Prostitution in Thailand

Prostitution in Thailand first was mentioned in the West in reports by European sailors visiting what was then called Siam as early as the 16th and 17th centuries. Since the Vietnam War, Thailand has gained international notoriety among travelers from many countries as a sex tourism destination.

Position in society and extent of prostitution

Thai society has its own unique set of sexual mores. A polygamist tradition of mia noi or "minor wifes" at least amongst the wealthier elites including the Thai royalty existed right up until modern times and still does effectively as de factos today. Consequently, visiting prostitutes is considered a common, but not necessarily an acceptable, behavior for men, and many Thai women believe the existence of prostitution reduces the incidence of rape .

Estimates of the number of prostitutes in Thailand vary widely and are subject to controversy. One estimate published in 2003 placed the trade at US$ 4.3 billion per year, about three percent of the Thai economy. There are around 10,000 prostitutes in Koh Samui alone Taipei Times - archives] a place not usually associated with prostitution, and Thai officials have an uncomfortable relationship with this side of their country.

Although centers such as Bangkok (Patpong), Pattaya, and Phuket (Patong) are often identified as primary "prostitution" areas (called "entertainment" in Thai), with Hat Yai and other Malaysian border cities catering to Malaysians. Nearly every major city has it, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui (Chaweng) are also major centers. In Bangkok, many roads have saunas or massage parlours that front for sex. Even "concerts" in small provincial towns have their own versions, with scantily dressed women singing Traditional Thai Isaan music.

Legal situation and history

Prostitution has been technically illegal in Thailand since 1960, when a law was passed under pressure from the United Nations. However, the prohibition is seldom enforced. Instead, the government has instituted a system of monitoring sex workers in order to prevent their mistreatment and to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

The "Entertainment Places Act of 1966", still in effect today, makes it possible for Thais to render "special services". This is done, for example, by establishing such places as massage parlors where men come and look at women, who are sitting separated by a glass wall, and may choose whom they want. The women go to a room where they bathe and massage the customers, but in reality may do much more than that. It is left for the customer to decide what kind of special service he really wants, and because of this, such establishments are able to avoid being designated as (illegal) brothels.

This act was designed to pave the way for brothels to be legalized under the guise of massage parlours, bars, night-clubs, and tea-houses. It was enacted at a time when the Thai Government thought to increase state revenue from the "rest and recreation" activities of the U.S. Armed Forces stationed in both Thailand and Vietnam.

The "Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act of 1996" outlawed the hiring of prostitutes under the age of 18, as well as people associating in prostitution establishments; this provision does not appear to be well enforced.

Reasons why it exists

Prostitution in Thailand exists because of several factors, but its primary economic cause was the lack of employment opportunities for large numbers of uneducated rural women, particularly during the period of the Vietnam war when a large number of US troops passed through Thailand. Another reason contributing to this issue is that ordinary Thais deem themselves tolerant of other people, especially those who they perceive as downtrodden. This acceptance has allowed prostitution to flourish without much of the extreme social stigma found as in other countries. However, the most important reason for prostitution being a lasting industry in Thailand is that many Thai men of all levels of society, especially government officials, actively protect and promote the sex industry, the latter through entertainment-related media and activities.

Godfather of Prostitution exposes politicians

Chuwit Kamolvisit was considered the godfather of prostitution in Thailand. Chuwit revealed that some of his best clients were senior politicians and police officers, whom he also claimed to have paid, over a decade, more than 1.5m in bribes so that his business, the real business of selling sex, could thrive. "I used to buy whole trays of Rolex watches for police officers. I used to carry cash in black plastic bags for them (police)" The Guardian of UK has quoted "He's the godfather of the Thai sex industry - and what he knows about corruption could bring down the government." The Thai media was gripped by Chuwit's claims and the headlines ran: Top Cops Got Free Sex And Drinks. Although Thailand's foreign sex trade is overt and raucous, the enormous industry that caters exclusively for Thai men had never before been publicly scrutinised, let alone the sexual exploits of Thailand's unchallengeable officials. I

Thai Government Support For Prostitution

Support of prostitution is pervasive in political circles, as the BBC News reported in 2003 that "MPs from Thailand's ruling Thai Rak Thai Party are getting hot under the collar over plans by the party leadership to ban them from having mistresses or visiting brothels"..."One MP told The Nation newspaper that if the rules were enforced, the party would only be able to field around 30 candidates, compared to its more than 200 sitting MPs."

Attitudes towards women can be described by MP Thirachai Sirikhan, informing The Nation newspaper, "To have a mia noi (mistress) is an individual's right. There should be no problem as long as the politician causes no trouble to his family or society". Having many wives was a common attribute of Thai culture in the past, but because prostitution is so pervasive a common attitude among women is that they expect their husbands to cheat, and don't believe them if they deny it.

Both politicians and police has been supporting and indulging in the prostitution industry openly. Tavich, a veteran politician at 76 years was under fire in 2005 for impregnating a 14 year old girl, who worked across the street from the congressional building.

After a police raid on some Bangkok parlours where policemen had sex with prostitutes, "Acting Suthisan Police chief Colonel Varanvas Karunyathat defended the police action, saying that the (police) officers involved needed to have sex with the masseuses to gain evidence for the arrest." Apparently, this is standard practice as a separate police force did the same in Pattaya in May 2007.

Even more evidence of politicians supporting prostitution industry and the sexual habits of elderly Thai men in general is how Viagra is being given to elderly voters in exchange for their votes in an election drive. The general attitude of Thai politicians towards the sex industry can be inferred by the incident where an unidentified member of the Cabinet who had a penis enlargement was called upon to support a lawsuit. When asked to inspect one by one the Cabinet members to find out who did it, Deputy Public Health Minister Anutin Charnveerakul implied jokingly to reporters that all of the male Cabinet members have had the operation at one time or another, so it would be impossible to know.

Interview with a Thai human rights activist

Kritaya Archavanitkul, a Thai human rights activist, interviewed by UC Berkeley Institute of International Studies says

"This is sad to say, that the Thai social structure tends to accept this sort of abuse, and not only to accept -- we have laws, we have bills that vitally support the existence of these sex establishments. That's one thing. And also, we have a Mafia that is also involved in the political parties, so this keeps the abuse going. The second reason is a cultural factor. I don't know about other countries, but in Thailand the sexual behavior of Thai men accepts prostitution. Every class of Thai men accept it, although not all Thai men practice it. So they don't see it as a problem. So when it comes to the policymakers, who are mostly men, of course, they don't see this as a problem. They know there are many women who are brought into prostitution in Thailand. They know that some are treated with brutal violence. But they don't think it's a terrible picture. They think it's just the unlucky cases. And, because of the profit, I think there are many people with an interest involved, so they try to turn a blind eye to this problem.

Possible legalization

In 2003, the Ministry of Justice considered legalizing prostitution and held a public discussion on the topic. Legalization and regulation was proposed as a means to increase tax revenue, reduce corruption, and improve the situation of the workers. However, nothing further was done.

Forms of prostitution

Prostitution in Thailand is available in a number of forms, mainly brothels, massage parlors, saunas, hostess bars and karaoke places, all of which cater mainly to local customers and other Asians. For the wealthy, private member clubs abound. There are also various go-go bars and "beer bars" which usually cater to Western expatriates and tourists. Finally, there are large numbers of "freelancers", who can be found in hotel lobbies, discos, bars and even shopping malls or on the street. While some are sex trade workers by any definition, others are less clearly so and may merely ask for or expect financial support from the men they sleep with.

Prostitution in Thailand comes specialised by ethnic background. Many places catering to Thais/Asians will not allow others to enter if not invited by a regular guests or without paying a prohibitive entrance fee. The same holds true for some places catering to Westerners, Japanese, Arabs or other ethnicities; most will refuse clientele with a different background at the door.

Body massage

Body massage (Ab ob nuat, washing and massage in Thai) in Thailand most often consists of either an oil massage, assisted bath and/or bodyslide treatment ("soapie") followed by sexual services. These latter may or may not be included in the price paid to the house. If not, they are negotiated with the masseuse. Some of these establishments cater mainly to locals and Asians, but will accept Western customers also. In most, the masseuses wait behind a one-way glass window ("fish bowl"), usually watching television, as the men have a drink and choose a woman.

Such massage parlours can be found in all larger cities, and are often combined with hostess bars, karaoke bars and a restaurant. Chuwit Kamolvisit, then prominent owner of several up-scale massage parlours, created a commotion in 2003 when he publicly accused hundreds of police officers of having accepted bribes from him. He later ran for public office and eventually became a member of Parliament.

It should be noted that Thailand is also known for a non-sexual traditional style of massage, completely unrelated to the erotic body massage. Traditional, "ancient", or "therapeutic" Thai massage (Nuat Phaen Boran, ) is very relaxing and beneficial. The masseuse or masseur is well trained, often at temple academies such as Wat Pho in Bangkok.

Bars catering to foreigners

The most prevalent form of interaction with Westerners - though it is far less common than the Thai sex trade - is through the various forms of bars. Young women ("bar girls", or men in the case of gay bars, or even transsexual "kathoeys") are employed by the bars either as dancers (in the case of go-go bars) or simply as hostesses who will encourage customers to buy them drinks. The hostesses or dancers are often looking to find customers for sexual services, though this is not always the case. A bar usually employs one or more "mamasans" who will help match interested customers with companions, though usually their assistance is unnecessary. A customer will pay a bar fine in order for his choice to leave the bar early, and will need to negotiate with him/her for the length of time and sexual services. This is divided into "short time" (at most a few hours) or "long time" (overnight and in most cases the following day). Some larger bars have "short time rooms" available on site. Instead of paying a bar fine, the customer will pay for the use of the room and services will be performed on-site. Pattaya, on the east coast of Thailand, is home to many such bars - known as "bar beers" - and according to some estimates has about 40,000 to 50,000 bar girls who cater to Western men. The cost of services from such a bar - which varies very little - is 2,500 baht for a "long time" and 1,500 baht for a "short time". Many girls in the Pattaya bars have a child from a previous or current relationship with a Thai man (and may be kept secret from clients). The bar girls, especially in Pattaya, can provide the customer with a "girlfriend experience", in which the girls will not only have sex with the man but also offer to be with him the whole time he is on holiday - and act like a loving, contented companion for the duration. Because of this, many Western men fall in love with the girls, and in some cases return to their native countries and send money to the girls so they may stop working.

Go-go bars are distinguished by having dancing on stage similar to a strip club in Western countries, although in general as of 2004 following the "social order" crackdown, dancers will more likely be topless or in a bikini or similar revealing costume rather than fully nude. Even topless dancing is technically illegal, though fairly common.

"Beer bars" and hostess bars are similar. Beer bars are outdoors, fairly small, and often clustered together with other beer bars; hostess bars are generally indoors. Besides that, there is a very great range in size and amenities. There are also bars which blur the line with a brothel, such as the notorious "blowjob bars" or short-time shagging establishments.

Beer bars and gogo bars operate similarly. The staff receive a monthly salary, from about 2,000 baht in some beer bars to 10,000 baht in better gogo bars (as of 2006). They receive a commission of approximately 30 baht on any drink that is bought for them. The bar fine, paid by a customer who wants to take a companion out, is paid to the bar ( between 500 and 700 baht) and a small percentage (approximately 100 baht) is credited to the "offed" worker. The bar typically prescribes a minimum number of bar fines the individual staff members need to generate per month (typically about five to six); falling below results in a pay reduction. The workers receive only two or three days off per month; they are charged a bar fine for any additional day of work they miss, in addition to the loss of pay. Many go-go bars require the women to undergo regular health checks, enforced by financial penalties. In Soi Cowboy one popular bar requires their girls to have a health check every month and if they fail to do so, their salary will be cut by 1,000 baht.

Private Member Clubs serve the wealthy. These clubs are staffed by more sophisticated Thais who are fluent in English, or for venues targeting other nationalities, in the client's mother tongue. They entertain the client at the club. If the girl likes a client, typically she will leave the club with him. Most clubs usually have live music and a relaxed atmosphere. Some employ kathoey ("ladyboys") exclusively. Many of the bars are owned and operated by Westerners. Technically, foreigners are not allowed to own more than 49% of a bar or nightclub ( or any business for that matter), so the Westerners either partner with a Thai or lease the bar from a Thai owner. Some entrepreneurs also create a number of bars with the chief purpose of selling or leasing them to poorly informed Westerners.

Apart from these sorts of bar, there are a number of other venues for the sex trade; some bars, while not employing staff as sex workers, will allow freelancers to solicit clients. This is also true of some coffee shops near night-time entertainment districts, and many of the foreign-oriented nightclubs.

The Bangkok nightlife was considered interesting enough to be the topic of a columnist, "Nite Owl" for almost forty years in the Bangkok Post but it was dropped in 2003 due to lack of relevance and a writing style that was dated.

Many believe Thai sex workers have the ultimate goal of meeting a rich Westerner as husband or boyfriend, but this is not the case for all. Some have numerous foreign boyfriends (referred to as sponsors) sending money, and therefore they have friends, family and a good level of income. A recent report on CNN by Christie Lou Stout filmed on Soi Cowboy was misleading and poorly researched. It referred to girls using the drug Ya Ba (methamphetamine)so that they can have more sponsors. This is a ridiculous statement as this drug abuse would result in expulsion from the bar and be unattractive for potential boyfriends.

Male prostitution

Many male sex workers service gay (or bisexual) male clients. (Thailand's male sex workers are mostly from the poorest areas of Thailand and are often the sole support of their rice farmer birth families.) The market which until recently had almost exclusively focused on a gay clientele, has become increasingly popular with women.

The population of male sex workers is estimated to be fairly evenly split between young men who identify as gay and young men who identify as heterosexual, but still perform sexual services with men.

According to a 2002 study by Associate Professor of Sociology Nither Tinnakul of Chulalongkorn University, some Thai women were paying upwards of 10,000 baht (243 US dollars) per night for the services, which may contradict conservative Thai traditions.

A 2005 study of twelve underage male prostitutes in Pattaya found that they were content with their work that allowed them a comfortable living. The younger ones were dependent on pimps. Most of them suffered from emotional problems and some were lured into the trade.


The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Thailand, and especially among sex workers, has been the subject of significant media and academic attention, and Thailand hosted the XV International AIDS Conference, 2004.

Mechai Viravaidya, known as "Mr. Condom"The World Today - Thailand's 'Mr Condom' makes comeback, has campaigned tirelessly to increase the awareness of safe sex practices and use of condoms in Thailand. He served as minister for tourism and AIDS prevention from 1991 to 1992; he also founded the restaurant chain Cabbages and Condoms. After the enactment of the Thai government's first five-year plan to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country, including Mechai's "100% condom program", the use of condoms during commercial sex has jumped markedly, to 90%. The program instructs sex workers to refuse intercourse without condom, and monitors health clinic statistics in order to locate brothels that allow sex without condoms.

Thailand was praised for its efforts in the fight against HIV/AIDS during the late 1990s, but a study in 2005 found that the lack of public support in the previous several years had led to a resurgence of the disease.

Child prostitution, trafficking, and sex slavery

The exact extent of child prostitution, sex trafficking, and sex slavery in Thailand is not known today. Efforts are made by the Thai authorities to eradicate child prostitution in the portion of the sex trade catering to foreigners. Thai law specifies that the age of consent for sex work is 18.

Some sex workers in Thailand, adult and child, and for that matter in several other parts of the world, are tricked, sold, or coerced into the work.

Recent International Labor Organization research suggests a speculative figure of 12,000 children per year being trafficked for sexual exploitation in South East Asia, mostly to Thailand. Thai non-governmental organisations and the Thai government estimate that 30,000 to 40,000 prostitutes are under 18. A proportion of prostitutes over the age of 18, including foreign nationals from Asia and Europe, are also in a state of forced sexual servitude and slavery.

It is common that Thai women are lured to Japan and sold to Yakuza-controlled brothels where they are forced to work off their price. In a landmark case in 2006, one such woman filed a civil suit in Thailand against the Thai perpetrators, who had previously been convicted in criminal court. The woman had managed to escape from the Yakuza-controlled prostitution ring by killing the female Thai mama-san and had spent five years in a Japanese prison.

Prostitution and crime in Thailand

Petty theft and druggings of patrons of prostitutes, as well as numerous murders of those who visit prostitutes have occurred in Thailand. One high profile example is that of Toby Charnaud, 41, whose former prostitute wife clubbed him to death with an iron bar and wooden staves. This incident, like many other murders by former prostitutes of foreigners, are fuelled by the Thai government's ban on foreign ownership of property, and the corruption and temptation of large amounts of cash that comes with it.

Many foreigners in Thailand are highly suspicious of the extremely high mortality rate of foreigners in Thailand, with suspicion of police collusion with prostitutes. According to Guardian, Thailand has the highest death rate for any nation for Britons on holiday, some 224 Britons died in Thailand between April 2005 and March 2006.

However, Thais are also victims of prostitution related crime.


Several support organizations for sex workers exist in Thailand. Most of them attempt to discourage women from taking up or continuing the trade.

EMPOWER is a Thai NGO that takes a neutral stance towards sex work and offers educational and counseling services to female sex workers. An organization that battles child trafficking, for example, is It has been operating since 1985 and has offices in Patpong (Bangkok), Chiang Mai and Mae Sai. (Sex Workers in Group) is a recent offshoot of EMPOWER, offering support to male and female sex workers in Patpong and Pattaya. It offers English classes, teaches safe sex, distributes condoms, and promotes health and safety with their gym and discounted medical examinations. The newly formed organization SISTERS works with transgender sex workers in Bangkok and Pattaya.

FACE is an organization that focuses on child prostitution and trafficking and is the main partner of the UN in the country.

The Population and Community Development Association (PDA), headed by Mechai Viravaidya, pioneered family planning and safe sex strategies in Thailand over thirty years ago. The organization no longer focuses expressly on safe sex issues, but continues to provide information, condoms, and prevention programs around the country.

International Justice Mission is a U.S.-based Christian human rights organization which operates in Thailand to rescue brothel workers held in sexual slavery.

See also

Books and documentaries

Further reading

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