Why Is There So Much Prostitution In Thailand?
As with many things in Thailand, such as the shamefully high road fatality rate, there isn't a single underlying reason why there is so much prostitution in Thailand. Several different factors have combined in such a way to give the end result.
Mention the fact that you live in Thailand to any Westerner and the result is often a smirk or a raised eyebrow. All countries have reputations for certain things, and to many foreigners Thailand is synonymous with the commercial sex industry. Based on the activities that take place in well-known tourist hotspots, such as Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket, this reputation is well deserved.
Yet the industry sits uneasily with many Thais, many of whom are quite conservative. When the editors of Longman's English dictionary described Bangkok as being a place with lots of prostitutes there was outrage.
Several years ago I entered a photo competition with The Nation newspaper - one of Thailand's English language newspapers - and won a copy of 'Bangkok Inside Out'. A little later this book was banned in Thailand.
Why? The photo for the section about Patpong (one of Bangkok's major red light areas) shows a foreigner sitting behind a topless bar girl while cupping her breasts with his hands. There seems to be no real will to close down the industry because it brings in a huge amount of money, and because it is something that Thais themselves demand. However, Thais dislike the reputation and attempt to hide what goes on from the outside world.
Soapy massage parlour in Bangkok's Patpong district
Since I have lived in Thailand I have noticed a move to make the industry less conspicuous and to move it away from city centres. In the Hat Yai downtown area several large brothels have closed, and the industry has now moved out to a place called Dannok on the Thailand/Malaysia border.
For some reason, when people mention sex tourists or sexpats in Thailand the vision that immediately comes to mind is a fat European sitting in a bar in Pattaya. What most Westerners probably don't realise is that thousands of Malaysian and Singaporean men travel to southern Thailand for the same reason, and that certain sex hotspots in Thailand are well known in Indonesia, Japan and other parts of Asia.
The places that still exist used to prominently display large photos of the girls outside, but these photos have now gone. What goes on inside is still the same, but nowadays it is less apparent from outside.
Prostitution exists everywhere in the world, but why does Thailand have such a big reputation, why is prostitution so widespread, why does the industry seem different compared to other countries, and why does it attract so many foreign men.
Thai Attitudes To Sex
As human beings the most primordial need we have is to procreate. Without doing so, the human race won't exist beyond the current generation. This basic need is intensely powerful and the reward for carrying it out is intense pleasure.
The feeling is so pleasurable and the need for sex so intense, that most people's desire for sex is far greater than what is required simply to continue the species.
Despite this, sex outside of marriage in many Western countries has been stigmatised to the extent that people feel guilty about participating.
I have always found attitudes in Thailand to be far more relaxed and far more in line with natural human activity. Thai females understand perfectly that men desire sex quite frequently and there is no stigma with men satisfying their natural urges.
Advertising poster in Dannok on the Thailand/Malaysia border
Before I was married I had many different kinds of relationship with Thai girls. Some relationships were platonic and the girls made this very clear. When they suspected that I may be looking for more they would suggest going to one of the well-known brothels, but there was nothing about this being disgusting or me being a dirty old man.
Nothing is more natural in human beings than sexual desire and it is a desire that needs to be satisfied. The girls understood this and although they weren't willing to participate themselves, they knew of other ways the desire could be satisfied.
I would add that in a society where people regard sexual desire as normal and where there are many places in which the desire can be satisfied there is probably less incidence of rape of sexual assault.
Hospitality And History
Anyone who has ever been to Thailand for a vacation will know how hospitable Thais are. They desperately want foreigners to enjoy their country and if they know that foreigners want something, they will provide whatever it is they want.
Backpackers arrive with their heads stuffed full of tourist cliches and have ideas that the only way to travel around Thailand is wearing baggy fisherman pants and having their hair in dreadlocks. Thais may think them strange, but they oblige and provide the things they want.
Thais are also fully aware that many single foreign men arrive in the country looking for love, companionship or sex or maybe all of these things. Again, they are very happy to oblige. There is a history of this kind of hospitality in Thailand that dates back hundreds of years.
I obtained some interesting facts on this subject from the following web page:
The first Europeans to visit Thailand were the Portuguese in the late 16th century, followed by the Dutch, English, and others. Early Dutch traders came from the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) and early English traders from the equivalent British East India Company.
European traders arriving in Siam in the early 17th century reported being approached and offered the services of prostitutes, and even Chinese traders in the 15th century got very friendly with the Siamese native girls.
As I said above, Thais are not overly enamoured with the reputation that Thailand has as a centre of sex tourism and some try to accuse the American military presence after World War 2 as the cause.
Certainly, having so many foreign military male personnel in the country for extended periods of time drove demand for prostitution and made the industry more conspicuous, but it already existed.
Soapy massage parlour in Thailand's famous Pattaya resort
Very few resources related to prostitution in Thailand mention the Thai men who use the services of prostitutes, but there are a lot.
Until not so long ago, polygamy was common in Thailand and wealthy men were expected to have more than one sexual partner. With some Thai men, the concept of a mia noi (small wife) continues. The men will have a regular wife, plus women sexual partners who they will pay.
I have spoken to married Thai men who visit the bath house brothels frequently and it is estimated that a large percentage of Thai men (maybe as high as 75%) use the services of prostitutes.
When I was teaching a group of testosterone-laden teenage boys some years ago, one was very open about his sexual activities - much to the amusement of his friends. He said that he only ever ate packs of instant noodles, which are very cheap in Thailand, so that he could save his money for prostitutes.
Value System And Money
Those people who have spent any amount of time in Thailand beyond a simple vacation will know that money is an obsession in Thailand. Money is the pinnacle in the Thai value system.
Very often this is understandable. There is a huge wealth gap in Thailand and the majority have little money. Life can be very good in Thailand if you have enough money, but extremely difficult if you don't. It is understandable that those at the bottom of society would like some more money to make life a little more comfortable. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is no Western-style welfare system.
In addition the concept of filial piety and taking care of parents is extremely strong in Thailand. Many Thais who retire have no income and will suffer greatly in old age if no one takes care of them. Thus Thais, in addition to their own needs and wants, need money to take care of their parents.
Coyote and Karaoke bar located in Dannok on the Thailand/Malaysia border
What may be surprising is that there is still a great lust for money even among wealthy Thais. Thailand is not a poor country, by any means. It is actually a very rich country with a lot of poor people.
Due to the wealth that exists in Thailand there is a lot of materialism on display and even people with sufficient money for a comfortable life become very materialistic and cannot quench their desire for more money.
Regarding behaviour and value systems, there are marked differences in different regions of Thailand. When I first visited Thailand as a very naive tourist I thought that the girls working as prostitutes were locals. Most aren't.
The vast majority are from the Northeast (Isaan) region. Not only is this the poorest region in Thailand, but it is where the culture of a taking care of one's extended family is strongest. There is huge pressure on young girls to find work somewhere and send money home. In reality there is that only one profession pays enough to do this.
Foreign men who get involved with Isaan girls will also be put under a lot of pressure to financially support the girl's family.
There are relatively few southern Thai girls working in the industry. The south has more wealth and there isn't the same pressure for girls to support their families. There are more Muslim and ethnic Chinese Thais in the south and the culture is quite different.
The bottom line is that in Thailand, for various reasons, there is a great desire for money and in the Thai value system money comes above all else.
No Safety Net
Thailand isn't a welfare state and the welfare system is very small. Thais have access to healthcare for a low price and there is a tiny old age pension.
There is no unemployment benefit, therefore no money if you don't have work. There is no child benefit and, as all parents know, raising children is expensive.
For some Thais who fall on bad luck or desperately need money, there isn't any help. There is one option for young girls and although most Thai prostitutes I have spoken to have opted for this profession, there are some who do it because they have no choice.
Opportunities To Make Money
With all this desire for money, where does money come from?
Thailand is a highly inequitable country in many ways and this inequality within society extends to money-making opportunities.
In many ways Thailand is the opposite to the United States. In the United States (the land of opportunity) and to a lesser extent in other Western countries, if a person is smart enough, hard-working enough, and perseveres, he or she can become successful. But it just doesn't work like that in Thailand.
In Thailand it is all about who you know, and people right at the bottom of society who don't have any contacts and can't afford higher education don't stand a chance. The best chance for many of these people, especially girls, is to try to meet a foreigner and get out of the country.
In Thailand these days an applicant won't even reach the interview stage for a job without a Bachelor's degree. Many Thais from poor backgrounds cannot afford a university education and even those who can will only have limited opportunities. The standard graduate salary in Thailand is Bt15,000 per month. Thais without Bachelor's degrees will only be able to find menial work and will receive even less.
A Thai politician once made the comment that youngsters from the north-eastern (Isaan) region could only ever aspire to be room maids or petrol pump attendants. These words were harsh, but there is an element of truth to them.
A Thai doctor was telling me that his salary at a public hospital is Bt27,000 per month. He studied for six years at university for his medical degree and had 12 years' experience after graduating.
My wife, who has a degree and a teaching certificate, was offered an office job working long hours six days a week that paid a salary of Bt12,000. She now teaches and her salary is Bt15,000 a month. Salaries in Thailand are extremely low.
However, there is one career opportunity that goes completely against the grain in terms of salary. It doesn't require any academic qualifications and it is open to any girl who is young, pretty, and shapely. Because of skin colour preferences in Thailand, it also helps if the girl is fair-skinned.
The following is a job advertisement that I saw as I was wandering around one day. By working as a prostitute an attractive, shapely girl can earn in excess of Bt150,000 per month. That's ten times my wife's salary as a teacher and a salary that most Thais can only dream of making.
Job advertisement for commercial sex workers
The name of the establishment is written in English. Underneath, it says they are accepting job applications for staff, and underneath that three positions are listed.
Position two is a sales job and there are no gender or age restrictions. There is a monthly salary, commission and a bonus.
Position three is for serving staff and bartenders.
Position one is the most interesting. The first, most important and, in fact, only requirement for this position is that applicants must be beautiful girls. That's all. Nothing else.
The income, which is guaranteed, is Bt3,000 to Bt5,000 per day, or more. There is no job title and no job description of any kind. Of course, every Thai who reads this job advert will know exactly what the job entails.
Relationships With Prostitutes
Since I started this website many years ago, several men have written to me about their relationships with Thai girls and many have become involved with prostitutes. Foreign men who take vacations in Thailand and want to meet Thai girls are often in a hurry and want to meet someone immediately because their time in Thailand is limited. This isn't recommended, but I can understand why they do it. The quickest way to meet a Thai girl is to go to a beer bar and just wait to be approached by a bar girl.
The term 'bar girl' sounds better than prostitute (or one of the many other words for prostitute), but that's all they are. 'Bar girl' is simply a euphemism. The main aim of the girls is for a customer to pay a 'bar fine' so that they can leave, sleep with the customer, and earn some money.
Admittedly, experiences with prostitutes in Thailand are very different to experiences with prostitutes in other countries. The girl normally stays with the man for a long time, as opposed to simply having sex and leaving, and rather than the man being treated like a client he is often treated like a boyfriend.
The two will have dinner together, go travelling together, and act just like two people in a normal relationship. Nonetheless, the girl chose to enter a profession in which she offers sexual services for money,
Patong beach in Phuket
Can such relationships work out? Every man who has written to me about his bar girl girlfriend tells me that his particular girl is different to the rest and that she hates what she does for a living. This happens every time without exception, but in reality the girls are never different.
Sometimes it can work out. A Thai girl might sell her body because she, or her family, have serious financial difficulties and this is the only option she has. She might jump at the chance to have a relationship with a foreigner who will take care of her and enable her to leave the industry.
On the other hand, some of the girls are quite mercenary and only ever think of money. Some are honest and will tell a man that if he can match what she can earn as a prostitute she will stop working.
Others will accept money from foreign men and tell the men they have stopped working, but will continue working.
There's no easy answer and a third party will know anything about the particular girl you are involved with, so it's pointless asking me or anyone else. It's a case of following your instincts and gut feelings after getting to know the girl better. I would only add that despite your insistence that 'she is different to the rest', she probably isn't.
If you have serious doubts or if you find that you just can't trust her, I would advise just ending the relationship. I honestly wouldn't waste money on trying to find out what she is really up to. If you start thinking along these lines it means that your instincts aren't good. That being the case, just end it and spare yourself any emotional and, quite possibly, financial damage.
I hope that the above gives enough background to describe the situation in Thailand. As I said in my introduction, with many social problems in Thailand the cause is never one single reason. There are lots of different factors that combine and need to be taken into consideration.
The vast majority of Thais have a huge lust for money for different reasons. Some need money simply to make life bearable, some need money to take care of parents and extended families, and some want more money simply because they are greedy. Regardless of the reason, most Thais lust after money continuously.
Thailand is a highly inequitable country and there are very few opportunities for normal people who don't have good connections to make a decent salary.
However, there is one alternative in which a poor country girl with no academic qualifications can make far more money than a doctor or successful businessman.
You can do more than sing along to Frank Sinatra in a Thai Karaoke bar
Not only do the girls profit from prostitution, but so do others, from the owners of the brothels to the corrupt officials who accept bribes and turn a blind eye to illegal activities.
For many girls it is a way they can earn far more money than could doing other work. For a few girls who are in need of money, for whatever reason, it is the only way they can make enough money quickly.
In other countries moral values will stop even the poorest girls entering the commercial sex industry and it is an option that would never be considered, but because the Thai value system values money over everything else the Thai way of thinking is different.
When you also bear in mind the relaxed, and actually far more natural, attitude to sex in Thailand compared to other countries you start to begin to understand why the industry flourishes in Thailand and why it won't be going away any time soon.
Other Pages You May Be Interested In
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
If you wish to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.
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