Whenever I travel, I love to make up stories about the people seated next to me on a plane. A young couple who can’t keep their hands off each other headed to Paris? Must be a honeymoon. A Southeast Asian family flying to Delhi? They are probably returning to their home country to visit family. A single, older white man coming from the states to Bangkok? I would be willing to bet money that he is going there for sex tourism. 

There’s something inherently cringe about this narrative. The power dynamic of a relatively wealthy man (a middle class Joe from America or the UK can live like a king in Thailand) traveling across the world to have sex with marginalized women is not a good look – especially when you factor in the super problematic fetishization of Asian women in western culture. 

But nothing is ever black and white. In the same way that it’s easy for me – a privileged white girl who, by sheer chance, was born in the wealthiest country in the world – to look at the outsourcing of labor to countries with less stringent labor laws and lower wages as exploitative, the reality is that economic opportunities – whether it’s Nike opening up a factory in Bangladesh or a middle aged man coming to Thailand to pay for sex – bolster local economies and improve living standards. 

So what is it about Thailand that makes it such a draw for sex tourists? I did some digging to find out. 

A Brief History of Sex Work in Thailand

A Brief History of Sex Work in Thailand sensuali blog
This painting from 19th Century Thailand depicts the stark contrast between life as an elite versus life as a servant. (Photo Source: Lumen Learning)

As was true for much of the world in the 1300s, prostitution in Thailand was legal and taxed accordingly. But being a sex worker back then was anything but empowering. Women were essentially sex slaves. During the Ayutthaya period (1351-1767), owning and pimping out concubines was a widely accepted practice. It was also commonplace for men of high status to have three wives: the major wife, a high class woman who was selected by the man’s parents; the minor wife, whose sole purpose was to bare her husband’s children; and the slave wife, whose job it was to sexually satisfy her man.

In 1905, King Rama V abolished slavery and in 1930, polygamy was made illegal. While these initiatives were well intentioned, they did little for improving work opportunities and living conditions for women. If anything, it drove the demand for sex work up, as men no longer owned women and had to seek sexual gratification elsewhere, namely brothels. For women who lacked the pedigree to pursue other paths, becoming a sex worker proved to be a more lucrative career choice than working as a laborer. 

Foreign Demand Solidifies Thailand’s Reputation as a Sex Tourist Destination

Foreign Demand Solidifies Thailand's Reputation as a Sex Tourist Destination
American soldiers stationed in Vietnam would often go to nearby Thailand for rest, recovery, and sex. (Photo Source: U.S Army)

War throughout the 20th century further popularized Thailand as a sex tourism destination. During World War II, Japanese soldiers occupied Thailand and frequented Thai brothels. In 1960, prostitution was made illegal but doing so failed to curb supply and demand. Throughout the American invasion and occupation of Vietnam (1955-1975), American soldiers would often spend their leaves in nearby Thailand, satiating their sexual needs with sex workers. In the 1980s, the Thai government invested millions of baht into promoting its tourism industry. 

While there is undoubtedly loads of selling points to Thailand beside sex clubs and ping pong shows — amazing food, beautiful weather, and kind hearted locals — sex tourism continues to be a major draw for foreigners to this day. In 1996, Thailand passed the Prevention and Supression Act, which prohibited prostitution, while addressing child sex trafficking. Sadly, however, the fines are not enough to deter predators (less than 5,000 euros) and sex trafficking of minors and marginalized women occurs regularly. As of 2019, the estimated population of sex workers in Thailand was 43,000. While Thai natives make up the majority of this number, there are many migrants from neighboring Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, who pursue sex work in Thailand as a means of improving their economic circumstances, as well as their families’.

Religious and Cultural Attitudes Towards Women and Sex Work

Religious and Cultural Attitudes Towards Women and Sex Work
One of Thailand’s many red light districts. (Photo Source: iStock)

An estimated 95% of Thai people identify as Theravada Buddhists, believing in karma and reincarnation. People born in this life as women, as well as those who suffer illnesses, are disabled, or are poor, are viewed as being deserving of their lowly societal status. Wealthy men, on the other hand, are considered to have earned their privileged lives through the spiritual work they have completed in past lives. As such, there seems to be less general outrage towards the sometimes exploitative nature of the sex industry here than in other cultures. 

As someone who has been brainwashed into buying into the biggest Ponzi scheme of all times – the American dream – where enough hard work and perseverance can get you anywhere in life (never mind systematic oppression, discrimination, and corruption) – such a passive approach to life seems a bit morose. But there’s something to be said for accepting things as they are and finding happiness within that, rather than constantly putting up a fight. In the wise words of Buddha: ”If you can’t do anything about it, then let it go. Don’t be a prisoner to things you can’t change.”

As a culture centered around Buddhism, Thailand is not tainted by Judeo-Christian moral constructs in the same western nations are. While sex work isn’t necessarily touted as the ultimate dream job, it doesn’t come with the same kind of shame and stigma that sex workers in Judeo-Christian societies experience. It’s accepted as more of a business transaction than a moral failing. Whereas I am still too ashamed to tell my parents about my sugar babying past (fingers crossed they never stumble across this blog), sex work in Thailand is regarded as a familial duty.

A woman working as a sex worker typically out-earns her family members. As such, her work is deemed essential for putting food on the table and elevating the household. There also seems to be a healing aspect to sex work in Thailand,  which comes in the form of Thai sensual massage. While the sex work industry in Thailand (and everywhere) can and does take advantage of people, the cultural attitudes towards sex here allow for sex workers to live their lives more harmoniously than in other places — especially where religion and spirituality are concerned. I won’t cheers to the sexist attitudes and exploitation that occurs in Thailand, but I will cheers to the normalization and acceptance of sex work as a valid profession. 

Culture
culture
Feminism
red light district
sensual masseuse
Sex Work
sex worker
Jules

Jules

Author

Based in Brooklyn, Jules has dedicated her twenties towards harnessing her pussy power, exploring the muse, whore, and wild woman archetypes along the way. When not blogging, you can find her sweating the toxins out in a hot yoga class or sipping a matcha latte at a pretentious coffee shop, whilst she scribbles away in her journal.


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