Photo: KnowInsiders
Photo: KnowInsiders

Thailand is known for plenty of things, notably the food, the islands and its crazy, hectic capital Bangkok. But with certain kinds of tourists, it’s also known for one more thing – prostitution. Mentioned by most with a giggle or joke accompanying the comment, there’s no denying that it’s extremely prevalent in Thailand and is available all over the country. Though it’s not just a modern fad – it’s been around for centuries and, despite efforts to crack down, it doesn’t look like it’ll be going anywhere soon.

History of Prostitution in Thailand

From the mid-1300s to the mid-1700s prostitution was legal and taxed by the Thai government. The late 1700s to the 1850s witnessed an influx in the number of Chinese labor workers and sex workers coming to Thailand. Prostitution flourished especially after the abolishment of slavery in 1905 as former slave wives under the feudal system found themselves alone and without financial support. Then, the Japanese occupation during World War II popularized sex massage parlors. The use of Thailand as a rest and recreation destination for U.S. military servicemen in the Vietnam War as well as rising rural poverty, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, led to urban migration and the growth of the sex industry in the cities. In the 1980s, Thailand saw a boom in sex tourism as the government poured millions of baht to promote tourism in the country.

Today, under the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, prostitution is prohibited. A person soliciting sex may receive a 1,000 baht ($27) fine. Pimps face a 20,200 baht ($555) fine and could be imprisoned for one to ten years. The Act addresses child sex trafficking as well. Customers who have intercourse with children under 15 years old face a 120,000 baht ($3,300) fine and between two to six years in prison. The fine is decreased to 60,000 baht ($1,650) and the prison time to one to three years if the trafficked child is between 15 and 18 years old. Briefly, in 2003, the Ministry of Justice discussed legalizing prostitution as a means of increasing tax revenue and improving conditions for sex workers. Though that debate never led to legalization, prostitution in Thailand today is largely seen as a financial transaction and is widely tolerated. Several cultural and economic factors support the continuation of the sex industry.

Is prostitution legal in Thailand?

Prostitution in Thailand is not in itself illegal, but many of the activities associated with it are illegal. Because of police corruption and an economic reliance spanning from the Vietnam War, prostitution remains a significant presence in the country. They usually come from the results of poverty, low levels of education, lack of local hiring, rural backgrounds and mostly from Isaan/the northeast, from ethnic minorities or from neighboring countries, especially Myanmar and Laos. UNAIDS in 2019 estimated the total population of sex workers in Thailand to be 43,000.

Free – in name alone

Photo: Journey back to the source
Photo: Journey back to the source

The abolition of slavery brought about freedom from slavery, yet freedom without land, property or money to support a family often left the uneducated slaves little choice but to turn towards prostitution. Brothels began to grow and spread along the length and breadth of the nation. It was here where they competed both with Chinese migrants – who came on the back of Thailand’s rice exporting boom of the mid-19th century – and often with younger children who were sought after by some.

War also saw the explosion of prostitution as an industry. Thailand was occupied by the Japanese forces throughout World War II, and used Thai women as prostitutes throughout their occupation. Whilst the Vietnam war didn’t involve Thailand, it was a popular spot for American soldiers to enjoy their R&R leave. They flocked to areas such as Patpong in Bangkok and the coastal city of Pattaya – two areas that remain prostitution hotspots to this day.

An economic shift

As Thailand began to modernize, its economy did the same. Moving from a sustenance-based economy to a capitalist one saw villagers needing cash to purchase goods. Many simply couldn’t afford to live, and so turned to prostitution, migrating in large numbers to big cities before returning home with more money than they could realistically have made elsewhere. This trend still exists today – for many, it’s the only way they can provide for their families, and so will often send cash home each month to do so.

Thailand began to see the potential in tourism, and so in the late 20th century they invested heavily in promoting Thailand as a tourist destination. The resulting boom in tourism also saw with it a boom in sex tourism; it’s estimated that today there are in excess of 4 million tourists heading to Thailand for its sex industry alone.

Where Is Prostitution Legal In The World? Where Is Prostitution Legal In The World?

Prostitution exists and will continue to exist despite bans and their legal status, due to reasons like poverty or unforeseen situations.

Legal underpinnings

The legal framework governing prostitution in Thailand is based upon three acts:

Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act

The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, B.E. 2539 (1996) is the statute most directly dealing with prostitution. Under the act, the definition of "prostitution" is "Sexual intercourse, or any other act, or the commission of any other act in order to gratify the sexual desire of another person in a promiscuous manner in return for money or any other benefit, irrespective of whether the person who accepts the act and the person who commits the act are of the same sex or not." A clear definition of the phrase "in a promiscuous manner" is not provided.

Under the act, persons who solicit sex " an open and shameless manner..." (a phrase that is not clearly defined), or who are "...causing a nuisance to the public..." are subject to a fine. Persons associating in a "prostitution establishment" with another person for the purpose of prostitution face a jail term or a fine or both. The term "prostitution establishment" is not clearly defined, although it may be broadly interpreted to include any place where prostitution takes place, especially in regard to cases involving child prostitution that carry heavier penalties (up to six years if the prostitute is younger than 15 years of age)—otherwise, the law is not usually enforced against prostitution in private places. The act also imposes heavier penalties against owners of prostitution businesses and establishments. The criminal code also stipulates penalties for procuring or using money earned from prostitution.

The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act were written with a particular focus on child prostitution and trafficking. Section 8 penalizes customers who engage in sexual intercourse with sex workers under the age of 15 years with a prison term of two to six years and a fine of up to 120,000 baht. For sex workers between the ages of 15 and 18 years, the prison term is one to three years, and the fine is up to 60,000 baht.

In regard to trafficking, Section 9 of the act states that "Any person who procures, seduces or takes away any person for the prostitution of such person, even with her or his consent and irrespective of whether the various acts which constitute an offense are committed within or outside the Kingdom, shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of one to ten years and to a fine of twenty thousand to two hundred thousand Baht."

Additionally, any offense under Section 9 that is committed "by means of fraud, deceit, threat, violence, [or] the exercise of undue influence or coercion," results in a penalty that is "one-third heavier".

Obtaining sexual services for oneself without any of the aggravating circumstances (underage sex worker, trafficking, by fraud, deceit, threat, violence, or the exercise of undue influence or coercion) remains legal and is unpunished under Thai law.

Penal Code Amendment Act

The Penal Code Amendment Act (No. 14), B.E. 2540 (1997) does not state that prostitution in Thailand is illegal.

However, Title IX, Section 286 of the Penal Code states: “Any person, being over sixteen years of age, subsists on the earning of a prostitute, even if it is some part of her incomes, shall be punished with imprisonment of seven to twenty years and fined of fourteen thousand to forty thousand Baht, or imprisonment for life.” While penalties are not specified, the same section of the act penalizes any person who (i) is found residing or habitually associating with a prostitute, (ii) receives boarding, money or other benefits arranged for by a prostitute or (iii) assists any prostitute in a quarrel with a customer.

The Act was also written to address child prostitution, but lacks complete clarity, as it does not define what an "indecent act" is. Title IX, Section 279 of the Penal Code states: "Whoever, commits an indecent act on a child not yet over fifteen years of age, whether such child shall consent or not, shall be punished with imprisonment not exceeding ten years or fined not exceeding twenty thousand Baht, or both."

Entertainment Places Act

The Entertainment Places Act of 1966 places the onus upon the owner of certain types of entertainment establishments if prostitution occurs on the premises, thereby making them criminally liable. According to the act, sex workers must also undergo rehabilitation for one year at a reform house upon the completion of punishment for practicing prostitution there.

Related activities such as brothel-keeping, solicitation and profiting from the prostitution of others are illegal. Public nuisance laws are also used against prostitution. Prostitution operates clandestinely in many parts of the country.

Legalization attempt

In 2003, the Ministry of Justice considered legalizing prostitution as an official occupation with health benefits and taxable income and held a public discussion on the topic. Legalization and regulation were proposed as a means to increase tax revenue, reduce corruption, and improve the situation of the workers. However, nothing further was done. In 2020, Thai sex workers took part in a campaign for legalization. The Empower Foundation, which supports sex workers, is trying to collect 10,000 signatures so that they can send a petition to parliament.

Prostitution in Thailand Today

Police sting operations horrify Thai sex workers. Photo: Bangkok Jack
Police sting operations horrify Thai sex workers. Photo: Bangkok Jack

According to the Thai Ministry of Public Health and NGOs, there are more than 120,000 people in the Thai sex industry. Author and Harvard University Carr Center for Human Rights Policy Fellow Siddharth Kara provides an illustrative description of the sex industry in Thailand. Bangkok is filled with local sex buyers, sex tourists and prostitutes.

Though prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, the Thai government as well as brothel owners and sex workers have found that it is an extremely profitable business; sex workers openly solicit on the streets and in red light areas. Thailand’s red-light districts offer options that cater to every type of demand, and prices are kept comparatively low. For comparison, a fifteen-minute deal in Amsterdam costs around 50 euros ($56) whereas in Thai brothels, prices are at 600-1,000 baht ($16-$27) for 20-30 minutes.

Interviews with several sex workers reveal that many female sex workers do so to fulfill their duties to their families. In Thai society, grown children are responsible for taking care of their parents. This duty usually falls onto the shoulders of the youngest unmarried daughter. Many uneducated, rural women find that working in the sex industry is the best way to do so, and they move to more metropolitan areas.

Once there, they are unable to leave because they usually do not have other job options. These high-end establishments and major tourist areas in Bangkok are not necessarily the grounds of sex trafficking in Thailand. Rather, they promote a culture of accepted sexual mores that manifest in the form of sex trafficking in the lesser-known, lower some of rungs of the sex industry.

Sex Trafficking in Thailand Today

Sex trafficking victims are typically found in sex clubs, basement brothels, remote massage parlors and street prostitution. Many of them are Thai, but there are also a number of Burmese, Laotian and Nigerian people who are prostituted. These individuals were either lured through false pretenses or were sold by brokers. They are typically purchased by brothel owners or other brokers for $200-$875 and must pay off their “debt.”

The location of Thailand plays a key role in the success of the sex trafficking industry. It is close to war-torn Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. China and Vietnam are also nearby. Various waterways along with porous borders also facilitate trafficking. According to law enforcement in Thailand, the majority of trafficking activities in Thailand are conducted by local individuals or small groups of brokers.

However, organized trafficking groups such as the yakuza in Japan and Russian gangs have slowly emerged in the country. What is certain is that sex trafficking in Thailand is no longer limited to its East Asian neighbors. Russian and Eastern European victims have become more common in the country.

In recent years Thai authorities have stepped up their campaign against human traffickers in response to a decision by the US State Department to raise concerns about large-scale human trafficking in the country.

In 2019, Thai authorities rescued a record 1,807 victims of human trafficking: some two-thirds of those rescued were women and nearly three-quarters of them were migrants from Myanmar.

Experts say the actual figure of people being trafficked any given year is much higher.

According to Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index, there are around 610,000 human trafficking victims in Thailand and many end up in the country’s notorious sex industry.

Couple Arrested For Having Sex and Broadcasting

Bangkok Post report the online broadcast of sexual acts performed by Nong Khai Nao and her boyfriend. Nong Khai Nao (Miss Bad Egg) and her boyfriend were arrested for having sex and broadcasting the act via OnlyFans, a platform where people can share erotic photos and videos for a fee.

The "sex content creator" saga has reignited debates over traditional values and liberal views of how far sexual activities can go under the law and how the issue should be handled.

The sex depicted online was between consenting adults. But when sexual acts are publicised in exchange for money, people can emulate them. Such acts can also invite sexual crimes where unsuspecting minors fall victim.

Jadet Chaowilai, director of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation, said the Nong Khai Nao saga showed women had limited choice and employment opportunities.

Sex workers should be legalised so they can pay proper income tax -- chasing and arresting them is not the solution, he said.

Mai Chanta, a sex worker and member of the Empower Foundation, said the act outlaws prostitution, allowing unscrupulous authorities to demand bribes from sex workers so they can continue their trade.

Police nab prostitution kingpin

Thai police, October 2021, have arrested a man they say was a kingpin behind a prostitution ring that exploited numerous underprivileged people.

Local authorities detained Prasert Sukkhi, the 63-year-old owner of a massage parlor in Bangkok, on Oct. 4 after a five-year investigation into his business activities.

Prasert, who was also wanted on charges of money laundering, is accused of running a prostitution ring involving 121 women, mostly from neighboring countries, police said. Eight of the alleged victims are under 18.

Thailand has long been a hub of the sexual exploitation of young men and women, including children, according to rights advocates and experts.

“In Thailand, there are an average of 52 children being sexually, physically or psychologically abused, neglected or exploited each day or more than two children every hour,” the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) explains.

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