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Travel Guide: A Brief History of the Sex Industry in Thailand

Thailand is known for many things, but there is one thing that is often joked about or kept quiet locally.

They are the sex workers and red-light districts of the country. There is a good share of travelers who visit Thailand specifically because they want to experience this “vibrant” side of Thai life. But how did it all start?

This is where we take you on a journey and tell you a story of the Thai sex industry…

When waves of American soldiers began arriving on the beaches of Thailand during R&R breaks during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s, many poor and disadvantaged women who needed to support their family saw the economic potential. Many rural residents struggled due to a lack of work and low income, and as Thailand’s population grew in cities, their financial options diminished.

As American soldiers began to invade the streets and pubs of Thailand in search of companionship and physical intimacy, countless poor women were forced to choose between seeking low-paying professions or engaging in sex work.

Some women opted for the latter option. Many were even forced into prostitution by their families, so they could send money home and improve their family’s finances and status. After many women in small towns and urban areas of Thailand made this choice in the 1960s, sex tourism began to flourish in Thailand, Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economy.

Shortly after the Vietnam War, the sex industry and the consequences of sex tourism took a dark turn. There has been a rapid increase in sex trafficking. Many criminal gangs have started exploring ways to profit from the demand for sex. It was not long before there were many cases of kidnapping of teenage girls in rural Thailand.

It started mainly in northeast Thailand, the poorest region, where traffickers promised young women real jobs, only to trick them later when they signed up.

Then another huge problem emerged, adding to the already tenuous legalities and cultural impact of the industry. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, HIV and AIDS exploded in Thailand. Thailand had to come up with a solution and there have been a lot of campaigns to try to educate people about the dangers and avoidance.

The use of condoms has been strongly promoted and encouraged through public awareness campaigns. It seemed like an uphill battle, but the programs were largely effective. The chances of being infected with HIV have now decreased significantly (although it remains a problem in some segments of Thai youth).

According to UNAIDS, new HIV infections peaked in the early 1990s. People living with the disease peaked around the turn of the century with around 800,000 infections and the death toll followed a few years later at around 57,000. deaths per year in the early years.

Both statistics have since trended downward as the availability of treatments has increased. In 2020, only around half a million people were estimated to be living with HIV in Thailand, with around 12,000 HIV-related deaths nationwide.

With the success of the campaigns, the fight against HIV and AIDS was beginning to show positive results. But organized sex trafficking remained a problem.

The Thai government’s HIV/AIDS prevention and control program encourages all sexual interactions to wear condoms. Condom use in sexual institutions increased from 14% of sexual acts in 1989 to 94% in 1994, leading to a decrease in the rate of all sexually transmitted infections, not just HIV.

Once the government launched its AIDS education program in 1990, levels of prostitution also began to drop, mainly due to fear of contracting AIDS, while fewer men were less likely to enjoy it for the same reason.

NGOs began their fight against the problem by advocating for new laws that would not only ban human trafficking and prostitution, but also actively seek to track down and prosecute criminals.

There were over 80,000 prostitutes working in 6,095 commercial sex venues in Thailand in 1989, with an average charge of US$10.60 per “session”. However, 5 years later, in 1994, there was a drop of 16,000 (from 80,000 to 66,000) women working in the field. The price of their services had soared to US$16.30 per hour in related venues such as massage parlors and restaurants.

The shift to gentlemen’s clubs, massage parlours, bars and even restaurants in the late 1990s and early 2000s represents a gentrification and normalization of the sex industry in Thailand. Industry hubs also became more defined and began to become semi-respectable international draw cards for the world’s sex tourists.

Places like Pattaya (of course), Patong, Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy in Bangkok, and Bangla Road in Phuket are now well known for their entertainment “options”.

There are also equally vibrant “sois” (streets) for the gay community, usually located near hotspots for bars and nightlife.

Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, although the consequences are minor and the legislation has many gray areas exploited by operators. Under Section 5 of the Prostitution Prevention and Punishment Act 1996, a person who advertises sex is liable to a fine of 1,000 baht.

Pimps and gang members are also highlighted in the law. By law, they could face a fine of 20,200 baht and up to 10 years in prison for prostituting women.

The law also addresses the seriousness of crimes related to child trafficking. He pointed out that anyone found guilty of having sex with minors will face much harsher sentences and longer prison terms. Prison terms range from 5 to 20 years, with fines of 100,000 to 400,000 baht.

These provisions do not include rape, physical violence or any other serious offence. If someone is found guilty of these crimes, the punishment can be much worse, including longer prison terms.

Once considered a Southeast Asian paradise for pedophiles and traffickers, Thailand has now really cleaned up its act with a long list of prosecutions over the past decades and harsh sentences for those arrested.

Thailand changed tack in its fight against sex trafficking in 2008. The definition of human trafficking was expanded by the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act to also include trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation and trafficking of male victims.

It’s a big step in the right direction. Organizations had long worked to have both genders included in the definition of trafficking, as it was not just women who were trafficked and abused.

Ultimately, the sex industry has made Thailand a lot of money, especially among those who don’t have better job options. And many tourists travel a long way just to experience the country’s red light delights. So while officials know that much of the “dealing” is illegal, there is no doubt that they will continue to turn a blind eye to the situation.

Thailand’s reputation for one of the world’s most exciting red-light travel options remains strong.

SOURCES: UNAIDS | international elevator | PubMed