Prostitution in Thailand:
Attitudes Are the Problem

by Niramol Prudtatorn
Friends of Women


A policy to reduce prostitution and a policy not to punish prostitutes are contradictory so we should leave out the second one," stated a senior civil servant involved in drafting a government bill to tackle prostitution and the women’s development plan for the next five years.

His comment was fiercely opposed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working for women’s rights which were included in the drafting process under the auspices of the governmental National Commission for Women’s Affairs. "We’ve taken the trouble to come to these meetings for more than a year now only to have this clause recognized that prostitutes should not be punished," they said, concluding that both policies - a reduction in the number of prostitutes and no punishment of prostitutes -must stand in the women’s development plan being drafted for 1991 to 1996.

As Thailand aims to become a Newly Industrialized Country (NIC) by the year 2000, there may be up to two million prostitutes in the country. The Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights estimates that up to 800,000 of them are under 15 years old. The civil servant quoted above believes that punishing women is the way to bring down this high number.

But his attitude is a typical one which regards the women and girls who are working as prostitutes and their very number as the problem. It is not. What is really the problem? Some people think that if there are a lot of prostitutes in a country it will have a bad image because prostitutes are bad women. They are spoiled, ruined and immoral women, sexual deviants and drug addicts who cause the spread of disease and crime. They pull society down. When the issues of prostitution are looked at in this way, when people think it is caused solely by the women themselves because they are poor or lazy or materialistic or easily deceived or unintelligent or not from good families or incapable of hard work and so turn to prostitution, measures to stop prostitution invariably focus heavily upon the prostitutes themselves.

These measures are to close, to open, to fine, to arrest, to suppress and to warn: to close brothels - only to have them open a few days later; to fine the prostitutes, bringing in revenue for the government; to arrest, to suppress and issue warnings to the women or to send them to a government public welfare center.

Women who have been arrested and sent to these centers are trained in morality, ethics and culture. They receive a full year of vocational training in various occupations, such as dessert making, weaving, hairdressing, floral arranging, doormat making, etc. It is hardly surprising that many women find they cannot earn a living from such occupations and so return to prostitution. The idea behind spending one year in these centers, however, is punishment - the fate these women must bear.

Double Standards

Behind these attitudes to prostitution and the measures to stop it is the acceptance for Thai men to go "whoring," a custom that is considered quite normal, whether the men are poor or noble. Men in whatever profession or of whatever status - except monks - have the right and opportunity to buy sex slaves to serve their sexual desires. The difference lies only in their buying power. To go to prostitutes makes them feel like "real men," according to a commonly held belief in Thai society.

NGOs regard the number of men going to prostitutes as an important but overlooked factor in creating the demand for the sex business. Between four to six million Thai men go to prostitutes regularly, that is, at least once a month. Why is it that when police raid a brothel they arrest only the women when prostitution is a joint action between the two sexes? The men just put their clothes on and go home while the women are detained and given training to reform their bad characters.

Over the past few years, it has been suggested several times that the men who go to prostitutes should be arrested as well, but this would be useless in practice as Thai society and culture put men in a superior position to women in nearly every way. No decision or policy making body would ever accept this suggestion.

Another frequently made suggestion is to legally register prostitutes, thus, enabling the spread of diseases and the number of prostitutes to be controlled. An added benefit would be that their earnings could be taxed - more income for the State. This idea has been opposed by women’s groups as equivalent to oppressing still further women who are already in difficult circumstances, pushing them even deeper into an evil and vicious cycle. The men who go whoring and "khaki pimps" (corrupt police) would continue to exploit these women as if there was no such regulation.

Women’s rights groups propose instead that these women should be decriminalized because the problem of prostitution is not solely a women’s problem: it is a social problem. It is a problem caused not only by poverty but by the attitude of men who want women and who can buy them for sex. Punishing the women is obviously unfair discrimination. The actions of men make criminals of women.

Moralists tend to regard prostitutes as a necessary evil. They would feel ashamed if these women were clearly visible to the public, but they believe society cannot do without them because more and more "good" women would be raped. However, if prostitutes are not punished, the country will be full of them, spreading venereal diseases everywhere, they say.

It is these kind of attitudes which are the problem. It is a problem of sexual bias and double standards which look down upon women, encouraging them to behave in a way that degrades their value as human beings. It is the promotion of one husband, several wives which, in turn, creates more social problems. Men spread venereal diseases and AIDS as much as the prostitutes. Women’s rights groups have stressed that their proposal to decriminalize prostitutes does not mean they support or promote prostitution, but punishment does not solve the problem. It only makes it worse, especially for the women who already have limited choices and options.

The government must try harder to suppress those who benefit from the sex business. Society must find viable economic alternatives for these women so that they can support themselves and their families without having to enter this risky profession. As long as there is no intention to suppress the men, it is no use to talk about the suppression of prostitution.

The all-too-common attitude towards women’s problems is to insist that they must be solved by the women themselves or to let women’s groups tackle them or to say that prostitution is a poverty-related problem which must, therefore, be solved by vocational training or they as prostitutes are evil people - they must be suppressed, destroyed, punished or retained in sex zones. These attitudes just see the results and outcome of the problem, not the causes. Not only do they not help the women, but they create more difficulties for them.

The mass media exhibits similar attitudes by frequently publishing news and photographs of women who are victims of society’s negative and biased views of them, such as rape victims and beauty contestants. This only accentuates the bad image of women which reduces women’s pride in being human.

Instead, development workers and human rights activists should recognize the problems facing women today, including the sex industry, rape, violence in the family and abortion. They should recognize that these are the result of a capitalist structure of power and a culture of sexual discrimination which affect not only women but the quality of life, families, communities and overall long-term development as well. If we can all share this point of view - both governmental and NGO sectors - and understand issues concerning women in this way, Thai society will not only advance materially but develop spiritually as well on a new path on which women and men can walk together.

(Ed. note: This story was presented at the second Grassroots Women’s Leadership Formation program, October 1992, Bangkok, Thailand.)