidates for work. The effect is twofold: it renders married women dependent on their husbands for income and closes off formal sectors of employment, pushing them to pursue informal labor like prostitution as they seek to supplement their income. In addition, reporting sexual harassment or assault is difficult because women are too ashamed to speak up, mostly due to social stigma, but subsequently chided if they fail to report it. Kathleen Hall Jameison writes that these “double binds”, or “rhetorical construct[s] that posit two and only two alternatives,” have traditionally been used to deny women access to power. In essence, these official policies invariably present women with two choices that are both detrimental to them. This is problematic because it deprives them of individual agency. Thus, the government needs to make an active effort to dispel this misogynistic thinking that attempts to regulate women’s bodies. They must instead empower women by establishing avenues for formal employment so that they will not be forced to turn to sex work.

Comprehensive reform of the misogyny within Thai society will require extensive collaboration with and cooperation from Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sport and the Ministry of Education to reinvent the way Thailand presents itself internationally and inform the domestic population about the importance of gender equality. Regarding the former, Thailand has a plethora of natural wonders, such as Tham Kaew Komon and the Emerald Cave, among many others, so it is entirely possible for the Ministry of Tourism and Sport to develop an equally enticing and profitable tourism campaign that does not rely on the allure of red light districts. There are plenty of international examples to look to as models of success, including Kyoto, Japan and Jeju Island in Korea. The second goal will be much more challenging, as there will be bitter resistance from political leaders and civilians alike, given that the country has long been rooted in patriarchy. Here, the head of the education department, Phongthep Thepkanjana, is integral in slowly integrating more of the contributions of historically significant women and contemporarily relevant women into school textbooks so that the next generation will possess more progressive views towards gender roles. Thailand has seen some progress in terms of gender equity in recent years, as the country democratically elected its first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in June 2011. However, Shinawatra received her education in the U.S. and is the sister of a former prime minister. Her politically and economically elite background stands in stark contrast to the majority of Thai women, who are mostly working-class and uneducated. Nevertheless, a female prime minister will hopefully be more receptive to the structural changes that need to occur, including the strict enforcement of anti-prostitution laws and implementation of formal job opportunities, so that womankind in Thailand can one day achieve equal footing with men.

Internationally, the Orientalist logic that propels many of the developed countries’ criticisms of Thailand deserves much needed analysis. Late post-colonial scholar Edward Said redefined Orientalism as the West’s presumed cultural superiority over the East, which has produced many inaccurate judgments about the East. For example, the West often depicts the East as “feminine” and weak, and this directly correlates with Western critics’ assessment that the Thai government’s failure to protect its citizens is a function of its emasculation. Such a prescription is extremely hypocritical, not to mention racist, because the West is the main origin of these male (and female) tourists who go to Thailand with the sole purpose of indulging in sexual escapades with prostitutes. Therefore, if the Thai nation-state were indeed “powerless” to defend its people, then the Western countries that criticize Thailand are equally to blame for turning a blind eye to a nation and its people who are allegedly in need of saving. As the saying goes, talk is cheap; one has to be able to back up his words with credible commitments to action. The use of economic sanctions, such as the international threat to boycott visiting Thailand in the early 1990s has proven to be a formidable tool. It clearly struck a nerve with a nation that was overtly concerned about its image. Unfortunately, this effort was not sustained and the state was allowed to revert back to its old ways without repercussion. That is why there needs to be stricter economic sanctions against Thailand by American, European, and East Asian powers for future abuses of its anti-prostitution law. One solution that both sides could try is to promote responsible tourism. In the case of Thailand, this would require tourists to contemplate how their race, class, gender, and sexuality privilege them over the locals and remember that despite these social disparities they, too, are humans deserving of basic rights and humane treatment. It is up to the government to remind its people that they are representatives of their countries and that being in a foreign country does not preclude them from obeying local laws and respecting human rights.

Thailand’s economic growth has been undoubtedly driven by its reputation as one of the world’s top destinations for sex tourism, where (white) men can live out their Orientalist fantasies. Even though prostitution was officially outlawed in 1960, prostitution rates perplexingly continue to climb. This is the result of a host of factors, including government corruption, the global economic recession, and a lack of formal career options for women. Past policies have largely failed because the Thai government was more concerned about repairing its (white male) tourist-friendly image than improving the welfare of its female citizens. The international response was equally lackluster as they espoused the age-old notion of Orientalism that reduced all of Thailand’s problems to its effeminate nature. That is why an intersectional lens that attempts to prove that the power play between tourists and prostitutes cannot be fully understood without critical analyses of race, gender, sexuality, and class is invaluable. Moreover, women are not entirely innocent, as they exacerbate the practice of prostitution, too, by participating in voyeurism. Effective reform of the sexism in Thailand will necessitate the full cooperation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in conjunction with the heads of the Ministry of Tourism and Sport and the Ministry of Education. The suggested changes include economic reforms that will create viable jobs for women so they will not have to seek sex work and reputational rebranding that will emphasize Thailand’s natural landmarks and cultural delicacies to attract tourists instead of its red light districts. On an international stage, there needs to be a greater awareness of the dangers of essentialized, Orientalist assumptions about the East and the supreme importance of an intersectional approach to deconstructing transnational sex work that would spotlight the race, gender, sexuality, and class power dynamics that is otherwise invisible. The Millennium Development Goal of gender equity must be addressed if Thailand desires to improve its developmental ranking. As it is now, the “Land of Smiles” only provides joy for the foreign male and female tourists who visit Thailand to partake in the consumption of local Thai women’s racialized sexual difference. Hopefully, with these proposed changes, Thailand can bring smiles to its own people as well.

1. Jeffrey, Leslie Ann. “Gender, Prostitution, and the ‘Standards of Civilization.’” Sex and Borders. Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press: 2002. 1-28. pg 24. Print.

2. Ibid., 26

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 97

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., 99

8. Ibid.

9. Sanders, Erin. “Situation the Female Gaze: Understanding (Sex) Tourism Practices in Thailand.” New Sociologies of Sex Work. Ed. Katy Hardy, Sarah Kingston, and Teela Sanders. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010. pg 110. Print.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., 112

13. Ibid.

Image by lynhdan

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